Six Silly Season Dominoes That Are Ready To Fall
Thanks to Kevin Harvick's announcement in January that he would leave Richard Childress Racing, the 2013 silly season was fairly quiet in terms of future team moves. Normally teams would have already lined up drivers and sponsors for next year by mid-season. Despite ratings and attendance figures both inching up over the past year, teams continued to move slowly on plans for the following year.
In looking at six of the top free agents on the market, what stood out most is how likely most of those names are to be at the exact same place next year. Ryan Newman was definitely on the move and Harvick is already signed to take his place. But for the remaining big-time drivers on the market, it seems that for most the best available ride was the one they were currently in. Prior to a bold move by Stewart-Haas Racing, this was set to be the tamest Silly Season in recent memory.
Kurt Busch Will Be The First
1. Kurt Busch
Current Team: Furniture Row Racing
Current Primary Sponsor: Furniture Row
Chances of Coming Back: 50/50. Busch has provided Furniture Row with their best results in team history. For the most part he's let his driving do the talking and the message is clear; Busch is still one of the best wheelmen in the garage. It's also a huge benefit that the team sponsor is also the team owner. Getting one clear message from management (not to mention far fewer sponsor appearances) helps as well. The only drawback is that Busch remains a “checkers or wreckers” driver; he has seven finishes below 25th this year to go with his nine top tens.
Should he Come Back?: Absolutely. Since leaving Penske Racing at the end of 2011, Busch has been looking for a comparable Sprint Cup ride. He spoke well of “putting the fun back in” by driving for Phoenix but it was clear he was never happy there. He pushed their equipment far past its breaking point in an effort to be competitive. At Furniture Row he has the best of both worlds. He has a small team that can mold itself to his eccentricities yet he has access to resources only a small step below that of Hendrick. He's not getting a ride at Hendrick or Stewart-Haas.
Other 2014 Possibilities: Many have pointed to Richard Childress Racing as a possible landing spot for Busch. Their technical alliance with Furniture Rows means that the team is already familiar with Busch's ability to push a team during the week. Jeff Burton's performance in the 31 has simply not met expectations and with Harvick's defection to Stewart-Haas, RCR needs a veteran driver in its lineup. With Austin Dillon's likely move to Cup next season in the iconic #3, much of the media attention will focus on him early on. Busch has the ability to slide into a complimentary seat that's at least as fast as the one he's in now. The main question is whether or not there are sponsors out there willing to take the risk on Busch after his many previous meltdowns.
The Dinger is Definitely On The move
2. A.J. Allmendinger
Current Team: Phoenix Racing / JTG-Daugherty Racing
Current Primary Sponsor: (with JTG/D) Scott Products
Chances of Coming Back: Zero. Since James Finch sold Phoenix Racing, chances are high that the new owner already has a driver in mind for the car. Turner-Scott Motorsports has been rumored to be the buyer and they've had great success with Justin Allgaier on the Nationwide level. JTG-Daugherty doesn't seem a likely landing spot either; A.J. hasn't had much more luck than Bobby Labonte in the #47 so far.
Should he Come Back?: Probably not, unless the new owner is Roger Penske. New owners tend to want to stamp the operation with their seal of approval. Allmendinger will be perceived as a holdover from the Phoenix days. A.J. is better off seeing what else may be out there. It's not as if he's had major success in the #51.
Other 2014 Possibilities: Allmendinger has said and done all the right things after being re-instated by NASCAR. At the time of his drug suspension, he was settling into a solid ride with Penske Racing. If sponsorship can be found, Penske may be in his future as well. The Captain has put A.J. in the seat for a variety of other rides and still believes in him as a person. If Penske falls through, Allmendinger may find it difficult to find a top-level ride. The door seems closed at Richard Petty Motorsports. Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing hasn't indicated they're looking in another direction. If Busch moves to RCR, then Furniture Row might be an option. It's far more likely that unless something fits together at Penske that A.J. may find himself in a Sadler-esque situation, running full time at the Nationwide level until the next opportunity presents itself.
Settled In At Earnhardt-Ganassi
3. Juan Pablo Montoya
Current Team: Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
Current Primary Sponsor: Target
Chances of Coming Back: 90%. JPM has won a pair of races since joining the NASCAR ranks. Whether his stock car career to date has been a disappointment depends on who you ask. In this case, the important people to ask are Chip Ganassi and Target. Neither seems terribly upset with Montoya's performance. Ganassi recognizes his operation is not among NASCAR's elite; his move to Hendrick engines this past off-season is proof-positive of that. But as long as Montoya continues to be both competitive and controversial, there doesn't seem to be much impetus to break up this driver-owner-sponsor combination.
