Taking stock of the who, what and where
by Vito Pugliese
With news that Red Bull Racing is ending it’s five-year run in the Sprint Cup Series at season’s end, the Chase chatter that typically becomes the matter of obsession during NASCAR’s Summer Stretch will no doubt take a back seat to the Silly Season speculation that is now running rampant through the garage area.
While Red Bull has said it is leaving the series as a team, that is not to say it will not stick around as a sponsor in some capacity. It’s a situation that Team Red Bull General Manager and Vice President Jay Frye has found himself in before, with what was the MB2/MBV Racing teams from the late 1990s-2006. Sponsor Valvoline wanted to have an ownership stake in the series, and essentially made the worst moves possible in the process by first abandoning longtime driver Mark Martin in 2001, and then opting to not continue its association with Johnny Benson Jr. following the ’03 season. It eventually led to the demise of the team, and its acquisition by real estate developer Bobby Ginn — which later merged with Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
Rumor has it that Red Bull all but issued its PIN number to Carl Edwards in a Hail Mary effort to land the most sought-after free agent in NASCAR, a deal that obviously never materialized. Toyota still wants to keep the current Red Bull team in the fold, having made the leap into Sprint Cup with the automaker in 2007.
While the Red Bull situation will likely be decided over the course of the next few months as inventors are lined up to keep the struggling boat afloat, the main issue at hand will be if Edwards decides whether to remain with Roush Fenway Racing and the Ford Motor Company, which plucked him from relative obscurity and thrust him into the forefront of motorsports. And Edwards has always been a loyal and vocal supporter of the Blue Oval, more so than virtually any driver has been to a car company since the late Dale Earnhardt to Chevrolet.
Joe Gibbs Racing President J.D. Gibbs tried to defuse the rumors of a JGR push for Edwards in a fourth car, saying, “We learned over the years, probably when we started the 11 car, (that) unless you have all those parts together — a sponsor, the right driver and team — don't do it.
"We're not in any hurry to do it. Carl is a gifted driver. He's doing great where he is. From our standpoint, we're going to focus on Denny (Hamlin), Joey (Logano) and Kyle (Busch). When we get that going right, we can worry about other stuff in the future (a fourth team). Right now that's all we're kind of focused on."
Hmm. Well, words tend to mean things. That’s not to say that Edwards would be the right fit for a fourth team specifically, but what about the third JGR car? In this case, the third wheel has become the No. 20 team. Logano has had a bit of a learning curve to overcome on the Sprint Cup side of things, and has not produced as quickly or with the quantity of success that teammates Busch and Hamlin have. Might Logano be the odd man out? After all, Home Depot hasn’t exactly gotten much bang for its buck since Tony Stewart’s tenure with the team from 1999-2008. And to rub salt in the wound, Jimmie Johnson has been busy winning five straight titles with rival Lowe’s Home Improvement as the primary sponsor.
Gibbs went on to say that Logano was not going anywhere in 2012. Granted, similar statements were made in 2008 when Stewart was rumored to be looking elsewhere, although the circumstances for his departure were drastically different.
So what’s to believe and who may end up where?
I think the Red Bull operation stays afloat and ultimately survives — albeit under a different name. If the rumored Frye/Mark Martin connection comes to fruition, it would be a potent combination, remencient of the Ginn Racing venture of 2007 that paired Red Bull principles Frye and Ryan Pemberton with Martin. The team was leading the points four races into the season with Martin on a part-time schedule and would have won the Daytona 500 had NASCAR kept its practice of throwing caution flags when the entire field had wrecked and cars were flipping upside down and on fire.
One thing Red Bull has always lacked is veteran leadership in the driver department, the type of stabilizing force that Martin provided during his near two-decade tenure at Roush, the Ginn/DEI venture and even at Hendrick Motorsports. Being a two-car operation means that a second driver would be needed to fill the other seat. Virtually anytime Martin has been asked this year to evaluate or comment upon up-and-coming talent, one name continues to top his list: Cole Whitt. Martin speaks as often and as highly of the development driver as he did of Logano prior to his arrival in the NASCAR ranks. In nine Truck Series starts this year, Whitt has a pole at Darlington and five top 10s, including a second at Dover and a third-place effort at Charlotte. In his past roles of mentoring and splitting seat time with drivers such as Regan Smith, Aric Almirola and even Danica Patrick, the results have been impressive and quantifiable.
