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Johnson's humble start in sport make quest for title No. 8 more remarkable
BUY TICKETS: See the Daytona 500 live! RELATED: Johnson ready to tackle new format DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Words of encouragement and inspiring slogans fill the window separating Daytona International Speedway 's "Fan Zone" and Jimmie Johnson 's garage stall. There are dozens of congratulatory messages alongside several "I love yous" scribbled in yellow marker. One note simply says "win." Even fans wearing other drivers' souvenir hats and memorabilia make a point to stop by, peer in and see what the reigning seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship team is up to. People are lined up five and six deep outside Johnson's pit stall window all day, every day. "I think people used to boo Jimmie when he was constantly winning, but people are understanding now (that) he's an awesome driver and they're starting to like him more," said Kevin Waring, 43, of Schenectady, New York -- donning Jimmie Johnson gear from head to socks. He brought his whole family -- including his Harvick-Elliott-Logano-loving wife Tammy and kids Chase, 12, and Chelsea, 8 -- to their first ever Daytona 500 . And he's quite optimistic about seeing "his" favorite driver walk away with a trophy. And a historic eighth championship. "Jimmie is a down-to-earth guy, you see it every time he does an interview and he's a family man like I am," Waring said. "He's won a championship every way you can, by points, in the Chase, and they're changing things again this season. And I think people are beginning to respect that more. I think they're coming around. I really do." The two-time Daytona 500 winner Johnson will start the "Great American Race" from the rear on Sunday. He had to go to a backup No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet after an incident in Thursday's Can-Am Duel qualifying race. MORE: Johnson to run in backup car His fans aren't overly worried by the circumstance, however. Johnson claimed his record-tying seventh Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway last November by winning the race despite starting last in the field. One of the most easy-going, popular drivers among his competitors, Johnson himself has noticed a distinct -- some would say seismic -- shift in the sport's vast audience. Fans may not have initially been sure what to think of this laidback, California dirt-bike racer-turned one of the greatest NASCAR champions of all time. He was too nice, too approachable, too humble, too talented -- and somehow that didn't immediately play into the comfort of NASCAR fandom. But the fans now seem to appreciate the hard work Johnson has always put in and certainly, if nothing else, the opportunity to watch a legend become legendary. "I think it was ... not only did I stop giving him advice, I started going to him for advice," said Johnson's former teammate-turned FOX Sports analyst Jeff Gordon . In some regards it's been easier for Johnson to earn trophies than it has to convince NASCAR's hardcore fans to accept and appreciate his championship form. He still has a good laugh at the reception he often gets -- although the boos are noticeably softer. How can someone be disliked because -- as fans are quick to claim -- he is too good or too nice? But it has long been a common anomaly in this sport. "Certainly more fans are eager to get the autograph," he acknowledged, laughing and shaking his head, still admittedly unsure what is expected of him. What he expects of himself is a far simpler notion. He is quick to say he has surpassed his own expectations. At just 41 years old, Johnson has already become the youngest seven-time champion in NASCAR history, younger than both Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt when they hoisted their seventh titles. His 80 wins are most among active drivers and he needs only 14 more to pass Jeff Gordon for third place on NASCAR's all-time wins chart. David Pearson's 105 wins are second to the great 200-race winner Richard Petty. Johnson has won no fewer than four races a year in the last five seasons. He's won multiple races in all 15 years he's competed full time -- including a personal best 10 trophies in 2007. These are marks -- from race trophies to championship rings -- unlikely to be repeated anytime soon, if ever. So the question Johnson gets now is whether he can win that historical eighth Cup championship. His team owner, recent NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Rick Hendrick , joins many who think it should be considered a very legitimate opportunity. "You know I think Jimmie is in the prime of his career with the way he goes after things, the way he works out, Chad and their time together," Hendrick said. "I think to me, getting the seventh (championship) was the challenge. It's hard to explain but I think it took some of the pressure off just getting the seventh. "And now, he can just race and if eight happens, great. I think he's got as good a shot as anybody out there. It's exciting. And one of the neatest things was to watch the crowd when he won (at Homestead) and see all the people in the stands get up. They saw history. We've