Looking at the free agent class of 2012
Joey Logano, you captured your first race win since 2009 less than two weeks ago. You passed a future Hall of Famer, Mark Martin, to do it. You’re now just 51 points away from the Chase with a possible wild card ticket in your back pocket. What’s next for you?
The answer, surprisingly enough, may not be Disneyworld, but the unemployment line. Unless Mickey Mouse can find a few million hidden inside Epcot Center, Logano faces the possibility that Home Depot, Dollar General and other major sponsors may start drooling over a free agent class that’s the biggest NASCAR’s had in several years. The catch, of course, is whether some of these companies will stick around or opt for a veteran considering the alarming number of blank quarterpanels of late. But assuming the money is there, the long list of drivers available could mean we have a mean game of musical chairs in a few months.
Here’s a look at how some of the major NASCAR teams stand for next year and which wheelmen could be hotly pursued as Silly Season heats up:
Driver Lineup: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne
Signed For 2013: All four.
Analysis: Think Hendrick Motorsports is slumping? Try telling that to the guy polishing the trophies. He’s been working overtime this month, as HMS has won five of the last six races (including the All-Star event) since Mother’s Day weekend. Moving forward, driver and sponsor stability should only help as it attempts to place all four team cars in the Chase for the first time in HMS history. Jeff Gordon’s a longshot there, but should he make the playoffs along with his trio of teammates, they’ll have the added benefit of avoiding a media circus over future plans. You can still win the Chase in that environment (see: Tony Stewart, cutting crew chief Darian Grubb) but it’s not an obstacle you’d like to place in your path.
Driver Lineup: Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth
Signed For 2013: Biffle, Edwards.
Analysis: Jack Roush has been publicly adamant that he wants Kenseth, the only Cup champion on Ford’s roster, signed for the long-term. And why not? He’s the 2012 Daytona 500 winner, leads the standings and has been with the team for a dozen years. But the fact he’s run the last two Sundays unsponsored — particularly the one in Ford’s backyard (the EcoBoost sponsorship means no company stepped up to cover) — is a troubling sign. Young Ricky Stenhouse Jr., one of the sport’s up-and-coming talents, is rolling over the competition in the Nationwide Series. Ideally, Roush wants to bring him up and expand to four cars, but how long can he fund Kenseth partially out of his own pocket? A similar situation occurred with Jeff Burton, in 2004 and he wound up at Richard Childress Racing despite a sterling track record.
So where would Kenseth go? Remember, Penske Racing is switching to Ford next season and has a possible opening in AJ Allmendinger’s No. 22, and there’s already a Roush-to-Penske pipeline history (Kurt Busch). I’d call it an unlikely scenario, for certain, but if the money doesn’t materialize here … it may dictate some moves.
Joe Gibbs Racing
Driver Lineup: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano
Signed For 2013: Busch and Hamlin.
Analysis: Gibbs’ contracts are a little tricky to figure out in the press — there’s no public end date for Busch and Hamlin’s deals — but it’s assumed both will be back in 2013. Hamlin, in particular, is surging back towards his 2010 brilliance with new crew chief Darian Grubb. The real question mark surrounds the No. 20, which was almost handed to Carl Edwards in 2011 before he spurned Gibbs’ advances for Ford. Logano now has a victory, but he’s still led less than 200 laps over a four-year Cup career. Rumor has it Home Depot has been looking for someone who could run up front more consistently; Kurt Busch had been mentioned as a possible replacement, pushed heavily by his brother until this month’s Dover debacle took that signing off the table.
Will Logano have yet another chance to save his job? I would have to think it’s Chase or bust despite Joe Gibbs’ vote of confidence at Michigan on Sunday. Without the postseason, summer’s success will be forgotten once the No. 20 gets ignored over the final 10 races. Ryan Newman, Brian Vickers (a Toyota guy) and possibly even Martin Truex Jr. could be available to replace him. Logic would have it Logano wouldn’t look elsewhere – this ride would be the best opportunity available for him. So it’s on the Gibbs family to decide whether Logano will ever match those lofty expectations Mark Martin anointed him with all those years ago.
Richard Childress Racing
Driver Lineup: Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard
Signed For 2013: All three.
Analysis: RCR may be having an awful season by tits standards – only Harvick is currently in the Chase – but the Childress lineup appears to be set moving forward. Burton is signed for the next two years, while Menard brings sponsorship to the table. The only question is whether Childress wants to expand to a fourth car, having equipment ready for Austin Dillon’s rookie run in 2014. Kurt Busch was briefly rumored here, but that is again off the table and RCR can easily stick with what it has. So unless a top-tier driver is available, with the right sponsor and the right opportunity, RCR is probably out of this year’s free agent chase.