If Logano were to fall out of favor at JGR, pairing him with the driver in Martin who discovered and originally wanted him as a replacement in the No. 6 Roush Fenway Ford might not be a bad thing either.
Will Edwards actually leave Roush Fenway Racing? While it makes for great media fodder, I don’t really see the upside. UPS wants Carl, Aflac wants Carl, Ford wants Carl … and that’s not a bad thing when you’re negotiating a new contract. While there really is no clear leader at Roush Fenway Racing — other than Jack Roush — Edwards seems to have positioned himself to be just a step ahead of teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. By going to JGR, he would form a formidable foursome with Busch, Hamlin, and Logano (assuming he remains), but would it put him in any better of a position to win than now? Unlikely, at best.
Edwards is as savvy with the business side of racing as he is the performance portion, and is smartly working to find the best long-term deal. After all, these aren’t exactly stable economic times, and there is nothing on the horizon to suggest that the glory days of bountiful sponsorship of the early- and mid-1990s is going to materialize anytime soon. Roush turned 69 years-old in April, and has had many a brush with mortality in recent years, bringing into question the succession plan and sustainability of his race teams when the Cat does, indeed, hang up his hat.
Another thing to keep in mind regarding sponsorship at Roush Fenway is that the only deal that has been shored up so far is with 3M’s extension with Biffle’s No. 16 team. UPS is still waiting in the wings, and Crown Royal’s sponsorship has not yet been finalized. Fourth driver David Ragan is clearly not long for what once was the flagship No. 6 car, so feel free to pencil in Trevor Bayne or Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for that seat in 2012. Ford is serious about racing again and has the funds to do it now that it is the most profitable car company in Detroit — and became that way without a dime of taxpayer funding. This bodes well for Edwards, not so much for Ragan.
Perhaps the most overlooked driver in all of this speculation is the one whose name popped up during the Red Bull drama: Clint Bowyer.
His current sponsor, General Mills, has taken quite a liking to its driver, though it was noted that Red Bull was very far down the line into negotiations with Bowyer prior to the announcement that they were throwing in the towel on NASCAR. Why Bowyer would bolt from Richard Childress Racing is a bit confusing. Last season, his No. 33 RCR team was championship material until the now-infamous tow truck tango cost him 150 points and any chance of competition for the Sprint Cup. Perhaps some lingering bitterness from first being bounced from the No. 07 car to make room for Casey Mears back in 2009 — and then having his team swapped with Kevin Harvick’s after said fine — is manifesting itself.
Then, of course, there is the 400-pound gorilla in the room — or more specifically, the 102-pound face of open wheel racing that will soon be spending a significant amount of time in Charlotte: Danica Patrick. When it is finally announced that 2012 will be Patrick’s first full year of NASCAR racing in a Nationwide Series entry, the idea is that Patrick would also make a handful of Cup starts — think Daytona, Indianapolis, Charlotte and Phoenix. But for what team will she bring a plethora of sponsorship dollars?
Patrick’s connection with JR Motorsports would give her the inside line to virtually any Chevrolet team, however when the bidding begins for real, it will be dollar signs that ultimately determine where she ends up. With the recent rumors that Andretti Autosport (Patrick’s current Indy Car Series team) would entertain entry to NASCAR, it will add additional ethanol to the fire.
Silly Season took a bit of a breather last year, but has returned full-force in 2011. There are several high-profile rides available, a solid team on the threshold of becoming a top tier team on the brink and high-dollar sponsors that have yet to commit for the future. But while the splashy headlines and rumor-mongering make for entertaining speculation, it’s easy to overlook the sad prospect that as many as 200 people could lose their jobs if the eye of the Silly Season storm — the future of Red Bull Racing — takes a disastrous turn.