Several top drivers in contract year

Top NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers are in contract years in 2011, including Carl Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya, Greg Biffle, Brian Vickers, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman

Silly Season will be in overdrive in 2011.

Some of NASCAR’s top drivers – and their sponsors – have contracts expiring at the end of this year.

The most desirable drivers are both marketable to sponsors and talented on the racetrack.

Given the economic conditions at the time, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch didn’t find the free-agent market to be that friendly in 2010. Both alpha drivers opted to remain with their current teams

This year‘s market appears to be on an upswing, although some current sponsors are looking to renegotiate deals. A driver with the total package can help an organization in every possible way.

Here are the drivers we’ll be tracking this season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is NASCAR’s Most Popular with fans, but Carl Edwards could walk into just about any situation – or boardroom – and be perfectly comfortable. Couple Edwards' marketability with his consistency, and it’s a win-win for owners and sponsors alike.

Edwards' racing career took at dramatic turn at Daytona in 2004. After he won the Truck race, team owner Jack Roush offered an impromptu declaration that Edwards would be his next Cup driver. Six months later, Edwards was behind the wheel of the No. 99 Ford.

In six full seasons on the tour, Edwards has qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup five times. In 229 starts, Edwards has posted 18 wins, 70 top fives, 118 top 10s and seven pole positions.

Although racing is cyclical and Rousch Fenway Racing’s program turned around at the end of last season, Edwards, 31, wants to win championships and that’s the criteria on which he’ll base his final decision. Throughout the inconsistencies with the RSR equipment, Edwards soldiered on.

Insiders claim Edwards is Roush’s favorite driver. However, after the last round of negotiations, Roush doubted he could afford Edwards’ next contract. Those who are close to Edwards believe that winning is far more important to the driver than the paycheck. For now, Roush says he’ll leave the contracts up to his business team.

Rumors circulated last summer that Edwards toured Penske Racing. Whether Penske can provide an environment that’s competitive enough for Edwards remains to be seen. What Penske can provide is a solid business-to-business relationship for Aflac, Edwards’ current sponsor.

Before Edwards contemplates leaving Roush, he must decide whether a new team would provide him with the tools to win titles and, if so, where would he be in the order of the organization? The grass is not always greener.

Richard Childress could hardly contain his excitement when he first discovered Clint Bowyer back in 2004. Although there were hiccups during the last round of negotiations, Bowyer and Childress have built a solid relationship over the past seven years and remain on solid ground.

Bowyer is cut from the RCR mold. He doesn’t give an inch on the track and remains one of the least pretentious racers on the Sprint Cup tour.

After five seasons under the Childress banner, Bowyer has qualified for three Chase runs. In the most recent postseason contest, Bowyer battled back from a 150-point deficit following a NASCAR penalty to 10th place. The performance is a testament to his resolve.

If there’s a weakness with Bowyer’s program, it’s closing the deal. In 181 starts, Bowyer, 31, can boast only four wins. Last year was the first season in Cup that Bowyer scored multiple wins.

Bowyer would make a solid addition to any driver roster. Although The Hartford sponsorship opted out this season, Bowyer is extremely marketable. It’s not surprising that other owners have shown an interest in him. But he’s best suited in his current situation.

Following a tumultuous final season in Formula One, Juan Pablo Montoya came to NASCAR looking for a new start in 2006.

He found it through his reunion with Chip Ganassi.

After three crew chiefs, Montoya settled down with Brian Pattie in 2008. The following season, Montoya qualified for his first Chase and came close to winning his first oval race at the Brickyard, where he won the Indianapolis 500 in 2000. Last year at Watkins Glen International, Montoya earned his second career Cup victory. But he lacked the consistency to make the Chase.

Two seasons ago, Montoya’s name was mentioned as a possible candidate for Tony Stewart’s replacement at Joe Gibbs Racing. Shortly thereafter, Joey Logano filled the seat and Montoya settled in at Ganassi.

At 35, Montoya still has a lot to prove in a stock car. During the Rolex 24 last weekend, Montoya’s co-owner Felix Sabates said the driver wasn’t “going anywhere” and he expects the deal to be completed soon. For Montoya, there’s no place like home.

