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Published: Wednesday, 6/13/2007

Earnhardt likely will join Hendrick

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

CHARLOTTE - Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants to win championships, and there's no better place to do that than Hendrick Motorsports.

The most frenzied free agency in NASCAR history will end today when Earnhardt reveals where he'll drive next season, and all signs point to Rick Hendrick's elite organization.

Hendrick, winner of six championships since 1995, currently fields cars for four-time champion Jeff Gordon, defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Casey Mears. With all four drivers under contract, Hendrick told the Associated Press last month he had "no room at the inn" for Earnhardt.

But a half-dozen people familiar with the negotiations - speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity because Earnhardt's plans have not been announced - said Hendrick officials have been working for nearly three weeks to bring the star driver into the fold. There were rumblings late Monday that Busch, who is under contract through 2008, has asked to be released from his contract.

Asked if that were true, Hendrick spokesman Jesse Essex said, "We don't comment on contractual issues."

Busch was testing in Milwaukee yesterday and not available to comment.

It's unclear why the 22-year-old Busch would want to leave Hendrick, the most dominant team in NASCAR with 10 wins through 14 points races this season.

Busch has four career victories, one this season, and made the Chase for the championship last year, finishing 10th in the standings. He's currently 10th, but has wrecked a bunch of cars in both the Nextel Cup and Busch Series, and upset his team at Texas in April when he left the track without telling anyone after an accident.

His crew patched up the car, but with no driver to take it back on the track, asked Earnhardt to finish the race in the No. 5 Chevrolet.

"Junior didn't hesitate and agreed, and it was a very sportsmanlike gesture," Alan Gustafson, Busch's crew chief, said after the race. "It says a lot about Dale and the kind of person he is."

It created rampant speculation that Earnhardt was headed to Hendrick, a rumor that only intensified following his May 10 announcement he will leave his late father's company at the end of this season. He made the announcement at his race shop, JR Motorsports, the site of today's scheduled news conference.

Earnhardt spokesman Mike Davis said only that the driver will announce his plans for 2008 and beyond.

The announcement will end the frenzied free agency period that ignited a whirlwind of recruiting rarely scene in NASCAR. The last five weeks have been filled with nonstop talk regarding where Earnhardt would end up, and he's made shop visits and met with various car owners while trying to make a decision.

His criteria for picking a new team were finding a place he can win championships - Earnhardt has 17 career wins, but no Nextel Cup titles - and remaining in a Chevrolet.

It cut the list of contenders to three front-runners - Hendrick, Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing - and one long shot in Ginn Racing.

Childress, Gibbs and Ginn expressed interest in signing Earnhardt, but Childress never seemed to aggressively pursue Junior. He traded phone messages with Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, who is handling the negotiations for her brother, and has been vacationing out of the country for the last week.

Gibbs officials have been tight-lipped about their contact with Earnhardt, but have made it clear they won't accept Budweiser, his longtime sponsor, because of conflicts with their family values image. Then came word that Toyota is courting Gibbs, which is in the final year of its contract with General Motors. A possible manufacturer switch would certainly eliminate Gibbs from contention.

Ginn officials, who have been ardent about their interest in Earnhardt, said they are not involved in his announcement.

That leaves Hendrick, who previously told AP the only interest he had in Earnhardt was an offer he had made to assist with cars and motors if the driver wanted to field his own team out of JR Motorsports. But, a week after saying he had no room for Earnhardt, Hendrick refused to answer any questions when AP asked if he'd changed his mind.

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