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Earnhardt to choose his new team today

June 13, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is scheduled to announce today which Nextel Cup team he'll drive for next season amid speculation that Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing are the front-runners. Earnhardt called a news conference at the Mooresville, N.C., home of JR Motorsports, the Busch Series racing team he owns, to announce his decision.

NASCAR's most popular driver became perhaps the most sought-after free agent in stock car racing history a month ago when he announced plans to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team started by his late father, after this season.

A winner of 17 races in his seven-year Cup career, Earnhardt said he preferred to keep driving Chevrolets. So, from the outset the sport's top Chevy teams -- Hendrick, Childress and Joe Gibbs Racing -- have been considered top candidates for his services. Officials for Earnhardt and all the teams declined to comment.

Hendrick has been the Cup series' top team so far this year, with 10 wins in the first 14 points races, and having Earnhardt in its stable would only enhance the team's power. Hendrick's current drivers are reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time champ Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Casey Mears.

But NASCAR limits Cup teams to four drivers, so acquiring Earnhardt would force the team to drop another driver. Speculation is centered on Busch or Mears moving if Earnhardt comes aboard.

There also was speculation that Earnhardt might form a separate team, perhaps allied with Hendrick.

Earnhardt family friend and former Cup driver Darrell Waltrip said, "I think it'll be an arrangement" with Hendrick. "Junior and Kelley [Elledge, Earnhardt's sister and business manager] would own the team, and Rick might be a managing partner," Waltrip said.

Childress Racing is a leading candidate because it has only three drivers and because Richard Childress has long family ties with the Earnhardt family. The elder Dale Earnhardt won six of his record seven Cup championships for Childress before he was killed in a crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001.

Gibbs Racing also has room, but the Gibbs family balks at having alcoholic beverages as sponsors. Earnhardt's current main sponsor is Budweiser, though it's uncertain whether the beer maker plans to move with the driver.

A dark-horse candidate is Ginn Racing, a smaller team that also fields Chevrolets.

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Ed Hinton, who covers auto racing for Tribune newspapers, contributed to this report.

james.peltz@latimes.com

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