said it before but Dale Earnhardt will always be 'The Intimidator' and Richard Petty will always be 'The King' but Jimmie has a shot to do something that, through different situations, he can be in a position all on his own. "He's as cool about it as I've ever seen him. I don't think there's any pressure on him. And we don't feel the pressure now that we've tied it. I think he's got as good a shot as anyone and now until the end, he knows how to win. "We're just honored to have what we have but looking forward to having the opportunity to do something no one else has done." If the thought of eight titles is head-shaking to fans, it is equally as jaw-dropping to Johnson. His start in the sport was humble, with a surplus of networking and winning paving the road to success. His stardom in the sport is a combination of hard work, talent and grit. "I got a phone call to run a late model race in 1997 for Hendrick Motorsports ," Johnson recalled. "Five days later I bought a one-way ticket, called (former Camping World Truck Series champion Ron) Hornaday and moved to Charlotte and just spent every day of the week going to lunch spots and passing out business cards. "Any business card I got, I'd write a letter and send to the person. I got a fax machine so if I got a business card from someone I would add their fax number for the Chevy press release that went out after my off-road races. "I was obsessed with networking and establishing myself." Johnson smiles when recalling his humble start, something he thinks people forget about when they see him now as a NASCAR superstar. "I don't think I could have had this healthy lifestyle doing what I had to do then," allowed Johnson, who is a successful triathlete in addition to winning in his race car. "I wouldn't have made it. I wouldn't have stood out as the guy super hungry who wanted it so badly. Plus, it took some time to learn these cars and learn the industry. "I think the timing has worked out well for me and helped me prolong the second half of my career, but the first half I really had to be the guy at Big Daddy's restaurant eating hushpuppies or that gas station by DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc.) where there was barbecue on the side. "I'd literally go over there and sit with a big sweet tea and pass out business cards. It's all kinda served its purpose." It has indeed. And so Johnson begins his historic quest for eight -- with the wonderful and rare security of knowing that he's already legend-worthy. His dedication to being fit, to being prepared mentally, to maintaining a competitive edge, isn't really about making history, however. It's about the thrill of winning, of making a living doing something he so genuinely enjoys. And is so incredible at. "No, I don't (feel I have to) win eight," Johnson said breaking into a grin. "But I'm sure as hell going to try." &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
Dale Jr. emerges from concussion rehab stronger, centered and ready to win
BUY TICKETS: See the Daytona 500 live! RELATED: Dale Jr.'s complete Daytona 500 history NEW YORK CITY -- A production assistant pins a lavalier microphone to the lapel of Dale Earnhardt Jr .'s suit jacket in a newsroom studio inside FOX News on Sixth Avenue. "One, two, three, four, five. Hello, hello," the 14-time NMPA Most Popular Driver says instinctively, without instruction from the PA. You can tell this -- the sound test, the back-to-back-to-back-to-back (and then some) interviews, the traipsing around the "Big Apple" to promote the 2017 Daytona 500 , everything -- feels normal to him, like second-nature. Not long ago, there was no such thing as normal for Earnhardt. The Hendrick Motorsports driver will make his return to points-paying competition in Sunday's "Great American Race" (2 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) after missing the second half of last season following concussion-like symptoms from wrecks at Michigan International Speedway in June and at Daytona International Speedway in July. The road back was a lengthy, arduous, winding trail filled with uncertainty and confusion. "You'd be doing something during the day and something would happen and you'd go 'Whoa, what was that? That was weird,' " Earnhardt told NASCAR.com, who tagged along with him for the day. "Just these little moments when you might get dizzy or you might forget about something that you think you shouldn't forget about. That used to happen all the time." Dale Earnhardt Jr . gets mic'd up. Earnhardt was cleared to race in December after months of rehabilitation and doctor appointments. He says he's fully healthy and recovered from his concussion, but don't hold your breath on him throwing out that cliché preseason line about being in the best shape of his life. RELATED: Watch Dale Jr.'s full interview from Daytona Media Day "I think I was probably at my peak physical condition at … 1? But since then it's all been downhill," Earnhardt joked. "I feel healthy. Mentally, I'm always sort of self-analyzing so I'm not having these things that would bring (the concussion) to my attention anymore. "The further you get removed from that stuff, the less you even remember it happening, or the less you think about it. When you go a day or a