Posted: Thursday June 1, 2006 1:33PM; Updated: Thursday June 1, 2006 6:23PM
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Ganassi would be well-advised to make the largest bid for Mears. It may not be the only determining factor, but it would go a long way to convincing Mears that he's wanted there -- unlike what Mears was feeling a year ago. Now Mears appears to want to maintain the momentum he's built this season.
But if Mears does leave Ganassi? Red Bull, Davis and Toyota are shots in the dark, but Evernham is the wild card in the Mears derby. He has a team on the rise.
This much is certain: Mears, already making a substantial income because every driver in Cup does, is about to make a boatload more.
So once Mears signs with team X, what do the other teams do?
Voluntary retirements by Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd and the forced retirements of Wade Burton, Ricky Craven and Jimmy Spencer have opened up seats. Replacements have been rushed from Busch and Craftsman Trucks. The pipeline isn't gushing, though -- it's trickling. You have to look hard to find somebody who can give you a top 10, even a top 15 result on a semiregular basis.
Mears leads my list of the top five free-agent drivers, followed by:
2. Scott Wimmer He has a big upside for the team that can give him top-rung equipment. Sure, he has just one top five and three top 10s in 91 career starts. But Wimmer drove in 81 of those races for Bill Davis and took a step down to stay in Cup by moving to Morgan-McClure; the team is far removed from its competitive days in the '90s, when it won three Daytona 500s. Morgan-McClure had one top 10 in 32 races last year. It hasn't won a race since 1998. Wimmer races well, has qualified for the 10 races since Daytona and is only 30. His best years are ahead.
3. Johnny Sauter He's a Busch regular, with three wins in 153 starts. Sauter also has 31 Cup starts and will make a couple more for Busch car owner Gene Haas this year. That could convince owners that Sauter has what it takes to race full time in Cup. It seems like he's been around a long time, but Sauter is only 28.
4. Todd Bodine Bodine has resurrected his career in Craftsman Trucks with nine wins since joining the series midway through the 2004 season. At age 42, he has plenty of good racing left in him. At least one of the Toyota teams should be interested; Yates should be calling, too.
5. Bobby Hamilton Jr. Hamilton was bounced unexpectedly out of the seat at Cal Wells' PPI operation late last year and didn't have a chance to shop himself. He was 36th in the Cup points in 2005 in 33 starts and has 64 career starts in Cup at age 28. Hamilton won four Busch races in 2003 and was fourth in the points and had a fifth Busch win in 2002. Hamilton is driving for his father's Truck team this year under unhappy circumstances after Bobby Sr. had to leave the seat to fight cancer.