Should he Come Back?: Why not? The switch to Hendrick engines has helped reduce the distance between JPM and the leaders. Ganassi still has a ways to go before their cars can be considered among the best but it wasn't that long ago that Jaime McMurray won several races in those chassis.
Other 2014 Possibilities: If Ganassi decides to move on from Montoya, JPM would likely have little trouble finding a similar ride elsewhere provided Target continues to sponsor him. He may not find a seat at a premier team but his combination of talent, name recognition and self-sustaining sponsorship is exactly what a group currently at two or three cars is looking for. Richard Petty Motorsports in particular is an interesting thought.
Will McMuray Leave Ganassi Again?
4. Jaime McMurray
Current Team: Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
Current Primary Sponsor: McDonalds/Cessna
Chances of Coming Back: 95%. McMurray has spent six of his 12 years at the Sprint Cup level running for Ganassi in one form or another. Most of his wins, including his Daytona 500 victory, came with Chip. As a fifth wheel at Roush-Fenway, McMurray was lost. As one of two drivers at EGR, Jaime seems to fit in well.
Should he Come Back?: No. Hard to believe but by season's end McMurray will have spent 12 years at the Sprint Cup level. His 2010 season (winning three races but failing to make the Chase) caused NASCAR to institute the wild card for races won yet McMurray hasn't won since. Aside from that season, he has three wins in 11 years. Ganassi has been extremely loyal to McMurray over the years and Jaime has repaid that loyalty with being one of NASCAR's most solid citizens. Yet if EGR wants to take the next step something has to change and JPM isn't likely to be going anywhere.
Other 2014 Possibilities: McMurray's awful performance at Roush likely soured him on running with RFR- or any other Ford team for that matter. McMurray left Roush due to NASCAR rules limiting him to four teams. Jaime, as lowest performing, was “encouraged” to find another ride. He's not going back. A team such as BK Racing, which has struggled with David Reutimann and Travis Kvapil, would likely be where McMurray would land if cut loose by EGR.
Quicken Loans Seems To Approve Of Newman
5. Ryan Newman
Current Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
Current Primary Sponsor: Quicken Loans
Chances of Coming Back: 0%. Stewart and Newman have already publicly confirmed that Newman will not return in 2014.
Should he Come Back?: Absolutely. With Stewart's absence and Danica Patrick's struggles, Newman will finish as SHR's top ranked driver in 2013. His win at the Brickyard was a company highlight for the year. Yet it's a bittersweet highlight given Newman's departure at season's end. Considering that Newman has at least one sponsor in Quicken Loans that is highly engaged (and will likely follow to another team) in Ryan, it's odd that Stewart is cutting his much-publicized 'friend' loose instead of adding a fourth team. Adding a car may have stretched SHR's resources thin in 2013 but much of that was a result of not only adding a team but switching to the new Gen 6 car. Cutting Newman loose may turn out to be something Stewart ultimately regrets.
Other 2014 Possibilities: Newman appears to be in a holding pattern right now awaiting Kurt Busch's 2014 plans. If Busch moves to RCR, then Newman would be a natural fit at Furniture Row. If Busch stays, Newman's partial sponsorship may be exactly what RCR needs to bring him aboard. Newman would be a great choice to add to RCR's re-birth next season. His experience this season in working with a rookie teammate in Patrick would be invaluable given the need to mentor Austin Dillon next year. Aside from RCR, Newman's partial sponsorship could also open the door in a number of shops including EGR and RPM.
Full Time At MWR For Vickers?
6. Brian Vickers
Current Team: Michael Waltrip Racing
Current Primary Sponsor: Aaron's Rentals
Chances of Coming Back: 95%. Michael Waltrip has already indicated his desire to bring Vickers back full-time in 2014 as long as sponsor Aaron's is on board. Waltrip himself does many of the Aaron's advertisements and the company is highly engaged in the sport. They aren't going anywhere and neither is Vickers.
Should he Come Back?: Yes. Vickers won the New Hampshire race for MWR a few weeks ago and provided the team with some much-needed hope for the future. Aside from a crash at Kentucky, his 11th place run at Martinsville is his lowest finish while driving the 55 this season. Vickers seems to finally be coming into his own; an underwhelming run with Hendrick is a distant memory. He made the most of his equipment and learning to drive with less seems to have helped make Vickers a better driver.
Other 2014 Possibilities: If for whatever reason the MWR ride doesn't work out it's difficult to see where Vickers lands. He's running full time at the Nationwide level this year and may find himself doing so again in 2014. He's had enough of substandard Sprint Cup rides and it's hard to see him going to a team such as BK or JTG/Daughtery.