week never even thinking about the injury or the past, you're free from it. I feel great. Like I said, the doctors have given me a lot of confidence, just talking to them. They're like, 'Man, you're good. We feel good about this. We feel good about you racing. We feel good about you crashing.' You've got to have those." To get a sign-off from his doctors on crashing -- a near-certainty to happen over the course of a 36-race season -- is massive. The risk of another concussion will always be in the back of Earnhardt's mind after this most recent one kept him sidelined for so long. But he can't let that apprehension occupy him behind the wheel. "The wrecks and stuff are inevitable and I do worry. There's been crashes that I haven't had issues with, but there's been a few wrecks that I have had issues," Earnhardt said. "I don’t know … my doctors told me basically that I was healthy and if they thought I shouldn't race, they would let me know. They said, 'Look, we feel good about you racing. We feel like anything that happens … it's a dangerous sport and you're going to be at risk no more than you were before. Anything that happens to you, we can fix.' " Dale Earnhardt Jr . signs autographs for fans on the streets of New York. Talking to Earnhardt, it's clear 2016 was a year that challenged on many levels. It was also a year of tremendous growth and reflection that culminated -- quite literally -- with a marriage to longtime girlfriend Amy Earnhardt (née Reimann) on New Year's Eve, a topic that took center stage throughout his media tour at the "TODAY Show," FOX News, "The Dan Patrick Show," Inc. Magazine and "Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen." RELATED: Dale Jr., Amy Reimann get married on New Year's Eve Even if she did miss a question or two on the unofficially official " Dale Earnhardt Jr ." quiz on The Dan Patrick Show ( watch it here ), Earnhardt touts Amy's support and gives her nearly all the credit for his transformation. "I think I feel like a stronger, more complete person thanks to her. I hope that this isn't just a mood, that it's more permanent. I think we'll find out as we just get into the grit of the season, week-to-week and going from track to track and being tugged in all kinds of different directions by my responsibilities. Hopefully this sticks." With health in hand and a family life starting to come together at 42 years old, nobody would have blamed the 26-time winner in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series for walking away before the start of his 18th full-time season. RELATED: Dale Jr. regals listeners with family storytime Dale Earnhardt Jr . with Andy Cohen of 'Watch What Happens Live' But the big news of the past week was Earnhardt's looming contract extension, with his current deal set to expire at year's end and a talented replacement champing at the bit for a full-time opportunity in Alex Bowman . RELATED: Dale Jr. discusses contract status Earnhardt won't walk away "until the gas tank is on empty," but he can't quite pinpoint when that'll be. He says any extension would be "no less than two, no more than three" years, but has put off negotiations with team owner Rick Hendrick until he knows he can commit, health-wise, long term. "I don't know (how much gas is left in the tank.) If I told you, 'Man, I've got three years,' I don’t know if I'd be telling you the full truth," said Earnhardt, a two-time Daytona 500 winner. "I can't see, I can't feel it. I know I want to finish this year and if I finish … everybody keeps asking me about my goals for a successful season, and that's to finish every race. If I'm in every race, and not injured and not missing races, then that's a successful season. "I think that will propel me into a new extension. The only thing holding me up, really, is knowing that I can do it, health-wise. Knowing that I can be there every week. If I'm going to sign a deal to be there and work for my owner … I love this man like a father. And I don't want to tell him I can be there for three more years if I can't. I'm going to get a few months under my belt and get the confidence that we can start working on the extension and I think if we get there, I'm signing that extension with the intent of doing that contract. "Now, that might be the last one but I don't know. You just don't know these things. I mean, I know drivers -- and I won't say names -- but I know very, very successful drivers in this sport that five years ago were ready to hang it up, just fed up. And they're happier today than they've ever been." Earnhardt mentioned that he nearly walked away from the sport earlier this decade, but credited his support system for pulling him back. And he's thankful it did. "I've been down, down in the dumps," he said. "Hell, if I didn't have the right support system around me, I probably would've quit in 2010, 2011. I'm glad I didn't. We got this ship righted and got to winning some races and I've had the best time behind the wheel that I've ever had in my career for three or four years now. "So who says that if I stick around that it can't get even better? I want to see, I want to wait." RELATED: Dale Jr. on front row for Sunday's Daytona 500 &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;span _rtetemp=&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;quot;spchk&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;quot; style=&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;quot;background-color: #ffffaa;&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;quot; _rtespchksugg=&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;quot;Lt"alt"ult"flt"let"lit"lat"lot"ltd"t&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;quot;&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;am&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/span&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;p;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
