Landing Junior fulfills dream for Hendrick's late son Ricky

Signing Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn't about money. It wasn't about making headlines or adding another superstar driver to the Hendrick stable. It was about a father fulfilling a dream for his deceased son.

Updated: June 14, 2007, 3:50 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

Unless you know Rick Hendrick and fully understand his path to the present, fully grasp what fuels him, it's difficult to quantify what signing Dale Earnhardt Jr. truly means to him.

It's about much more than racing.

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Or money. Or star power.

It's about a father fulfilling a dream for his son.

Ricky Hendrick was one of the brightest, most selfless, humblest individuals I've ever known. He was the real deal -- personally and professionally. If you didn't already know he was Rick Hendrick's boy, you'd have to find out from somebody else. Self-promotion wasn't his thing.

He was the guy who handed the hostess his credit card en route to the table so no one else even had the chance to pay. And he had a rare mixture of boardroom savvy and street smarts, a lot like his father. At the time of his untimely death, in October 2004 when a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed near Martinsville, Va., he'd already proved his mettle as a car owner.

He was just 24 years old.

He'd been telling his father he was going to sign Earnhardt. Rick never really paid it much mind, because he felt like Junior was off-limits for life.

But Ricky was steadfast. He all but promised his father it would happen.

"I think [Ricky] always planned, because of their friendship, and the respect he had for Dale, that that was his goal in life," Rick Hendrick said Wednesday.

"For me now, to see that really happen, is surely special to me."

Marty,

Solve what has become a huge debate between me and my friends. How much pressure does Junior have now? More or less? My idiot friends say more. I say less. (He doesn't have to run the team!) We need Judge Marty to rule on this.

-- Jason Allen, Knoxville, Tenn.

It's one helluva debate, Jason. Either stance is perfectly viable -- and, ultimately, for precisely the same reason.

It could be inferred Earnhardt has less pressure because all he must concern himself with is driving the wheels off the best equipment in the business, not all the familial politics with which he's dealt for several years now. On the flip side, he's in the best equipment in the business, and thus has no excuse other than to get up on the wheel and contend.

Personally, I go with the latter. I think he has more pressure.

Junior says he feels no pressure.

"I don't feel really any pressure. I feel pretty comfortable," he said. "I think once I get into the testing mode and all of those things during the offseason, there won't really be any questions marks for me or any kind of pressure. I think I'll be anticipating it so much that I don't think that the pressure is going to get to me."

Hendrick, though, is aware of the heightened expectations that come with fielding a ride for the sport's most beloved star.

"I feel the pressure," he said. "I felt it when I drove in here today, and I know I'm going to feel it when we show up in Daytona, and I'm committed to do everything I can to make the entire relationship the best it can be for [Junior] and his family."

Marty,

Help me out. I'm a Dale Earnhardt fan. I can't believe this. What the hell is Junior doing? Jeff Gordon's teammate! I'm a Gordon and [Jimmie] Johnson hater and I will always be a Gordon and Johnson hater. Earnhardt always hated Gordon and so have I. I'm lost. What would Dale say about this? He can't be happy. I know I'm not.

-- Gordon Sucks, hometown unknown

Mr. Sucks, a couple things: First of all you're completely wrong about Earnhardt disliking Gordon. He respected the heck out of Gordon. They were completely different people, and Earnhardt did hate being beaten by Gordon, but he had no personal disdain for Boy Wonder.

As for how he'd feel about his son's decision … Junior addressed it as such:

"I know my dad would trust Rick," Junior said. "They had a great amount of respect for each other and knew each other for a long time. And I know Dad would appreciate what Rick is trying to do and what he's done for me up to this point, and what he will do for me in the future and his approach and respect for my sister and my family.

"I know Dad would appreciate that, and he'd probably be a little jealous, to be honest with you."

The crowd giggles.

Hey Insider,

What do you think of the idea of HMS and DEI swapping numbers -- Junior and Bud keep No. 8, and Busch could keep No. 5 (and maybe Kellogg's if there's no room in the Hendrick stable), leaving DEI with 1, 5 and 15. Seems to have some synergies at first glance.

-- Sheldon Miller, hometown unknown

Hendrick said he's open to a straight-up car number trade if Teresa Earnhardt is, Sheldon. Junior said he'd prefer keeping the No. 8. That would be a bigger deal than just a swap. The 5 was Hendrick's first car number as an owner. His entire racing history begins with the No. 5.

A childhood buddy of mine made the best point, though. If Junior races the No. 5, his fans can hold up his car number as he screams by the grandstands, and never put down their beer.

How hysterical is that?

Marty,

At Pocono Sunday I saw you high-fiving an ESPN camera guy while you stood outside of Jimmie Johnson's garage while his team worked hard fixing his car. That is very disrespectful. For a journalist to blatantly cheer when a driver has a problem is rude.

-- JoAnn, Jimmie Johnson fan from New York

Thanks for the e-mail, JoAnn, but I must admit I'm howling in laughter. Know what the high five was for? While Johnson's team slammed away at the front suspension on his car, the race reached its halfway point, and thus became official.

After three rainouts in four weeks, every single official, crew member, marketing executive, publicist, and yes, media member, was doing backflips in glee, knowing no one would have to stay in Pocono for an extra day. You cannot imagine what a mammoth relief that was.

Along those same lines, I found this rather interesting:

While rapping with David Hoots, NASCAR's managing event director for the Cup Series, in the garage after Sunday's race, I learned what actually goes into the determination to start and end a rain-shortened affair. Hoots told me officials must consider pending weather (sunny, hot, overcast, windy, cold), the overall time required to dry the track and remaining daylight at their disposal.

They research the dew point to determine whether even trying to dry the track is feasible. They also must take into account track layout and surface. (Concrete is less porous than asphalt and thus dries more quickly, and banked tracks dry more quickly than flat.)

Sunday, NASCAR officials determined the cutoff time to get the full 500 miles in to be just after 5 p.m. They cut it really close, and ultimately the rain cut it short, anyway. Pretty interesting process, there.

Hey Marty,

I've sent e-mails to a couple of "experts" but never got a response. I've noticed for some time now that almost every gas man on pit road shakes the empty gas can just before the car is dropped and it takes off. Since it virtually always happens there must be a reason but I'll be damned if I can figure it out. Ideas?

-- Cat, retiree in Peoria, Ill.

That's a signal, Cat, to alert the crew chief and other over-the-wall crew members that the car is full of fuel, and when the tire changers have completed the installation of new rubber, the team is clear to drop the jack and gas it.

Marty,

With [Casey] Mears and [Martin] Truex winning [recently], let's pose the question to the NASCAR community: Who's the best driver without a win?

-- Adam Waller, Yorktown, Va.

Clint Bowyer gets my vote, Adam. He's the next first-time winner.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.