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NASCAR: Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave his heart to Hendrick Motorsports

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. speaks to USA TODAY Sports about his legacy, his incredible fan support and his future. USA TODAY Sports

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Crew chief Greg Ives said Earnhardt has devoted more than 100% to his team and its goals.

“Dale is not just in it with his body, he’s in it with his heart,” Ives said. “That has made every race an emotional thing for me — not from the point of crying but emotional from the point of you really want the outcome to match the effort.”

Ives said his years with Earnhardt evolved into much more than a partnership between driver and crew chief.

“It never was just about going to the race track and winning races,” Ives said. “There were a lot of things in the background that created relationship-building characteristics. There were a lot of unexpected issues and some unexpected things going on, but I feel like we also have had some good times and fun times and grown to have a pretty deep relationship.”

PHOTOS: DALE EARNHARDT JR. THROUGH THE YEARS

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. through the years

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Jeff Gordon, soon to be joined in retirement by Earnhardt, was entrenched at Hendrick Motorsports when Junior arrived in 2008.

“I remember the first couple times that I kind of interacted with Junior before he came to Hendrick,” Gordon said. “I always admired him. I appreciated his place of coming up the way he did and driving late models, cutting his teeth that way. He was taught how to work hard and appreciate those things but have fun.

“To be able to bring him to Hendrick and get him behind the wheel and see the effort he put into that allowed all of us to get to know him on another level. I have a greater respect for him now than ever before.”

Gordon said Earnhardt’s place in racing history is firmly established.

“The way he impacted the sport in popularity, in bringing in new fans, in media attention — he raised things to another level,” he said. “I’m sure in his mind he didn’t back it up as much on the race track, but if you look at his statistics, they’re pretty stout — winning Daytona 500s, etc.

“I think all around, nobody has made a greater impact on the sport than he has.”

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Drivers speak to USA TODAY Sports about Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s legacy in NASCAR. USA TODAY Sports

Earnhardt became fast friends with the other drivers at Hendrick, with the most recent impact coming when he accepted an invitation to join Jimmie Johnson in long-distance cycling, a sport that has attracted a growing group of drivers. And Earnhardt’s presence brought in other newcomers — some who perhaps needed some convincing that cycling is good for one’s health.

“Junior wants to be successful,” said NBC analyst Steve Letarte, formerly Junior’s crew chief at Hendrick. “If someone shows him a way to get better, he tries to get better. I have tired legs and 100 miles on a bicycle to prove it. He’s that kind of guy.”

Chase Elliott, whose Hendrick career is lifting off as Junior’s is ending, called Earnhardt “a good friend and teammate. My opinion of him is that he is a hard competitor, a very good friend, a great teammate and a guy that has been offering help and lending a hand to our race team. Any time that I have asked for it, he has always been an open book and, from a teammate’s perspective, I don’t know what else you can ask for.”

Beyond his place as a driver, Earnhardt provided Hendrick with a unique kind of emotional support, said Hendrick, whose 24-year-old son, Ricky, was killed in a plane crash in 2004.

“I think I filled a void for him, and he’s filled a void for me,” Hendrick said. “We spent a lot of time out of racing, and we plan to do more of that. The next chapter in that is going to be fun. Fishing in Key West. Just being able to spend time talking about life. Sometimes you just need somebody like that you can talk to. We have that relationship.

“I know he’s ready for the next chapter. I hate to see him retire, but I’m really excited for him because I know what he’s looking forward to.”

PHOTOS: DALE EARNHARDT JR. RETIREMENT TOUR

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s NASCAR retirement tour

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http://usatoday.com/story/sports/nascar/2017/11/15/dale-earnhardt-jr-hendrick-motorsports-legacy-retirement/864767001/

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