Who’s a good candidate to replace car czar Darby?

Competitors were stunned at the news that NASCAR was searching for a replacement for Sprint Cup Series director John Darby.

Reports surfaced early Tuesday that Darby, an extremely popular official who has been with the sanctioning body for the last two decades and Cup series chief since 2002, will be reassigned to a managerial role where he will oversee officials from NASCAR’s top three series.

Although Darby will be instrumental in bringing his replacement up to speed before assuming his new role, the timing is curious given the proposed changes with the car and on the racetrack.

NASCAR has spent the last two weeks meeting with team principals — but owners, drivers, GMs and crew chiefs were all caught off guard.

And despite word leaking out of Darby’s transfer two days before it was set to be announced when the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour rolls into the NASCAR Research and Development Center, no immediate replacement was named.

So who would be a good candidate for the top cop in NASCAR’s premiere series?

Matt Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion says, “Someone just like John Darby.”

The competitors echoed Kenseth’s sentiment. Darby is approachable. He’s fair. As a former track official he’s compassionate to the grassroots racer and still tries to maintain a level playing field as the trailers in the high-rent district of the garage try to outspend each other.

“John came in a time of change,” said Robbie Loomis, who was at Hendrick Motorsports when Darby was promoted and is now director of competition for Richard Petty Motorsports. “I think the world of John. He was a good firm hand but still kept order in the garage.

“As a crew chief I learned you have to be careful. Sometimes things seem real simple but you don’t realize that one small move can affect a lot of different people. The next guy that comes in has to worry about what’s going to put fans in the stands? We have to keep the excitement up, but you have to remember about safety.”

The last two Cup directors were both racers but from distinctly different backgrounds. When Gary Nelson took the job in 1992, the former crew chief had won at every track on the circuit and spent a short stint with as a TV analyst. NASCAR’s mentality at the time of Nelson’s hire was to retire one of the most creative crew chiefs in the garage who possessed the expertise to discover innovations. Although Darby was a racer, the majority of his professional life was spent in the officiating side of the sport.

As NASCAR looks to modernize its property, will it continue down a similar path with a current sanctioning body employee or look outside of the company for a fresh face?

Team owner Jack Roush would like to see an insider take over the position. Roush admits the man who takes over for Darby had better be able to master multitasking. One name he mentioned was Billy Berkheimer, a Darby disciple and NASCAR’s top template official.

“Darby is a great guy who has done a great job over the years for the Cup Series,” Roush said. “It’s hard to keep everybody happy and be fair and be consistent. But Billy Berkheimer would be a great choice. Of the people I have worked with there, he has much the same background and the same attributes as John to fill that role.”

Roush was “surprised” at the abrupt announcement of Darby‘s move. Roush was under the impression that a change was planned for 2012.

“There’s a number of people that I’m just not thinking of that have worked as inspectors or have been supervisors of inspectors in NASCAR, that would be my first choice,” Roush said. “I certainly can’t imagine them bringing in somebody from the outside. I can’t imagine that they’d do that. To advance somebody that’s already involved in the inspection process and to have Darby as the supervisor — if that worked out to be NASCAR’s choice — would be an ideal circumstance.”

One owner who spoke under anonymity because he was uncertain of the reasons behind Darby’s reassignment suggested Brett Bodine, NASCAR’s director of cost research, as the new car czar.

“He’s been an owner, a driver, he has an engineering degree and he has a lot of common sense,” said the team owner. “He understands the garage and would be a popular choice.”

But could the affable Bodine, 51, who joined the NASCAR ranks in 2004, be that tough cop laying down the law if necessary?

“When it comes to the intimidation factor, the director doesn’t necessarily have to be that guy,” the owner added. “You have (NASCAR president) Mike Helton to be that all-imposing figure.”

One candidate’s name that was buzzing around the teams Tuesday night was Larry Carter, the former Roush/Yates crew chief that was dismissed at the end of the 2009 season following the merger with Richard Petty Motorsports.

Carter, 47, is popular among his peers and well-respected in the garage. He worked in his uncle Travis Carter’s shop growing up and came to the sport full time in 1986. Carter worked at Penske Racing during Rusty Wallace’s retirement tour. In 2007, Carter’s best friend Donnie Wingo recommended him to Jamie McMurray for the crew chief’s position on the No. 26 Ford. Last season Carter worked with Paul Menard at Yates Racing.

Another candidate to consider: Nationwide Series director Joe Balash. The last time NASCAR chose a Cup Series director it looked to what was then known as the Busch Series. Could Balash be the obvious choice?

Balash "grew up in a two-bay gas station". After graduating from technical college balash trained mechanics then worked in the business sector. In 1999, ASA approached Balash to train crew chiefs about fuel injection. He was promoted to Technical Director of ASA before NASCAR asked if he was interested in overseeing the regional tours. Months later, Balash was named Series Director for the Nationwide Series.