These drivers are still on the market

Carl Edwards appears relieved to have his plans finalized to continue with the No. 99 Ford for the future.

It was clear that his main objective — to race for a championship-caliber organization — has been realized.

Considering that Edwards leads the Sprint Cup point standings, he didn’t have to look very far.

“I’m just excited to move forward,” Edwards said. “This team is in a position that we’ve never been in before. We feel that we’re fast for the right reasons, and we have the opportunity to go out here and win this championship, so I’m glad this is behind us.”

Jack Roush acknowledged that he endured his share of “some sleepless nights,” but on Friday he said: “Words can’t describe how happy all of Roush Fenway is to . . . have (Edwards) agree for 2012 and beyond to extend his association with us.”

Now that the Edwards sweepstakes has ended with Ford and Roush Fenway Racing secured its franchise Sprint Cup driver, who’s left on the free-agent market?

Here are the top prospects:

1) Clint Bowyer — Bowyer said his plan all along is to remain in the No. 33 Chevrolet at Richard Childress Racing.

“We’re working on it,” Bowyer said Friday. “That is the biggest thing as far as contract stuff. I feel like we are getting close and we are working on it, and hopefully we’ll have that done.

“But right now, I’m not worried about that at all. I’m worried about getting this thing back in the Chase and taking care of business on the race track. Those two DNFs in a row killed us. That took us from seventh-eighth in points to 12th, outside looking in.”

Childress has made Bowyer an offer and reiterated Friday that “it’s in his hands.”

Certainly, qualifying for the Chase for the Championship would only enhance Bowyer’s marketability when it comes to attracting sponsorship. One sponsor that has been mentioned as a possible primary sponsor replacement is 5-hour ENERGY for the No. 33 Chevrolet, as General Mills is expected to cut back its involvement.

At 31, Bowyer has plenty of blue sky ahead of him and has yet to reach his performance peak. Unless Joe Gibbs Racing elects to make a change with the No. 20 car or Jack Roush shifts plans with the No. 6 Ford, any move for Bowyer right now would be a step down.

2) Brian Vickers — Regardless of Red Bull Racing’s status for 2012, Vickers’ contract was up at the end of this season.

But no one is talking about Vickers, who is 27th in points and was sidelined for most of last season with blood clots. Prior to his illness, he won just one race since he moved to Red Bull and made one Chase berth.

Vickers, 27, has been mentioned as a possible candidate at Michael Waltrip Racing —but not by any of the top principals at that organization.

3) Mark Martin — Martin, 52, remains one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR. But in his final season with Hendrick Motorsports, he’s 18th in the point standings.

With 16 races remaining in the season, Martin’s name has not been mentioned much in Cup circles other than by Red Bull as a possible mentor to Cole Whitt.

On the Nationwide side, two teams that have been suggested is Kyle Busch Motorsports — should Busch move in that direction — and JRMotorsports as a driver/adviser to Danica Patrick.

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. was asked about Martin, he replied, “We can’t consider adding to our program without money. And money is tight.”

However, Earnhardt admits that Martin as a driving teacher is “awesome.”

“He’s mentored me my entire career, and I can’t count on both hands how many drivers he’s helped and he continues to help today,” Earnhardt said. “He does it just out of his own free will. He just enjoys racing and he enjoys helping people get better. He likes to see his advice go to work and prove people on the race track, and he’s been doing that for years.”

4) Danica Patrick — Nothing official has leaked from the Patrick camp, but multiple sources say a deal has been crafted at JRM that includes a full season in the Nationwide Series next season.

On Friday, Earnhardt said he had “nothing new to report” on her contract talks, but added he wasn’t “in the middle of it.”

“I guess they’re still moving forward,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t know nothing that I didn’t know last week.”

One scenario had Patrick running the full Nationwide Series in 2012, plus a limited Sprint Cup schedule with Stewart Haas Racing. On Friday, however, Tony Stewart said, “I’ve heard all kinds of stuff, (but) can’t say anything.”

Despite General Motors returning to IndyCar next season, it is unclear whether Patrick would compete in the Indy 500 despite the lack of a conflict with Nationwide racing, as Saturday is an off-day during the Memorial Day weekend.

During the Indy 500 weekend, Patrick said the ability to compete in the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” would not ultimately affect her decision to come to NASCAR.

Patrick added, “I don’t have a date set when a decision and some kind of announcement is necessary. There’s no way to know really how quickly or slowly these things come together. It sounds like a cop-out, but as long as it’s before the season starts next year — no matter what I do — it will allow me to do the kind of testing I need to prepare for the year. That’s all that really matters.”