Earnhardt stays with Hendrick
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - NASCAR's most popular driver will stay with the most dominant race team at least through 2017. Hendrick Motorsports on Thursday announced a five-year contract extension with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend trying to clinch his first berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in three years. "It's great to have it all wrapped up so quickly and far in advance," said Earnhardt, who had another year left on the contract that began in 2008. "Rick and I were on the same page from the first time we talked about it, so there wasn't any sense in waiting. There were never any questions or hesitations from either of us. It was just, 'Yeah, let's do it.'Earnhardt left Dale Earnhardt Inc., his late father's race team, at the end of the 2007 season to join owner Rick Hendrick. Earnhardt's courtship was the most frenzied free agency in NASCAR history, and he chose the most dominant team in the Sprint Cup Series. The pressure has been on Hendrick since to make Earnhardt a champion — a goal they have failed to reach through the first three seasons. Earnhardt has won just one race since leaving DEI, at Michigan in 2008, and he goes into Sunday night's race at Atlanta stuck in a 117-race winless streak. But after missing the Chase the past two seasons, he's poised to get back into the 12-driver field this year. Currently ranked ninth in the standings, Earnhardt can clinch a berth in the field if he widens his margin to 49 points over the 11th-place driver on Sunday night. He's currently 39 points ahead of 11th-place driver Brad Keselowski.