The Year That Was in NASCAR: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Jen PrestonSenior Analyst INovember 10, 2008

It was a day America would never forget.

No, I'm not talking about electing Barack Obama as our new President, the Giants upsetting the Patriots in the Super Bowl, or the day the banks and stock market collapsed.

I'm talking about May 10, 2007, when a 32-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he was leaving his late father's company, Dale Earnhardt, Inc., for another team.

"We've decided it's time for us to move on and seek opportunities to drive for another team in 2008," Earnhardt Jr. said.

And you'll undoubtedly remember the day a month later in June, when Earnhardt, Jr. said:

"I'd like to introduce to you my new boss...Mr. Rick Hendrick."

It was the shock heard 'round the racing world. The Intimidator's son joining the team that housed his enemy, the "Rainbow Warrior," Jeff Gordon.

The decision came after tense negations between Earnhardt Jr., his sister and manager Kelly Earnhardt, and their step mother, owner of DEI, Teresa Earnhardt.

Earnhardt Jr. had wanted controlling interest in a team many felt was his birthright, but his late father's widow saw it differently, which forced him to leave.

"As negotiations continued one thing became evident—we both wanted to be in and get to the same place, but we had different visions of how to get there. I feel like, over the last year or two, I've shortchanged my fans," he said.

"I'm hoping to win some races, win some championships to give [the fans] what they pay all that money to go see us for."

Teresa Earnhardt, however, looked forward to new beginnings without her stepson, the team's patriarch driver, with the team in 2008.

"While we are very disappointed that Dale Jr. has chosen to leave the family business, we remain excited about our company's future," she said. "Dale and I built this company to be a championship contender, and those principles still apply. Dale Earnhardt Inc. will win....This company has a great legacy and a bright future, built on loyalty, integrity and commitment."

When asked about their relationship, Earnhardt Jr. explained it "ain't a bed of roses."

So, it was a new beginning, not only for Earnhardt Jr., HMS, and DEI, but also Junior Nation, who added an extra eight to their tattoo and changed their color from Budweiser red to Amp Energy green or, on some weekends, National Guard blue.

While fans stocked up on new merchandise and body art, success came fast for Earnhardt Jr. and his new team—with faithful crew chief and cousin Tony Eury Jr. at the helm.

It was the Budweiser Shootout—the race sponsor that had so much history with the now 33-year-old, where he won his first NASCAR race since 2006, and his first with his new team.

And the points season hadn't even started yet.

"I don't know what took him so long to win a race for us," Hendrick quipped. "It sure takes a lot of pressure off."

And the success continued. That summer, Eury Jr. made the right fuel mileage call to send his driver into an overtime victory over Kasey Kahne at the LifeLock 400 in Michigan.

"With 20 laps to go, Tony told me that there were guys behind me that could make it," Earnhardt Jr. said. "He said that if we came in and pit to get more fuel, we'd finish 25th, and if we ran out of fuel on the last lap, we would finish 25th, so go for it."

Despite being his only win this year, Earnhardt Jr. has put up some impressive numbers. He has 10 top fives and and 16 top 10s, with an average finish of 13th. That compared to 2007, when he went winless, had seven top fives and 12 top 10s, and nine DNFs. Earnhardt Jr. only had one in 2008.

Earnhardt Jr. finished 16th in points in his last season with his father's company, failing to make the Chase.

With one race remaining in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt, Jr. sits 10th in points.

"I missed the joy; I missed the winning," Earnhardt said. "Hopefully, there's more to come."

And Junior Nation plans on seeing a lot more trips to Victory Lane in the future.

Thank you to Anderson Independent Mail, ABC News, mLive, and ESPN for the quotes used in this story.