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Earnhardt Feeling Relief After Big Decision.


That was the overwhelming emotion Dale Earnhardt Jr. felt after he decided earlier this week to join Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.

It was a tough few weeks for Junior after he announced in May that he would be leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team founded by his late father, to seek a ride with a team that could help him win more races and the NASCAR Nextel Cup championship he covets.

This week, on his XM Satellite radio show, ``Dale Jr. Unrestricted,'' Earnhardt said, ``Everybody knew that my contract was coming up, and I had a hundred people in my ear telling me 'This is what you ought to do,' or 'Would you ever think about leaving (Dale Earnhardt Inc.), think about this.'' You know, I had a hundred different people telling me a hundred different things.''

He said one thing that made his decision easier was the way team owner Rick Hendrick treated the situation as Earnhardt agonized over which way to go.

``One of the things I think a lot of people would be surprised by _ Rick said, 'Hey, I just want you to be happy. Whatever decision you make, I want to help you make it.'

``That stood out to me. I already knew that was the kind of guy he was, but he never once tried to persuade me, or tried to sell anything to me, or try to talk me into anything. He basically just left it up to me. He wanted me to make the choice that I wanted to make. And that meant a lot.''

Hendrick, a longtime family friend, has also been a longtime supporter of the younger Earnhardt.

``If I would have decided to do something with another owner, he would have helped me do it,'' Earnhardt said. ``He told me I will help you wherever I need to help you. I want you, as a person, to be happy.

``He's known me for so long and that's the kind of guy he is. It's rare, not so much in the sport, but it's rare today in this world, when you have people like that (who) really are genuine.''


OH, BABY: Jeff Gordon's wife, Ingrid, is expecting their first child, a daughter, the week after the road race at Sonoma, Calif., on June 24. But, since first babies rarely arrive when expected, the Hendrick team has a contingency plan.

Mark Martin would be the substitute driver in case Gordon is called away by the blessed event.

Of course, Gordon, a five-time Sonoma winner, the defending race champion and the current Cup points leader, would rather not miss the race. But, even if he does, chances are it would not hurt his chances of winning a fifth Nextel Cup title _ especially with the current Chase for the championship format.

The top 12 drivers after the first 26 races are eligible to race for the title over the final 10 events of the season. This year, a new gimmick has the 12 drivers seeded, with each one getting an extra 10 points for each race victory at the start of the Chase.

Gordon and teammate Jimmie Johnson each have a series-leading four victories so far this season.

``I don't think Jeff wants to miss a race and I don't believe he'll need to,'' Johnson said. ``But in his position, it's a little easier for him to consider (skipping Sonoma).

``Yes, (the Chase format) does take some pressure off of you. From time to time we're not racing for the championship from week one on. You're racing for 12th for the first 26 and from then on you worry about the championship, so it is a little more forgiving.''


FUN OUTING: Longtime NASCAR star Mark Martin will try something different next month, making his Daytona Prototype debut in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series in Newton, Iowa.

Driving a limited schedule in Nextel Cup this year, Martin has the time to try something new.

He will co-drive a Lexus Riley with Shane Lewis in the July 13 race under the lights at the new track designed by former NASCAR champion Rusty Wallace, who retired from racing at the end of 2005.

``I've heard good things about Iowa Speedway and know it's Rusty Wallace's pride and joy,'' Martin said. ``I'm looking forward to driving the Daytona Prototype for the first time and I'm also very excited to see and race at Iowa Speedway.

``Co-driving with Shane will be fun. I know he can get the job done; he will be a big asset in helping me get comfortable in the car during our test sessions. I love road racing and sports car racing. I just need to get used to the car, and with the help of (team owner) Steve Southard, I feel that won't take very long.''


STAT OF THE WEEK: Two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart is winless and frustrated after the first 14 races of 2007, although he is sixth in the season points.

But, while Stewart has 29 career wins, only four have come before the month of June. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver generally heats up when the weather gets hot.

Stewart has scored four wins in June, along with three second-place finishes, eight top-threes and 10 top-fives.

Typically for Stewart, he kick-started his 2005 run to the championship with a second-place finish at Michigan in June, followed the next week by a win _ his first of that season _ on the road course at Sonoma. Before he was through that season, he had five victories and finished the year with 19 top-10 finishes in the final 22 races.
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