As Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch get set to change garages, NASCAR is entering a new era of superpowers
It's an old story in pro sports: Rich teams flourish with free agency, poor teams flounder (at least until a salary cap is introduced). NASCAR is no different, as the two deep-pocketed juggernauts of the sport, Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, have emerged as the big winners in the 2008 free-agency sweepstakes.
Last week the final elite domino fell when Kyle Busch signed a three-year contract with Gibbs, for whom he'll replace the underperforming J.J. Yeley in the number 18 car next season. The 22-year-old Busch, who has spent his first three full seasons of Cup racing at Hendrick, will team with Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin to give Gibbs three drivers capable of winning the championship in '08. Hendrick, meanwhile, has signed Dale Earnhardt Jr. to team with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, giving the team the most star-studded lineup in Cup history.
Forecasting how all these moves will affect the title race both this year and next is tricky, though. According to several NASCAR sources, Gibbs Racing is on the verge of switching its manufacturing support from Chevrolet to Toyota. If JGR does make the switch, its drivers and crew chiefs will have to solve the handling and horsepower problems that have afflicted the fleet of Toyota Camrys in '07—problems that will likely translate into a slow start for Busch & Co. next season.
Toyota has struggled mightily in its first season of Cup racing. None of the seven drivers racing Camrys are in the top 30 in points, and the automaker's flagship team, Michael Waltrip Racing, has been among the biggest disappointments, picking up a single top 10 finish in the first 22 races. It has become clear to Toyota officials that the only way they're going to be consistently competitive in the Cup series is to be affiliated with an established, topflight team, such as Gibbs.
But if anyone thinks Busch's lame-duck status will hurt Hendrick in the '07 Cup race, guess again. Busch desperately wants to do well to prove that Rick Hendrick, who has been almost a father figure to him, made a mistake in letting him go. Also, Busch's crew chief, Alan Gustafson, is auditioning for a crew chief job next season at Hendrick, which means that for the final 14 races of the season he'll be as driven as anyone in the garage to find speed. "We have our different reasons, but Kyle and I are as motivated to win races as we've ever been," says Gustafson. "The stakes are high for both of us."
Earnhardt—currently 14th in points and a long shot to make the Chase—is also a lame duck, but his decision to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. has been a boon to teammate Martin Truex Jr., who was 11th in the standings at week's end and is poised to be a serious player in the NASCAR playoffs. Since he's now DEI's No. 1 driver, he's getting the kind of preferential treatment once given to Earnhardt as the entire organization pours every available resource into his cars.
But Little E will no doubt be back in the lead pack in '08. After all, the powerhouses of Hendrick and Gibbs have combined to win 14 of the first 22 races this season, and it doesn't look like any other team in the garage will be catching either of them anytime soon.
ONLY AT SI.COM Lars Anderson's Cup analysis every Tuesday and Friday.