Greg Biffle delivered Roush Fenway Racing championships in the both the Nationwide and Truck series before graduating to Cup in 2003. For the past eight years, Biffle has campaigned full time on the Cup tour. He has posted at least one win in all but one season.

His best points finish in Cup was second in 2005, when he posted a career-high six wins. Although Biffle missed the Chase the next two season, he has not finished worse than seventh in the points standings since. In 294 starts, Biffle has a respectable 16 wins.

At 41, Biffle will likely finish his career at Roush Fenway Racing. As the boss said, with a new addition on the way (wife Nicole is expecting in July) there’s incentive for a consistent paycheck.

Jeff Burton was Dale Earnhardt’s choice to succeed him in the No. 3 Chevrolet. Although that day came earlier than expected, Burton found his way to RCR three years later and revived his career.

At 43, Burton has grown into the elder statesman role at RCR. He is often the catalyst for change with his ability to identify weaknesses and provide solutions.

Burton has amassed 21 victories in 583 races, but only six of those wins have been earned in the past decade. Still, Burton remains consistent and Caterpillar appears pleased. He has qualified for four of the past five Chases. And if anyone questions his fight, just cue up the highlights from Texas Motor Speedway in November when Burton literally went toe to toe with Jeff Gordon.

Expect Burton to remain at RCR. It would not be surprising to find Burton in a management role when he decides to hang his helmet. After all, the next generation of Burton’s -- Harrison -- will be waiting in the wings.

Ryan Newman showed tremendous promise during his first four seasons at Penske Racing where he never finished worse than seventh in the points standings.

In his last three years at Penske Racing, Newman won just one race -- the 2008 Daytona 500 -- and moved to the newly founded Stewart-Haas Racing the following year.

Since NASCAR introduced the new-model car in 2007, Newman has won only two races and qualified for one Chase. Certainly, four DNFs in the first 18 races last year created a points deficit for Newman that was difficult to overcome.

While Newman continues to post poles and maintains an average qualifying position of 11th, at 33, he needs to develop more consistency throughout the races. With the Hendrick alliance at SHR, there should be no excuses.

Sponsorship continues to be problematic for the No. 39 team, and chances are the military branches will pull back in 2012. Newman will have to pick up his performance considerably in 2011, not only to attract benefactors but to maintain his status at SHR.

Brian Vickers, 27, won just one race at Hendrick Motorsports before joining upstart Red Bull Racing in 2007. With a new team and a new Cup manufacturer -- Toyota -- Vickers missed races for the first time in his NASCAR career.

It took three seasons -- and new management -- to right the ship. Vickers finally won a race and qualified for the Chase in 2009. Certainly, his earlier body of work at Red Bull should be judged accordingly.

Then last year, Vickers' career was disrupted again with medical issues. Vickers was sidelined last season after being diagnosed with blood clots in May. With a clean bill of health, Vickers is ready to roll again at Red Bull Racing.

Despite Vickers’ medical condition, he remained physically active during his absence from racing and feels he’s in the best shape of his life. With Kasey Kahne as a teammate, Vickers should have the most competitive environment to race in since he left Hendrick Motorsports.

While Vickers exemplifies the Red Bull athlete, time will tell whether he’s 100 percent behind the wheel. Chances are team owners will be guarded before long-term commitments are made.

After last spring’s highly publicized signing of Kasey Kahne at Hendrick Motorsports for 2012, it became apparent that Mark Martin would be the odd man out.

Still, Martin made it clear on the media tour last month that he’s not ready to retire.

After a solid 19 seasons with Roush, Martin split the last four years between the now-defunct Ginn Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. That didn’t stop Martin from winning. Behind the wheel of the No. 5 Chevrolet, Martin vaulted that team to second in the points standings, its best run since Terry Labonte won the title in 1996.

At 52, Martin shows no signs of slowing down. While it won’t be surprising to find Martin in a Cup ride in 2012, there are rumors he will compete for the Nationwide title.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated that David Ragan was a free agent after this season. According to Roush Fenway Racing, the UPS sponsorship is up at the end of 2011, however, Ragan's contract extends throught 2014.

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