The plot thickens in one merger, more storylines to watch
The release of Elliott Sadler from GEM makes the merger story more bizarre
Will veteran drivers out of a car find a place before the season? Probably not
The week after Daytona 500 has observers wondering how many cars will enter
A New Year always gets us looking ahead rather than behind -- and that's exciting, because NASCAR's return is suddenly close at hand. The start of Daytona Speedweeks is now less than one month away, which means it's time to put 2008 behind us while resolving to look ahead to the hype of a 61st season of NASCAR Sprint Cup competition.
With that in mind, here are four questions that remain unanswered leading into the final month of preparation before Daytona:
1. How will the situation over at Gillett-Evernham Motorsports shake out with Richard Petty, Elliott Sadler, and A.J. Allmendinger?
To borrow from everyone's favorite Facebook lingo: It's Complicated. Waiting for the Petty -- Gillett merger to go down has been a painstaking process already, with the move still not officially announced despite reports first surfacing in early December. But NASCAR's biggest offseason story has taken a turn for the bizarre in recent weeks, coinciding with the sudden release of driver Elliott Sadler from GEM's No. 19 Dodge. To say Sadler was caught off guard was an understatement; armed with a contract that lists him signed through 2010, the 33-year-old is working through the courts to get his job back, filing notice on a lawsuit that aims to force him into the driver's seat. Owners George Gillett, Ray Evernham and Sadler's rumored replacement, A.J. Allmendinger, are among those named as defendants in a claim filed by Sadler's lawyer, John Buric -- one that indicates GEM went behind his client's back, looking to intentionally breach contract and replace him.
But despite the bitterness, Sadler's lack of options this late in the game outside the Gillett organization may be a main reason he's searching to reunite with a team that dumped him by the side of the road. "Our objective is to get in the car and race for them," said Buric on Monday. "We have a contract with them. We intend to enforce that contract."
And how about Allmendinger, impressive as a late-season fill-in in GEM's No. 10, stepping in as Sadler's replacement? I had a good conversation with his agent, Tara Ragan, yesterday that cleared up a few things. Here's the most important one to know: Allmendinger is NOT under contract with GEM, and remains looking for a ride. In fact, they know as little as the rest of us do in terms of how and when things like the Sadler claim and the Petty merger will shake out. And according to Ragan, under no circumstances were there any sort of negotiations that revolved around Allmendinger trying to kick Sadler out of his ride.
A free agent since being released from Team Red Bull in September, the Dinger's simply been looking for a good fit with several teams, trying to align with one where he can race competitively over the long-term. While GEM was one of those opportunities out there, negotiating with the concept of kicking out a driver like Sadler was never on the mind of someone who just went through a similar experience not too long ago.
So, the plot thickens; and with so many unanswered questions, it appears communication is not exactly George Gillett's priority. But assuming Allmendinger does remain number one on the minds of GEM officials, Sadler's release could foretell an inability to expand from three to four cars in their stable -- even with the additional support of Petty Enterprises.
While that merger is finally set to be announced after over a month of delays -- Petty employees were reportedly informed of the decision Dec. 31 -- the move looks more like picking up the scraps than actually joining forces. Almost all of Petty's staff, which once numbered nearly 100 employees, has been laid off, and only Vice President Robbie Loomis and King Richard himself are guaranteed a role in the new "combined" organization.
That doesn't sound like a team that's hiring the personnel necessary to grow: and with Reed Sorenson and Kasey Kahne under contract, Gillett's interest in Allmendinger was all that was needed for him to unceremoniously kick out Sadler, the pick of former co-owner Ray Evernham. That's right, former co-owner: no longer involved in the day-to-day decisions of the operation. The man who spearheaded Dodge's return to the sport in 2001 is now taking a step back from ownership to pursue his TV career with ESPN and fix up his newest purchase -- a small dirt track known as East Lincoln Speedway in North Carolina.
So, long story short, there's still a lot of variables at play here. There are only two words to describe the short-term future of the organization: stay tuned.
2. Will there be homes for any of the other free agents on the market?
For those questioning why Sadler would file a lawsuit to try and get back with an owner who clearly doesn't want him, take a quick look around the garage. In one of the worst driver job markets in years, there's just one guaranteed full-time ride left available for 2009 -- and no openings that have guaranteed sponsorship for all 36 races.
Because of that, veteran drivers like Scott Riggs, Joe Nemechek, Kyle Petty, Jeremy Mayfield and Tony Raines are simply out of luck -- there's no place for them to land, with a tough economy keeping both sponsorship and car count at their lowest in several years. Bobby Labonte, the 2000 Cup champion, might be the only one to squeak through; sources label him the front-runner for Earnhardt Ganassi's No. 41 car, the lone empty seat mentioned above that would fill out the four-car roster of that organization.
And as for everybody else? They may need to resort to J.J. Yeley-like methods of trying to sell sponsorship for themselves on eBay. Because barring a series of last minute miracles, they'll all be watching from the sidelines to start off 2009. And with many of the drivers mentioned above in the 35-or-older crowd, you wonder if the current shift towards younger and hipper may leave them on the outside looking in for good.
3. Will the Cup Series be able to fill a 43-car field at Daytona ... and beyond?
Along those same lines, a drop in car count leaves questions as to whether NASCAR will be capable of filling its 43-car field each week. The Daytona 500 appears to be OK, with about 47 or 48 tentative entries. But it's the next week, at California and beyond, which scares observers. Right now there's expected to be only 37 full-time teams, forcing the sport to rely on part-time owners and independents to fill out the starting lineup. There's been some late movement towards new ownership, with Tommy Baldwin and Derrike Cope among those announcing initiatives to attempt the first five races of 2009.
Still, with California a 3,000-mile trek just one week after the Daytona 500, it's an expensive bill for any team yet to acquire full sponsorship for the season. Unless a few more cars step up to the plate, that event is in position to give NASCAR its first short field since a team closure led to a 42-car race at Loudon, New Hampshire, for the final Cup event of 2001. And when you talk about NASCAR's other top series -- the Nationwide and Camping World Truck divisions -- the forecast is even worse. Only 30 trucks could show up for the season opener at Daytona, and expect the Nationwide fields to continue with up to 10 "start and parkers" each week -- cars who qualify but then pull off the track after a lap or two simply to collect some purse money.
4. Will teams follow the new testing policy?
Usually, January would come ripe with news of cars on the track down in Daytona, preparing for the 51st annual Great American Race. But on Jan. 1, an unprecedented testing ban went into effect, barring teams from practicing on any NASCAR-sanctioned track that hosts a race for Sprint Cup, Nationwide, the Camping World Truck Series, or even some of the sport's other, smaller divisions.
The goal of such a wide-ranging policy was to level the playing field, keeping the larger teams with money to spend from widening the knowledge gap on their small-market counterparts. But where there's a rule, there's a loophole, and concerns remain that the "Big Four" of Hendrick, Childress, Roush, and Gibbs will still travel all over the country, seeking out any backwoods track without a NASCAR affiliation in hopes of gathering any information they can. In that battle, it looks like the ability to purchase tires will be key: can Goodyear keep teams from getting what they need to gather information? There needs to be a firm lockdown on fresh rubber until Daytona.
Just keep an eye out for any of the big teams to make a "first move." After getting burned in Car of Tomorrow preparation early on by Hendrick Motorsports, teams like Roush Fenway won't fall behind again should one organization find a way to circumvent this policy. If one leads, the rest will follow ... and that would be disastrous in NASCAR's ongoing quest to cap spending costs.