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NASCAR silly season is far from over in 2010
Jamie McMurray learned the hard way that the grass is not always greener on the campus of a NASCAR powerhouse during his four seasons with Jack Roush.
Now, reunited with Chip Ganassi at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, McMurray is enjoying the benefits of a boutique stock car operation with unlimited potential and tentacles that reach across several motorsports fields.
While there aren’t many opportunities similar to the Earnhardt Ganassi situation, McMurray could still provide the perfect sounding board to drivers anticipating their next moves.
Certainly, every driver’s situation is different. Some are on their way up. Others are on their way out. And a few lucky drivers have the luxury of both talent and sponsorship money to offer potential owners -- though the latter category is relatively rare.
The forecast for the 2010 silly season was expected to be off the chain. So far, the pundits have been proven right.
Both Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick elected to stay with their current employers. These veterans are enjoying successful seasons and would have been hard-pressed to find better opportunities elsewhere.
That’s not the case for Kasey Kahne. He has seven seasons in the No. 9 car, but Kahne’s recent performance has been spotty at best. Since Ray Evernham relinquished power of his organization to George Gillett, the lack of stability that Kahne has experienced has provided plenty of tabloid fodder. Kahne’s current situation with Richard Petty Motorsports, which a fellow NASCAR team principal referred to as “a house of cards,” made his decision to jump to Hendrick Motorsports less personal. Any emotional ties Kahne once had to the No. 9 team have long since evaporated.
The marquee names have set plans in place, but there are plenty of loose ends to tie up.
What happens now?
Kahne’s announcement to join Hendrick Motorsports last month came as a bit of a surprise since there was “no room at the inn,” as team owner Rick Hendrick once categorized a former roster. Last weekend, Stewart-Haas Racing GM Bobby Hutchens said there were no plans for a third team. Kahne will likely be in the No. 5 car at HMS next season. UPS has been mentioned as a possible sponsor.
Since four-time champions Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are Hendrick lifers, that leaves Mark Martin or Dale Earnhardt Jr., as candidates to be the “odd man out.” Martin insists he’s not leaving. If that’s indeed the case, Martin, 51, could move to the No. 25 car in order to accommodate Kahne, 30, the future of HMS. If Martin leaves, look for him to join his buddy Jay Frye at Red Bull Racing or finish his career by reuniting with longtime owner Jack Roush.
Earnhardt’s situation is more complicated since he’s known as NASCAR’s “Franchise.” There’s no positive spin that could possibly be used to gloss over the premature termination of this partnership, regardless of how miserably the experiment has failed. The pressure of his current situation -- where the performance of his three teammates completely overshadows his accomplishments -- has been crippling to the development of the No. 88 team. But would the burden be any less suffocating at JR Motorsports, where Earnhardt, 35, would be liable for not only signing the checks, but also performing behind the wheel?
At Richard Childress Racing, Earnhardt would have the support of many of the same racers that were instrumental in championing his father’s career for 16 seasons. Earnhardt could find the comfort zone that has been missing at the Hendrick camp at RCR. With the organization’s resurgence, Earnhardt would have competitive equipment to stage a much-needed comeback.
The house of cards
The most precarious situation in the garage right now is Richard Petty Motorsports – and the problem is two-fold. RPM is a client of Roush Fenway Racing and Roush Yates Engines. Should RPM tank, not only would RFR lose a sizeable chunk of business, but the Richard Petty brand would suffer as well.
Where the drivers and sponsors are concerned, everything is up for renewal. Kahne has already served notice, and Budweiser appears headed to RCR.
AJ Allmendinger, who has survived the instability that is RPM, wasn’t even contacted by management regarding his contract until Kahne’s move to Hendrick became public. Allmendinger has potential but lacks a pit crew that can maintain his position on the racetrack and chemistry with his crew chief that enables the pair to close the deal. Unless Allmendinger is offered a more competitive package at RPM (maybe the current No. 9 crew?) he should consider his options – whether that’s the No. 6 team with Roush or something outside of the Ford camp.
Paul Menard can write his own ticket since his sponsorship resides in his pocket. But given the progress that Menard has made as a driver with crew chief Slugger Labbe, it would be a shame to split up this partnership. Menard not only posted the best result (eighth) for the RPM camp Sunday night at Charlotte, but he was the top Ford finisher as well.
Elliott Sadler’s best finish this season was 18th at Texas. His record boasts three top 20 finishes in 13 starts. Last season’s average finish was 23.9. Sadler qualified for the Chase just once – in 2004 – the same year as his last Cup win. Sadler is an extremely popular driver. However, at 35, his best years are behind him.
RPM promised Ford Motorsports a big-name driver to replace Kahne. Although it was rumored there were talks between RPM and Kevin Harvick, the current points leader made his plans official last week. Marcos Ambrose and David Reutimann have also been mentioned as possibilities, but Ambrose has another year remaining on his contract, and management at Michael Waltrip Racing is confident Reutimann will re-sign with the team. The performance at RPM would have to change dramatically to attract the caliber of driver who could make a significant difference for that company. Without an infusion of cash, that's unlikely to happen.