By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. began the day with an early morning photo shoot with his new Hendrick teammates, then quickly turned his focus to his old team.
NASCAR's most popular driver climbed into his red No. 8 Chevrolet on Friday for the start of his final weekend with Dale Earnhardt Inc., intent on a strong close to his 11-year run with his late father's company.
"I've got a lot of great relationships here and I just want to make sure this weekend is all about the No. 8 car, the Budweiser car, this team and trying to get a finish that they deserve," he said. "It's just a good group of guys and its going to be difficult running your last race with them. You know you are going to miss it."
It's mixed emotions for Earnhardt, who officially joins Hendrick Motorsports after Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He's excited about his new job, where he'll join a team that has won 18 races this season and is on the verge of its seventh Cup title.
It comes at the expense of DEI, which was built from the ground up by the late Dale Earnhardt and molded into one of NASCAR's top teams with Junior behind the wheel.
But the team hasn't been the same since Earnhardt's 2001 death, and Junior has struggled with the direction of the company under stepmother Teresa's leadership. He demanded majority control of the organization during tense talks on a contract extension, then finally decided in May to simply walk away.
Leaving DEI was certainly not an easy decision, and finding a new job was just as difficult. But he felt comfortable with Rick Hendrick, and knew the ultra-successful team would give him his best shot at finally winning a Cup title.
"He's got some mixed emotions, but he's also really excited about being over there with our organization," Hendrick said. "Things change, and I think Dale Sr. would want him to do what's best for him. And that's what he's trying to do."
Despite the impending change, Earnhardt was determined not to quit on his old team. He made one last desperate push to make the Chase for the championship during the summer, and when he came up short he still chased wins.
Earnhardt has won at least one race in each of his first seven Cup seasons, but has just one final chance to race his way into Victory Lane this season. He takes a 61-race winless streak into Sunday's finale and wants to break it as a parting gift to crew members who stood by him even when they knew he was abandoning them at the end of the year.
He'll start 13th in Sunday's race.
"The guys have been great and they've been really, really supportive," Earnhardt said. "They've got better attitudes that I can say I have had. If this weekend goes smooth and is a good one and everybody leaves here with a good positive attitude, a lot credit has to go to how they've all acted and how they've handled it.
"I've tried to keep the wheels on it figuratively and literally, and its been really hard sometimes when you don't run the way you want to. But I want to finish good with these guys ... aside from us splitting up, I want to be proud of what we're doing."
Hendrick knows the past three months have been difficult on his newest driver. He's got just two top-10 finishes in the past 10 races to go along with a pair of engine failures and two crashes.
But he noticed a lift in the driver late last month when he tested his new Hendrick ride at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"If you saw him in Atlanta, he's ready to go and get the year started," Hendrick said. "He's had a miserable half of the year with all the racing luck, and I think he's ready to win another race and move on."
The test was widely considered a success, as Earnhardt got to feel a Hendrick car and his new team learned more about his driving style. With crew chief Tony Eury Jr. already working at Hendrick to prepare for Earnhardt's arrival, the transition could be easy.
"They've been super nice and been really easy to get to know and I wasn't as uncomfortable as I thought I might be," he said. "I thought they were happy with what I was doing at the test and that gave me a lot of confidence that I am going to be a good asset to the company."
But first he's got to get through this final weekend, then he'll head into the offseason hoping to spend as much time as he can with new teammates Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Casey Mears. The foursome posed for pictures early Friday morning, and Earnhardt wants the interaction to continue.
"The more time we can all spend together before the season starts, the better we can get an idea of what each other is looking for in a teammate and what we're all like as drivers," he said. "I've raced with these guys a long time, but I don't know the confidential information that they share and the more time we can be around each other and understand how to utilize each other's weaknesses and strengths, is important to me.
"I just want to try to make sure we're complementing each other."