Next up for Hendrick, Junior: Contract discussion – Nascar

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.



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