From the Marbles - NASCAR

Dale Earnhardt Jr. signs deal to remain at Hendrick through 2017Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick Motorsports are going to be together for a long, long time.

More than a year before his current contract was scheduled to expire, Earnhardt signed a five-year contract extension that will keep him in the Hendrick camp through the 2017 Sprint Cup season. This brings to an end not only the speculation about Earnhardt's contract status, but any question about whether Earnhardt would break away from Hendrick and bring his JR Motorsports up to the Sprint Cup level in the foreseeable future.

Team owner Rick Hendrick noted that he and Earnhardt have had a "handshake agreement" in place for months. "It was as simple and smooth as it gets," Hendrick said.

And, in what is surely a preemptive strike to the critics who would question why Hendrick would sign a driver who's achieved exactly one win for his team, Hendrick added, "My feelings haven't changed since the day he first signed with us. I'm committed as ever to putting him in the best possible situation to be successful and compete for wins and championships."

"It's great to have it all wrapped up so quickly and far in advance," Earnhardt said. "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.' "

Fans with a bit of memory will recall the seismic upheaval when Earnhardt left the team bearing his name to sign with Hendrick in June 2007. This extension obviously won't have that same impact, but it's a major demonstration of Hendrick's faith in Earnhardt ... and in the marketing power of NASCAR's reigning most popular driver.

Certainly, many will criticize this contract because of its length and the perceived unworthiness of its recipient; after all, Earnhardt has only made the Chase once (not including 2011) and won a single race since joining Hendrick Motorsports. But Earnhardt is more valuable to Hendrick, and NASCAR as a whole, as a phenomenon and ambassador than a driver. He's the living embodiment of one of the sport's most famous names, and remains a visible symbol of exactly what NASCAR would like to promote: Southern good-ol'-boy-ness minus its negative connotations. (He was in a Jay-Z video, after all.)

Earnhardt Jr. picked a very good time to have his best season yet in the Hendrick camp. And while he doesn't appear to be championship caliber just yet, the fact that he's rebounded from two straight years finishing in the 20s is a testament to Hendrick's faith in the 88 as a driver, not just a name.

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