Hendrick humbled by NASCAR Hall of Fame selection
RELATED: Everything to know about Friday's NASCAR Hall of Fame induction Rick Hendrick is going into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and the owner of Hendrick Motorsports might be the one most surprised by his selection. "It is more than just 'Hey, this is cool,'" the 67-year-old said recently. "It's more than that to me. It's humbling; it's just very humbling to me that I could even be looked at." Hendrick will be inducted into the Hall Friday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN), along with fellow team owners Richard Childress and Raymond Parks and drivers Benny Parsons and Mark Martin. There hasn't been much time for reflection, Hendrick said, as he continues to oversee an organization that fields four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams in addition to one of the nation’s most successful automotive sales groups. "I think when you are in the day-to-day and in a day-to-day race and you are going to the track and you are trying to win races … or you are running for a championship, all that other stuff is kind of back there, but it doesn't come to the forefront," Hendrick said. "But then when you get to an event like this and you are going into the Hall of Fame with Raymond Parks and Benny and Richard and Mark and all these guys and you look at who is in there and you look at what the sport has meant to you and your family, it is really special and it's very emotional. "You think about those things. It's humbling. I think the word is humbling because … I never thought I would ever race in NASCAR. I never thought I would ever win a NASCAR race. I never really thought we would win a championship and now to be in the position we are in to win as much and have the success we have had and to be recognized as doing something in the sport to get into the Hall it's a tremendous honor.” Parsons and Martin each drove for Hendrick at one time. Childress and his Richard Childress Racing organization were the benchmark when Hendrick arrived on the scene in 1984. RELATED: Racing lifer Childress ready for induction "Really when I first started I didn't think anybody would ever beat them," Hendrick said of Childress and his driver, Dale Earnhardt. "I thought they were just, basically, unbeatable." That changed with Jeff Gordon 's arrival at HMS in the early '90s, and for nearly a decade, the two organizations were the best in the NASCAR garage, winning seven championships between themselves from '93 through '01. The Hendrick organization continues to set the pace today, with Jimmie Johnson winning the 2016 championship to become just the third driver to win seven titles. Officially, HMS teams have won 12 championships in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and 245 races. Previous programs in the XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series produced nearly 50 more victories and three additional championships. It's almost overwhelming for Hendrick , who built his first car (for drag racing) when he was a teenager with help from his father. "When you get something like this in life, when someone recognizes you, you think about going to Hillsborough (North Carolina) to watch a race on dirt," he said. "You think about all the sacrifices your Dad made to get you in the cars and your son's love for the cars, your brother, (engine builder) Randy Dorton, all those guys that aren’t here now that gave it all. "It's super emotional for me because I know how much they loved it, how much they sacrificed for it and this is almost like the culmination." Sixteen drivers have won at least one race while competing for HMS at the NASCAR Cup level. Johnson, Gordon and Terry Labonte won championships as well. RELATED: Johnson's seventh title leaves him speechless, but peers say plenty In spite of all his accomplishments and those of his organization, Hendrick said he still feels a bit awed by his selection. "I think it feels a lot like the first time I went to New York after I won a championship, the first championship," he said. "You feel … it's an unbelievable accomplishment when you dreamed about being involved in a sport or just watching the sport and to think that now you are being recognized in the Hall of Fame, it's a really emotional and a very special feeling." &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
Hendrick : Hall of Fame induction is 'humbling'
12-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion team owner Rick Hendrick reflects on being selected as a NASCAR Hall of Fame member in 2017.