Driver Lineup: A.J. Allmendinger, Brad Keselowski
Signed For 2013: Keselowski
Analysis: Now here’s where it gets interesting. With the nightmare season Allmendinger has had – six finishes outside the top 30 in 15 races – it’s hard to imagine him being re-signed. So who gets the offer? Parker Kligerman, a Newman-like prospect, has excelled in the Truck Series this season but is at least a year away. Sam Hornish Jr. has had a B-plus year in the Nationwide Series, at best, and Penske would rather put him in a third Cup car when ready than the No. 22.
That means Penske will look outside for a replacement for a ride that hasn’t won a Cup title but remains well-respected inside the garage (and has a solid sponsor). Would Penske take a chance on Logano if the youngster were set free? Or how about Regan Smith, whose contract with single-car Furniture Row is also up? Darkhorses include Kenseth, Vickers or even Stenhouse with the switch to Ford. Remember, Kurt Busch came out of nowhere the last time Penske plucked a big name – he was even under contract and had to buy out of the deal at Roush. Expect this domino to make the biggest difference in where drivers head.
Driver Lineup: Ryan Newman, Danica Patrick, Tony Stewart
Signed For 2013: Patrick, Stewart.
Analysis: Stewart has made it publicly clear he wants Newman back for 2013. What he doesn’t have right now is the money to do it. Should the U.S. Army be prevented from sponsoring a car next year, patchwork deals aren’t enough to keep the No. 39 competitive enough to Newman’s liking. On the fringes of the Chase and without a top-10 finish in two months, Newman’s team is acting like one that’s turning into a “lame duck” program. But would Stewart really be willing to stick to a two-car operation with Patrick as the only option for direct feedback? There was speculation Kurt Busch, who drives for Phoenix Racing with Hendrick chassis, could have been an option (oh, the irony in how Stewart defended him). But again, sponsorship becomes a concern — as does Stewart and Busch’s history) making this one a bit of a question mark.
Michael Waltrip Racing
Driver Lineup: Clint Bowyer, Mark Martin, Martin Truex Jr., Brian Vickers
Signed For 2013: Bowyer
Analysis: We’ll start with Truex, who is in position to make the Chase for the first time with the NAPA Toyota. Considering the auto parts company stuck through tough times in the worst of the Michael Waltrip years, it’s hard to see it leaving as long as Truex sticks around and continues to perform. Will the New Jersey native, enjoying his finest season, think this car is the best option for the long-term? As long as he makes the Chase, the answer will almost certainly be yes. If not, in-house Vickers becomes an immediate option. Martin, as always, will have the ball in his court on a possible return; at 53, he’s still driving at a 30-year-old level.
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Driver Lineup: Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya
Signed For 2013: Montoya
Analysis: 2010’s Cinderella story lost his slipper in the winter that year – and he’s still looking to get it back. Jamie McMurray has just two top-5 finishes in his last 49 starts, far removed from Daytona and Brickyard glory. And with sponsorship in question for 2013, so is his employment. The problem for Earnhardt Ganassi is getting a top-tier replacement to believe in the future of its NASCAR program. Despite a full-scale overhaul last season, letting longtime employees like Steve Hmiel and Tony Glover go, it’s still on pace to miss the Chase with both cars. Only once, in 2009 (Montoya), has an EGR car made the postseason, meaning only another Cinderella-in-waiting might look at that car. A long way to go, but if Allmendinger gets released, he has the open-wheel background and resume that’s perfect for that seat.
Richard Petty Motorsports
Driver Lineup: Marcos Ambrose, Aric Almirola
Signed For 2013: Ambrose?
Analysis: RPM’s possible switch to Dodge in 2013 continues to be the hot topic around the garage. A rumor the switch would be announced last weekend was firmly denied by officials on both sides — and it did not. Were it to eventually happen, it could mean tough times for Aric Almirola despite recent improvement behind the wheel. Why? Wouldn’t Dodge go after a marquis name after losing Brad Keselowski from its lineup? Ambrose, too, continues to be an enigma after a strong first season in the No. 9 Ford. Remember, he had a similar beginning driving for JTG-Daugherty’s No. 47 but by the end of his second season, a “sophomore slump” had him moving elsewhere. With zero top-5 finishes in 15 starts this season, success on the road courses will be critical to making the Chase. Without them? It’s almost certainly a disappointing year.
One thing we know for sure at Phoenix Racing: Kurt Busch will not be back in 2013, either after being kicked to the curb or signing with another high-profile ride. As for Furniture Row, Regan Smith will be a hot commodity and this time, it’s going to need to show improvement for him to re-sign. The team had recently pursued sponsorship to land Busch and may need to expand to keep last season’s upset Southern 500 winner.
by Tom Bowles
Follow Tom on Twitter: @NASCARBowles