Sizing up NASCAR's teams during Silly Season
Joe Gibbs Racing is the most stable team, with only Hamlin's future uncertain
There could be major changes for Roush Fenway if they can't end their drought
With no drivers under contract for 2011, RPM's NASCAR future is uncertain
With the NBA's free agent frenzy dominating the headlines, it seems a good time to revisit NASCAR's own Silly Season. This year has been quieter than most, with many top drivers choosing to stay with their current teams rather than risk a move during a rocky economic time for the sport.
But as the series hits the halfway point this weekend, plenty of questions still remain concerning 2011 -- most of them on the sponsorship front. Let's take a look, team-by-team, at the big issues left unresolved and where they stand:
Drivers Under Contract For '11: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne (with another team)
Outlook: The Hendrick organization appears stable behind the wheel, with all drivers signed through at least 2012 and Kahne hired as Martin's eventual replacement. The question mark is sponsorship for Gordon. His DuPont contract expires after this season, and virtually the only thing we know is the company won't be on the car for all 36 races next year. Who's pairing up with the team is anybody's guess: I hear everything from Mobil 1, to Wal-Mart, to even Pepsi depending on the day and the person.
Chances are at least two of those sponsors will head Hendrick's way, as where Kahne lands will need funding to remain competitive for the year he's in the driver's seat. There's also the issue of Martin's future; he'll remain in the No. 5 car, but might have possible ownership opportunities come his way with the Kahne deal. That was supposed to be finished this month, but getting the financials on the No. 24 squared away appears to be a higher priority. Once that's resolved, expect the rest to fall into place rather quickly.
Drivers Under Contract For '11: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin?
Outlook: Easily the most stable of all organizations heading into the summer. Hamlin's the only one whose deal is in question, but even with no public extension announced, trust me, he's not going anywhere. Gibbs has dabbled with the idea of starting a fourth team, but won't do it unless the right driver/sponsor combination comes along. With all big free agents off the market and none of their up-and-coming talent ready, Gibbs is happy to remain successful with what it already has -- Busch and Hamlin could be Hendrick's biggest threats to end Johnson's champ
Outlook: Harvick's contract proved the biggest hurdle for this three-car team to overcome. Now, the No. 29 just needs a sponsor. Budweiser is the No. 1 candidate, but nothing's been signed as the beer company mulls the future of the brand. Remember, 26-year-old Brad Keselowski is taking over the Miller Lite reins next year. Is Harvick, 35 in December, too old to market to an 18-34 demographic?
With that said, at this point it'd be a shock to see Budweiser go anywhere else. Whether Harvick or 31-year-old Clint Bowyer gets the nod, switching the Cheerios sponsorship to the No. 29, this team is in position to remain intact with funding to stay competitive for 2011.
Drivers Under Contract For '11: Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, David Ragan
Outlook: The plot's been thickening here as of late. During a winless season in Cup, Roush has repeatedly stood behind his Big Three (Edwards, Biffle and Kenseth), blaming their problems on some simulation engineering issues in the shop. But if a year's worth of struggles continue, expect a major internal overhaul in the offseason. Bob Osborne and Greg Erwin, crew chiefs for Edwards and Biffle, could get reassigned as GM Robbie Reiser returns atop Kenseth's pit box. With the possible dissolution of Richard Petty Motorsports (we'll get to that in a minute), RPM GM Robbie Loomis could take Reiser's place, reorganizing a team in dire need of a personnel shakeup.
And then there's the issue of Ragan. Roush Fenway has repeatedly claimed he's back in the No. 6 car for 2011, finishing out his contract despite an ugly track record: three top-10 finishes in the last year-and-a-half. Sources claim sponsor UPS is unhappy, but there's conflicting reports as to how much, really, they can do about it. Multiple sources have told me their contract is near-impossible to wriggle out of, but there's some ugly limitations for Roush, too. One source told me he's prevented from making a driver change, forcing him to keep Ragan in the seat amidst fears the delivery company will trigger an option-out clause without a big-name free agent to replace him.
Drivers Under Contract For '11: Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Sam Hornish, Jr.
Outlook: Penske's first two teams are set next year, Shell/Pennzoil backing Busch while Miller Lite moves over to a younger, supposedly hipper Keselowski. Now, the questions surround unsponsored and continually struggling Sam Hornish Jr. Having clearly regressed this season, the IndyCar convert has yet to score a top-10 finish or secure a new primary sponsor with Mobil 1 headed out the door. Both driver and owner say they're publicly resisting temptation to throw up the white flag, sending Hornish back into an open-wheel series where he's both an Indy 500 and overall series champ. But you've got to think it's only a matter of time before they cave ... right? Especially with Nationwide driver Justin Allgaier waiting in the wings -- he's got a win under his belt in that series this year -- it's becoming impossible to justify keeping Hornish in the seat.
Drivers Under Contract For '11: Martin Truex Jr., David Reutimann, Marcos Ambrose (JTG)
Outlook: A hallmark of stability heading into next season, MWR can build on momentum started by Truex and his whiz of a crew chief Pat Tryson. Teammate David Reutimann just signed a long-term extension, leaving all drivers and sponsors in place heading to 2011 and beyond. It's an impressive move by this growing program, being able to keep a core group intact despite never putting a driver in the Chase during their four-year existence.
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