Hendrick thanks his NASCAR family in Hall of Fame speech
Rick Hendrick thanks his NASCAR family for the love and support throughout his Hall of Fame career during his induction speech.
Rick Hendrick honored to win 12th NSCS Championship
Rick Hendrick looks back on Hendrick Motor Sports' spectacular 2016 season which includes Jimmie Johnson's record-tying seventh NSCS title.
Albert: Hendrick , JGR, Penske should be prime players Sunday
RELATED: Daytona schedule " Starting lineup DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- There's no such thing as a clear-cut favorite for Sunday's Daytona 500 . After six days of on-track activity for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series , several camps can lay claim to having an edge, but singling out one driver is akin to a roulette wheel's spin. "We come down here a lot of years. You kind of pick a guy," said Jamie McMurray , the 2010 champion of the 500 who will start third in this year's running. "If he finishes, he's going to be there in the end. I think there's 10 guys that have a legitimate shot to win this year." What is clear is that Sunday's winner of the Great American Race (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will have the benefit of a fast horse, potential assistance from teammates and the combination of an adept spotter and a frequently-used mirror. And if conventional wisdom holds serve, Team Penske , Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports should be the prime players in that game. Preliminary races -- Thursday's Duel qualifiers and last weekend's "The Clash" exhibition from a busy Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway -- have shown that a strong leading car has the ability to change lanes and stem the aerodynamic momentum from an onrushing line of cars. The Duels showed the powerful but precarious nature of leading: In the first 150-miler, polesitter Chase Elliott staved off the pack with a series of blocks to lead the final 24 laps. In the nightcap, Dale Earnhardt Jr . -- who led for 53 circuits -- zigged too late when Denny Hamlin zagged with two laps left, and Hamlin led an organized aero charge to the checkers. MORE: Logano wins 'The Clash' " Duel 1 results " Duel 2 results "Because the way the lanes form, it's just power in numbers," said Elliott, the 500's Coors Light Pole Award winner for the second straight year. "It's a power in what cars are lined up in what row, how they're stacked against you, whether they're two-wide or three-wide behind you. There certainly are guys that do a good job. Once they get out front they're tough to get by. We see that all the time at these places." RELATED: Elliott joins elite in back-to-back Daytona 500 pole wins Momentum can be an intangible in other sports, the vibe of a winning streak or the underlying oomph of the tide turning in a certain game. In NASCAR -- and especially in the restrictor-plate genre of stock-car racing -- it's a palpable phenomenon. While aerodynamics can be a great equalizer for underdogs, the power of Penske's pair of Fords driven by Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski stands out. But so does the muscle flexed by defending 500 champion Hamlin and his flotilla of Joe Gibbs Racing teammates. And it's unwise to count out Hendrick & Co.; which monopolized the front row in qualifying with Elliott and Earnhardt. MORE: Penske proves plate tracks take more than just luck One thing is all but certain, especially when it gets to crunch time with the Harley J. Earl Trophy on the line: The cat-and-mouse between the race leader and the pack will be more exacting, with far more take than give. "I'm sure that will be amped up Sunday," Elliott said after his Duel win. "I think it was similar to what you'll see."
