Earnhardt Jr. heading to Hendrick Motorsports?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will announce his Nextel Cup plans for 2008 and beyond Wednesday, and it appears he will join four-time Nextel Cup champion Jeff Gordon and defending series champion Jimmie Johnson to drive for Hendrick Motorsports.

Earnhardt Jr. has scheduled a news conference for 11 a.m. Wednesday at his JR Motorsports headquarters in Mooresville to announce his plans. The news conference will be carried live on Speed and on Sirius Satellite Radio’s NASCAR channel.

Sources told the Observer on Tuesday that Earnhardt will join Gordon, Johnson and Casey Mears on the four-team Hendrick roster in 2008.

Kyle Busch, currently the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolets for the team owned by Rick Hendrick, will be released from his contract and free to sign with another team.

When asked whether Busch had either asked for or received a release from his contract, Hendrick Motorsports spokesman Jesse Essex replied, "As a matter of practice, we don't comment on contractual issues." But that was not the case last year, when Hendrick Motorsports confirmed that Brian Vickers had asked for and received a release.

The Observer attempted to contact Busch through Hendrick Motorsports officials on Tuesday, but was told he was testing at the Milwaukee Mile through Wednesday and would not be available for comment until Friday at Michigan International Speedway, the site of the next race.

Today’s announcement comes five weeks after Earnhardt Jr. announced his decision to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the end of the current season.

That May 10 news conference, also held at the JR Motorsports headquarters from which Earnhardt Jr. fields teams in the NASCAR Busch Series and several other developmental series, set off rounds of speculation about the future of the sport’s most popular driver.

“At 32 years of ageit is time for me to compete on a consistent basis and contend for championships now,” Earnhardt Jr. said that day. “What team I drive for next season, I don't know. We'll see what opportunities I have, we'll see who wants to hire me, who is interested for me to drive their race cars, and we'll decide from there.”

Earnhardt Jr. has driven the No. 8 Chevrolet in each of his 269 career starts, said he wanted to remain with Chevrolet.

Those facts centered the discussion of where Earnhardt Jr. might go to Hendrick, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing, the three Chevrolet teams that have won championships in NASCAR’s top series. Ginn Racing, which buys chassis and engines from Hendrick Motorsports, also expressed an interest in Earnhardt Jr.

But after word of the scheduled news conference came late Tuesday morning, the Observer confirmed that Richard Childress was out of the country on vacation with members of his family. Officials at Joe Gibbs Racing told that the company would not be involved in a news conference today, and Ginn Racing said the same thing to the Observer.

That leaves Hendrick Motorsports, which has won 10 of this year’s 14 Cup races and has 159 race victories and six championships since it began competition in 1984.

Signing Earnhardt Jr. to join Gordon and Johnson would give Hendrick Motorsports a formidable lineup of driving talent and popularity.

Gordon and Johnson each has four victories this season and have combined for 106 victories – 79 for Gordon and 27 for Johnson – and five titles. Mears got his first career Cup victory last month in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

Earnhardt Jr. has won 17 races. Since he joined the Nextel Cup circuit full-time in 2000, only Gordon (30), Johnson (27) and Tony Stewart (26) have won more races. Earnhardt Jr. has also won the circuit’s most popular driver award for the past four years, each time by landslide margins in voting by fans.

Rick Hendrick has had 2,299 entries in Nextel Cup races. His first race as a car owner came in 1984 with Geoffrey Bodine driving a No. 5 Chevrolet. Bodine got the team its first win in that car that year on April 29 at Martinsville.

Hendrick Motorsports has 27 victories in the No. 5, including four by Busch, its current driver. Terry Labonte won 12 races and the 1996 title in the No. 5, while Bodine won seven races and Ricky Rudd won four races for Hendrick with that number.

Cotton Owens (three), Neil Bonnett (two), Bobby Johns and Morgan Shepherd (one each) have won races in the No. 5.

There are family ties between Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick, dating back to the car owner’s first forays into stock-car racing. In 1983, the late Dale Earnhardt won the Mello Yello 300 Busch Series race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in a No. 15 car co-owned by Hendrick and Robert GeeGee is Earnhardt Jr.’s grandfather.

His daughter, Brenda, was the elder Earnhardt’s second wife and is the mother of Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, who also is vice president of JR Motorsports and Earnhardt Jr.’s primary business adviser.