Earnhardt Jr.’s free agency ends today

Published 6:58 am Wednesday, June 13, 2007

By By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE — Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants to win championships, and there’s no better place to do that than at Hendrick Motorsports.
The most frenzied free agency in NASCAR history will end Wednesday 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 on Tuesday 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 after an accident telling anyone.
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.
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, same site of Wednesday’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 was 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.
The late Dale Earnhardt won six of his seven championships at RCR, and Gibbs has won three of the past six titles. Bobby Ginn, in his first full season as a NASCAR team owner, has transformed a midlevel team into a contender, but has no championships at his organization.
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 tightlipped 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.
Gibbs, reached Tuesday through his other job as coach of the Washington Redskins, declined comment. An assistant for team president J.D. Gibbs said he was away all week.
Ginn officials, who have been ardent about their interest in Earnhardt, said Tuesday 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.
NASCAR will only permit car owners to field four teams beginning in 2009, so Hendrick first had to find a spot on his roster to add Earnhardt. Busch asking out of his deal would create an opening, but it’s no guarantee Earnhardt will end up in the No. 5.
It’s possible he could drive the No. 25 that Mears currently pilots, with Mears moving into the No. 5 opening. Budweiser, which is willing to follow Earnhardt to his new team, sponsored the No. 25 for Hendrick during the 1990s.
Hendrick also has longtime ties to Earnhardt’s family. He fielded a car in 1983 for the elder Earnhardt, who drove it to a Busch Series win at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. That entry was co-owned by Robert Gee, who is Junior’s maternal grandfather.
Joining Hendrick’s stable could anger Earnhardt’s rabid fan base because it will team him with Gordon, the one driver ‘‘The Red Army’’ generally despises. Earnhardt fans have thrown beer cans at Gordon following several of his recent wins, most notably victory No. 76, which came in April at Talladega Superspeedway and tied Gordon with the elder Earnhardt on NASCAR’s career victory list.
Earnhardt condemned the behavior, and urged his fans to throw toilet paper instead of beer cans — to no avail.