Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday June 28, 2012
All eyes this week have been squarely on Matt Kenseth as it became official that he would leave Roush Fenway Racing at the end of the season. Speculation swirled over the reason for his imminent departure and on where Kenseth would go next. While Kenseth has confirmed that he has a deal in place, he would not confirm where his 2013 deal is. The prevailing theory is that Kenseth will land at Joe Gibbs Racing, but reports of a new team, owned by IndyCar owner Michael Andretti have also surfaced. Regardless of where Kenseth lands, his move marks the official beginning of Silly Season 2012…and this one is like sitting on a powder keg…it could get big.
While Kenseth was the first piece of the puzzle to drop out of the current picture, there are at least eight and possibly up to 11 drivers set to become free agents at the end of the year. Depending on the circumstances, there could be changes in up to a quarter of the cars in the Cup Series by the time Kenseth attempts to defend his Daytona 500 championship.
The hard part for everyone, from team owners to sponsors to teams to fans is the waiting. Waiting leads to some wild speculation, and while it can make for some very interesting conversations, that speculation is also hard on everyone. Owners worry about keeping sponsors, sponsors worry about getting the most bang for their buck, teams worry about keeping their jobs and learning a new driver, and fans worry about their favorites winding up in the best seat possible. In fact, the conversations are only fun if you’re not somehow involved.
Taking a look at the list of free agents and other available drivers, nothing is clear except that there is a lot of talent on the line. Starting at the top with Kenseth, there are several ways things could go. Of course everything is speculation at this point, but let’s look at some possibilities. If Kenseth were to go to JGR, it’s likely that Joey Logano has either been told he can look for other options for 2013, or that he will remain with the team in some capacity (a four-car Cup stable or a full-time Nationwide title bid). If Logano stays with JGR, things could stay quiet on the Silly Season front. If he’s looking, it could be busier, because Logano is a considerable talent, and would spell upgrade for some teams and less expensive but still solid talent for some others. Should Logano hit the free agent market, he could pique the interest of, among others, Richard Petty Motorsports and Phoenix Racing.
The other major player this year will be Kurt Busch. While Gibbs made it clear after Busch’s recent suspension that the organization was no longer interested, others could well be. Should the rumored Andretti team come to fruition, Busch would be a good choice simply because he’s a championship caliber driver who will be available and most likely less expensive than Kenseth. The question for Busch, as has been well illustrated this season, is whether he can attract the sponsorship it takes to be competitive. If Andretti Autosport can get a deal done to start a team and bring a sponsor on board, it might be an excellent home for Busch, in part because there are no charred bridges to get around. And Busch could be a valuable commodity to a fledgling team simply because he’s not only talented (drivers don’t get to the Cup level without a lot of talent) but because he knows how to make a Cup car better over the course of a race.
If the Andretti team doesn’t materialize, it could be a tougher road for Busch, who made it clear before the season started that he planned to stay at Phoenix for only one year with an eye on a bigger team next year. The problem is, not a lot of bigger teams have seats, and the ones that do will be looking for a driver who can bring the sponsor dollars.
One big question mark also hangs over the head of Ryan Newman. His job at Stewart-Haas has come up in conversations about other drivers, and like Kenseth, the problem isn’t talent, it’s money. The 2002 Rookie of the Year is a proven winner and championship contender, but a full season of sponsor dollars is in question for the No. 39. Still, I think the only way Newman won’t be in the car is if someone can come on board with a lucrative 36-race sponsor in hand. Swapping Newman for an unknown among this year’s group of free agents doesn’t make a lot of sense. If Newman does shop around, though, look for a lot of interest…and disappointment for one driver as Newman will surely win a seat somewhere.
On the flip side, there are some potential seats without drivers. In addition to the rumored two rides with a new Andretti team, a fourth car is a distinct possibility for JGR, though if that happens, look for Logano to fill it. Micheal Waltrip Racing, a team on the rise in 2012, has also reportedly been considering adding a fourth car. However, like at JGR, it’s not likely to be open to a lot of competition as Brian Vickers has done an admirable job on a limited schedule for MWR and has earned the admiration if the team for that.
The other story at MWR is Martin Truex, Jr., who is currently on the list of free agents. Truex likely needs to either win at least one race or make the Chase to secure an extension, especially since NAPA’s sponsor contract is also up. Truex is another of the drivers who is key to whether this will be a quiet Silly Season (if he stays) or an explosive one (if he goes).
The third team considering expansion could be Penske Racing, though as with the other teams, the seat is likely already taken, in this case by Sam Hornish, Jr., who is vastly improved after spending some development time in the Nationwide Series. While Penske has said that AJ Allmendinger is in their plans for next year, Allmendinger has had such terrible luck that if he doesn’t turn it around, there could be some sponsor pressure for a replacement. In other words, until the ink is dry on the contract, Allmendinger, like Truex and possibly Logano, isn’t completely safe.
Other possible free agent drivers include David Ragan, Aric Almirola, Casey Mears, Travis Kvapil, Regan Smith, and Landon Cassill. Smith is likely to stay put at Furniture Row, and it’s likely that Roush Fenway would like to keep Ragan in the Ford fold with hopes of taking the no. 6 team off the mothballs when a better day dawns. Kvapil, Cassill, and Mears have all done admirable jobs with underfunded teams and are unlikely to be part of a shakeup…unless things go down higher on the food chain that gives their teams a shot at a name like Truex, in which case, all bets are off and at least one could wind up looking for new digs. Almirola is probably the least safe of the bunch due to his lack of Cup experience and the relative attractiveness of RPM to drivers like Logano and Truex should they need to look.
Yes, Silly Season is underway, and at this point, anything can happen. Speculation will rule in the coming weeks until announcements are made, one by one, until every puzzle piece fits into place for a new 2013 picture. Whether that picture is similar to 2012 or vastly different remains to be seen. However, this is looking like the silliest Slly Season in a few years. Watch for falling dominoes in the upcoming weeks.
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