NASCAR

Lack of sponsorship dims excitement of silly season

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Jamie McMurray might be the unluckiest guy in the Sprint Cup garage right now. Or he might be the luckiest, depending on your point of view. McMurray is losing his current ride at Roush Fenway Racing as the odd-man out when the organization must cut back from five to four Cup teams next year under NASCAR rules. McMurray's sponsor, Crown Royal, is moving to Matt Kenseth's Roush team (though it is cutting its support to half a season). Roush is trying to find sponsorship to move McMurray to Yates Racing, its affiliate team, but that is unlikely and not necessarily a good option for McMurray. All of this is not much of a surprise, of course, because McMurray has been one of the sport's top underachievers during four years with Roush. He has won one race but has never finished better than 16th in points and is 20th this season. With very few rides or new sponsors available, McMurray appears to have one solid option — returning to team owner Chip Ganassi and his reorganized Earnhardt Ganassi team. McMurray was brought to the Cup Series by Ganassi and spent three full seasons with his organization, winning once and challenging for a spot in the Chase all three years before jumping to Roush. It is highly unusual, however, for a driver to return to an organization that he left for greener pastures.

But in today's current economic climate, drivers and teams don't have many options. Desperate times call for desperate measures, as they say, and for some, these are desperate times indeed. Typically, this is one of the busiest times of the year for drivers and teams looking to make moves for next season. Commonly known as silly season, it is the time of year when there is a flurry of activity, with numerous drivers, teams and sponsors announcing new plans and new deals for next year. Silly season typically cranks up in April, with rumors of potential moves and deals spreading through the garage like wildfire. August and September are usually when those deals are wrapped up and formally announced. Not this year. Not in these tough economic times, when new sponsors are scarce, many are leaving or cutting back and drivers are in danger of losing their rides with few options for finding new ones. There are no big-name drivers available in the free-agent market this year, and that is probably a good thing. Instead, teams are looking ahead to next year when drivers like Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick potentially could be available. As a result, none of the top teams have openings for next year, which is a good thing because sponsors are much more difficult to find right now than drivers. Hendrick Motorsports is looking for sponsors for Mark Martin for next year, and Roush needs additional sponsorship for Kenseth. So do Stewart-Haas Racing and Ryan Newman. Those drivers and teams have a better-than-average shot of finding sponsorship. Hendrick and Roush have had little trouble finding sponsors in recent years, and Stewart-Haas shouldn't have much of a problem with the success they have had this season. Many other teams may not be so lucky, however, possibly leaving several veteran drivers scrambling for rides. Martin Truex Jr. is the only free-agent driver who has signed a new contract so far, announcing plans to leave Earnhardt Ganassi to replace Michael Waltrip at Michael Waltrip Racing. Truex has to be considered one of the smartest and luckiest drivers in the garage right now. He is leaving a team with limited sponsorship for one that is fully backed for next season. McMurray, meanwhile, looks to be headed to Earnhardt Ganassi to replace Truex in the team's No. 1 car. Bass Pro Shops returns as a partial sponsor for next year, but the team still needs additional sponsors. Other drivers in danger of losing their rides might not be so lucky. Reed Sorenson could be the odd-man out at Richard Petty Motorsports if the team cuts back from four to three teams, which it may have to do if additional sponsors aren't found. RPM has three sponsors returning next year — Budweiser with Kasey Kahne and Best Buy and Stanley Tools, which have backed Elliott Sadler this year. But AJ Allmendinger's team has had only limited sponsorship this season, and Petty already swapped the crews of Sorenson and Allmendinger this week. Petty has already re-signed Allmendinger for next year, and Sadler is supposedly under contract. Sorenson says he thought he was, too, but might now be in danger. Bobby Labonte, meanwhile, has just a one-year deal with Hall of Fame Racing, and his sponsor Ask.com is reportedly looking at other teams for next year. At 45, Labonte might have trouble finding a new ride. Casey Mears, meanwhile, has a contract for next year with Richard Childress Racing, but that could be in jeopardy if sponsor Jack Daniels leaves. The company is in renewal talks with RCR but is also reportedly talking to other teams.

Brian Vickers has a verbal agreement to return to Red Bull Racing but no signed contract yet. Young Brad Keselowski, who scored an upset victory at Talladega this year, appears to be in high demand for any team with an opening. Of course, that team must first find a sponsor. And there are a host of former full-time drivers who have been barely hanging on all season and are hoping to land a more secure situation for next season — David Gilliland, Joe Nemechek, Dave Blaney, Aric Almirola, Scott Riggs, Tony Raines, Regan Smith and Travis Kvapil. They all have one thing in common — teams with limited or no sponsorship. In the end, McMurray and Truex might wind up being the only drivers to switch rides for next season, making it one of the most uneventful silly seasons in recent years. The rest are just hoping to hang onto their current ride and hoping their sponsor doesn't leave. With the economy taking its toll on the sport and sponsors hard to find, that is yet another sign of these difficult times.


Jeff Owens is a writer for NASCAR Scene, which is published weekly, 46 weeks per year. Visit www.scenedaily.com for more information.

Tagged: Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Scott Riggs, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler, Dave Blaney, Travis Kvapil, Aric Almirola, Mark Martin, Michael Waltrip, Joe Nemechek, Jamie McMurray, Regan Smith, Brad Keselowski, Tony Raines, David Gilliland, AJ Allmendinger

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