FOR ONE OF THE FEW TIMES IN HIS LIFE, the race car driver was cold with fear. His hands shook. His mouth was dry. His heart thumped as if he were hurtling full-throttle and four-wide into the last turn of the last lap at Talladega.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was out of his element. Dressed in a white-collared shirt and blue jeans, he nervously ambled onto an elevated stage at JR Motorsports in Mooresville, N.C., last May 10. He carried a sheet of paper, but when he sat down in front of a microphone and peered at his notes, the words blurred together and were as indecipherable as inkblots. Little E was here to speak, to announce that he had arrived at one of life's forks in the road and was making a surprising turn, but when he looked up from his notes, what he saw left him momentarily tongue-tied: Nearly his entire family and 100 media members were staring back at him, waiting for him to explain why he had to leave the race team his legendary father had founded.
Out in the audience Junior could see his aunt Cathy Earnhardt Watkins, who was quietly weeping—as were many of the Earnhardts in the room. "It's just so hard to see this," Cathy said with wet eyes as she looked at Little E. "It's just a reminder that Dale Sr. is gone. If he was here, none of this would be happening."
But it was happening: Junior was bolting from Dale Earnhardt Inc., the racing organization his father started in 1980. Little E began his Busch Series career at DEI in 1998, and after winning two Busch championships, he moved into a Cup car full time for DEI in 2000. But in the last eight seasons Earnhardt never seriously contended for a championship in NASCAR's highest series. Junior's biggest problem was that his race team simply did not possess the resources or engineering expertise that the juggernauts of Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing have. Junior excelled at piloting mediocre equipment to top 10 finishes—nobody in the sport is more adept at riding the high line around the track than Little E—but he grew increasingly frustrated by his engine failures (he suffered six in '07, tying for most in the series) and lack of consistent speed.
Now he was leaving, and 30 minutes after he declared himself a free agent at his press conference, he walked into his second-floor office at JR Motorsports and fell into a chair, still dazed and confused. "I am scared s—-less," Junior told a visitor. "I have no idea how this whole thing is going to play out. But I do know I had to leave and get out and do my own thing. It's time for me to take charge of my career. It's time for me to start winning championships."
IN RETROSPECT, it should have been obvious back on that day in May that Earnhardt would end up at Hendrick Motorsports. Rick Hendrick first met Earnhardt when Little E was six years old. Earnhardt tagged along with his father to the racetrack on many weekends, and Hendrick, a close friend of Earnhardt Sr.'s, quickly took to the towheaded boy. At age 15 Junior was shadowing Ken Schrader, then one of Hendrick's ARCA drivers, in Topeka, Kans.—Earnhardt was serving an apprenticeship for a weekend—when Hendrick drew up a faux contract for Earnhardt on a napkin. Little E scribbled his name on the napkin but never believed that Mr. H., as Junior calls Hendrick, would one day honor it.
Yet there they were last June 13, Junior and Hendrick sitting side by side on the same stage at JR Motorsports and telling the racing world that Earnhardt would be driving for Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 and beyond. This was like Warren Buffett's winning the lottery because beginning at Daytona in February for the 50th running of the Great American Race, Hendrick will boast a lineup of drivers that is the NASCAR equivalent of the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s, the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s and the New York Yankees of the 1990s. Jeff Gordon (a four-time champion), Jimmie Johnson (a two-time champ), Casey Mears (an up-and-coming driver who got his first victory in '07) and Earnhardt (voted NASCAR's most popular driver four straight years) will form Hendrick's dream team in '08.
Even without Earnhardt, who has 17 career Cup victories, Hendrick won more races (18) than any other organization in 2007. With Little E behind the wheel of Hendrick's number 88 Chevy in '08, the question is, Will it be an upset if a Hendrick driver doesn't take the checkered flag each weekend?
"Our standards are high, and we think 2008 could be a special year for us," says Hendrick. "I can promise you this: All of our guys are going to work together, and we're going to continue to share our information between the teams. That's been our formula, and all of our drivers understand that. That issue is not even on my radar."
Indeed, the addition of Earnhardt to the Hendrick garage shouldn't upset the chemistry of the team. Little E is friends with all three of the current Hendrick drivers. At the Hendrick headquarters in Concord, N.C., Earnhardt's team will be housed under the same roof as Mears's, and Little E's crew chief, Tony Eury Jr.—who is Earnhardt's cousin and has been with Earnhardt for eight of the last nine years—has a strong relationship with Alan Gustafson, who will be atop Mears's pit box next season. Eury and Gustafson will try to follow the same script as Chad Knaus (the crew chief for Johnson) and Steve Letarte (the crew chief for Gordon). Every race weekend Knaus and Letarte constantly compare notes and bounce ideas off each other. The duo travels together, plays golf together and dines together when they're on the road. Put simply, their closeness is the foundation of success for both teams. Eury and Gustafson hope to replicate what Knaus and Letarte have accomplished.