Rick Hendrick : Dale Jr. 'on track' for Daytona 500
MORE: Buy tickets for Homestead-Miami Championship Weekend HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Team owner Rick Hendrick shed light Friday on Dale Earnhardt Jr .'s timetable to return to NASCAR competition, saying he anticipated his driver to be on pace to compete in time for the 2017 Daytona 500 . Earnhardt Jr., 42, has been sidelined from the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet since July after two severe crashes left him with concussion-like symptoms. He was ruled out for the remainder of the Sprint Cup season in September. "I think sometime in December the doctor's going to give him the final clearance and then we'll get him in a car," Hendrick said Friday after a news conference with the Sprint Cup Championship 4 car owners at Homestead-Miami Speedway . "He feels great. Everything's on track. I mean, every step that we supposedly need to go through, we've gone through, and I don't see anything holding us back." Earnhardt, who has been working on rehabilitation of his neurological conditions since this summer, reiterated that intention last month at Martinsville Speedway , saying in a pre-race interview that "we're booking things as normal" ahead of the 2017 season. That included sponsorship plans, photo shoots and other logistical agreements in preparation for next year. But Earnhardt Jr. also indicated he was eager to return to NASCAR's premier series, something Hendrick reaffirmed Friday. "He sent me a text the other day that he was excited and waiting for Daytona," Hendrick said. "I think we've just got a couple more hurdles to clear." Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman have split time in Earnhardt's No. 88 this season, with Gordon filling in for eight races and Bowman set to make his 10th start of the year in Sunday's season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM) at Homestead-Miami Speedway . Gordon has indicated that he's likely to resume his retirement from racing next season unless called upon by Hendrick . As for Bowman, the 23-year-old racer who competes part-time in the XFINITY Series has said he's still uncertain what his driving responsibilities -- beyond simulator work for Hendrick's team -- will be in 2017. Friday, Hendrick was uncertain as well. "Alex is a good guy. He's helped us in a lot of ways," Hendrick said. "We're just kind of taking that one a day at a time. He's done testing for us, he's done simulation for us and he's really done a good job. We're just kind of taking it a day at a time. We don't really have any certain plan." &amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
Hendrick : 'We are like a big family'
Rick Hendrick spent the week leading up to his NASCAR Hall of Fame induction reminiscing with family and friends.
Next up for Hendrick , Junior: Contract discussion
RELATED: Junior: 'Stronger than before' " Earnhardt medically cleared Rick Hendrick considers it a wonderful early Christmas present. Having Dale Earnhardt Jr . medically cleared to resume driving Hendrick's No. 88 Chevrolet has been six months in the making. And the whole storied, championship organization couldn't be happier with Thursday's official word that NASCAR's reigning Most Popular Driver will be behind the wheel for the 2017 season after missing the final 18 races of the 2016 season recovering from a concussion. "We're as big a fan of Dale's as the rest of the community and when you have the most popular driver in the sport and then lose him. ... He's a big spark plug to this place," Hendrick said. "Having him out of the car kinda deflates the place and you know, when that test finished and he came through with such flying colors, the text I got and conversation I had, you could feel it in the place even today with the rest of the teams. "It elevated the whole place." So much so that Hendrick and Earnhardt are already prepared to resume contract extension talks, Earnhardt revealed Friday in his first teleconference with the national media since getting the go-ahead to return to competition. "We're probably going to revisit that before the season starts," said Earnhardt, 42, whose current contract runs through 2017. "Before I got sick, Rick and I sat down and talked about my future and the extensions. That stuff was starting to come together and we'll revisit that shortly." It should only be a matter of ironing out details because these two NASCAR A-listers shared that they both feel re-energized by Earnhardt's recovery and return to competition. Hendrick said he was very optimistic about Earnhardt re-joining the team and resuming racing, but conceded that he realized early on in the process, that might take an extended amount of time. And he was OK with that. "You might worry about that but I think after talking to [Earnhardt's doctor] Dr. Collins, he didn't see any reason he couldn't come back if we did it the right way," Hendrick said. "A lot of credit goes to Dale for just working hard outside of the car to get himself better, stronger. "You could just see him getting stronger every week and participating here with the team and other drivers. "I just kind of refused to accept he wasn't going to be in the car." It was a good method of coping. "First of all, we care about him as a friend and a person," Hendrick said. "That's first -- and just seeing him healthy and himself, rather than trying to rush him back into the car ... "His health is priority one. We don't want him back in the car until he's OK. And we're OK. Everyone was OK with him sitting out. Once we realized he wasn't going to be in the Chase we were OK, we wanted him for the long term. "It's a tough decision to pull the plug on the year. You didn't know that maybe he would be healed up enough to come back with a few races left. But we were very fortunate with our sponsors. They put his health first. That was never a question." Now Earnhardt is OK. Listening to him speak Friday morning, he is more than OK. The two-time Daytona 500 winner is excited about his New Year's Eve wedding, the honeymoon and the promise of more competition that awaits him in February. Junior's back. "I think with Dale back in the car and Jimmie's championship, it's going to be a nice Christmas for all of us," Hendrick said. &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;