The future and the familiar collided again for Dale Earnhardt Jr. during a test at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Oct. 29.
As he strode toward the Hendrick Motorsports car he will drive next season, he passed by a garage stall where several longtime crewmembers — some known to him by nicknames such as “Two Beer” — were preparing the No. 8 car he has driven in Nextel Cup races since 2000.
“It’s weird seeing my guys helping another guy go fast, and then you come back (Friday at Texas Motor Speedway), and they’re working to help you go fast,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “I don’t necessarily want to make these moments last, but I’m going to miss my guys bad. I’m ready to get focused 100% on next year, and at the same time, I can’t.”
As his career with the team founded by his father nears an end, Earnhardt Jr. is racing with one eye on ensuring the family legacy is secure and the other on seizing control of his image by aligning with Hendrick and a bevy of new sponsors (Mountain Dew/Amp energy drink, the National Guard, Sony, adidas) while bidding goodbye to Budweiser.
The marriage of NASCAR’s most powerful team — which includes this season’s Chase for the Nextel Cup leaders Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon— and the sport’s most popular driver will bring as much scrutiny as any union between Hollywood celebrities but perhaps not as much as the divorce of Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI). Interestingly, many of the changes Earnhardt Jr. pushed for without success have been addressed by DEI since his announcement to leave in May.
After two more races, the team will sever official ties with the 33-year-old who once stood first in its line of succession. There aren’t many lingering feelings of bitterness or betrayal — just a difference of opinion on how to do business.
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