With the sports world going crazy over the news of NBA free agents striking it rich this week, it’s a good time to take a look at some of the blockbuster NASCAR free-agent signings of this century.
Unlike other major sports, the dollars and terms of driver deals are not public information, so we don’t exactly who makes how much money.
Still, there have been some huge surprises over the years.
Here are the seven most-shocking NASCAR free-agent signings since 2000.
7. MARK MARTIN TO GINN RACING — After a highly productive career at Roush Fenway Racing, the NASCAR Hall of Fame driver planned to retire after the 2005 season concluded. But team owner Jack Roush convinced Martin to stay through ’06. Then, Martin made a surprise announcement that he would drive a part-time schedule for Bobby Ginn in 2007 and beyond. No front-line driver since maybe David Pearson raced part-time. Martin went back to full-time racing two years later, when he drove for Rick Hendrick and finished second in points.
6. KEVIN HARVICK TO STEWART-HAAS RACING — After Harvick replaced the late Dale Earnhardt just a week after his death, it seemed as though Harvick would be a lifer at Richard Childress Racing. Not so. Prior to the running of the penultimate race of 2012 at Phoenix, Harvick disclosed that he would move to SHR for 2014. And he has enjoyed phenomenal success there, winning the ’14 title and finishing second last season.
5. MICHAEL WALTRIP TO DEI — From 1985 to 2000, Michael Waltrip competed in 462 NASCAR Premier Series points races without a single victory. So it was definitely a shock when Dale Earnhardt signed Waltrip to drive for Dale Earnhardt Inc. Damned if Waltrip didn’t win his first points race with the team, the 2001 Daytona 500. Unfortunately, his friend and boss died in that same race.
4. JUAN PABLO MONTOYA TO GANASSI — A past Indianapolis 500 winner, Montoya was driving Formula One for McLaren at the start of 2006. But at the Chicagoland race in July, car owner Chip Ganassi made the stunning announcement that Montoya was coming to NASCAR for ’07.
3. TONY STEWART TO STEWART-HAAS RACING — After 10 years and two championships driving for Joe Gibbs, Stewart made the surprise move to join forces with Gene Haas in 2009 as a co-owner/driver in a deal brokered by Rick Hendrick. Stewart won a third driver title in 2011 and added an owner title with Harvick three years later.
2. DALE EARNHARDT JR. TO HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS — Jaws hit the floor in the spring of 2007, when Earnhardt announced he was leaving the team his father started from scratch. But the driver and step-mother Teresa Earnhardt had deep disagreement about how Dale Earnhardt Inc. should be run. After Junior left, it wasn’t long before DEI’s NASCAR operation ceased as a standalone team.
1. KURT BUSCH TO TEAM PENSKE — In 2004, Busch won the championship driving for Jack Roush. But by the summer of 2005, he announced he was leaving to join Team Penske. At the time, it was unthinkable to leave a team that had just won consecutive championships for one that hadn’t won any, but the Penske name was a strong lure for Busch, who was tabbed to replace Rusty Wallace in the famed Blue Deuce.