Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday August 16, 2013
It was a little late in coming in 2013, but NASCAR’s Silly Season finally took off recently. Some teams and drivers have made moves and know what 2014 will hold, others know they’ll be in a different place, but are unsure where. It’s a great time of the year to follow the sport—there’s lots of news, and at least most of it doesn’t involve drivers dating each other, who’s mad at whom, or which teams are NASCAR’s “favorites.” There’s anticipation and excitement (or disappointment).
Taking a look at Silly Season 2013, there’s a long list of free agent drivers (and a shorter list of available rides), including a pair of Sprint Cup Series champions, two Daytona 500 winners, and nine with at least one Cup race win. Of these, Jamie McMurray is the only one who’s currently expected to resign, though a few others, like David Ragan, Dave Blaney, and a few more could certainly stay put depending on their teams’ budget.
Taking a look at some new pairings and some teams and drivers headed towards Splitsville, there is a lot of potential waiting to happen. Perhaps the team with the most of it is the No. 55 and new driver Brian Vickers. Vickers ran the car part time in 2012 and 2013, filling in for Mark Martin on the tracks Martin didn’t want to race. In seventeen races in the No. 55 since 2012, Vickers has eight top-10 finishes, four top 5’s and a win last month at Loudon. A win by a part-time driver is a rarity at the Sprint Cup level, and sponsor Aaron’s, who had often shied away from sponsoring the car when Vickers was driving, couldn’t ignore that. Within a month, Vickers was signed for the next two seasons with full backing from Aaron’s.
What could happen here? If Vickers can keep up the torrid pace he’s set driving part-time every week, he could win multiple races and be a Chase contender right off the bat. It’s rare for an organization to put all of its teams in the Chase, but Michael Waltrip Racing could do it a year from now with this signing.
So, where does that leave veteran Mark Martin, a likely Hall of Fame driver if he ever retires? He’s looking for a part-time gig—he wants to cherry-pick his races in the twilight of his career, and that could make him a good fit for a smaller team that wants to run a partial schedule to save money. And while that would make winning races a longshot, a team like Wood Brothers Racing could put a winning car under him at a restrictor plate track. It’s also possible, though unlikely, that MWR could field Martin on a part-time basis. Martin would be a good choice for a team looking to make the next step, if they’re willing to split the seat or go the part-time route. A team like Tommy Baldwin Racing could certainly use feedback from a driver of Martin’s caliber.
The situation at Richard Childress Racing is also in flux. While it was widely thought that when Kevin Harvick vacates the No. 29 for the No. 4 of Stewart Haas Racing (where he should be a title favorite, not just a contender), Austin Dillon would take over and the number would be changed back to the No. 3 the team carried until 2001. But if the rumor mill is correct, that might not happen, as Ryan Newman, the man Harvick is replacing at SHR, is reportedly now a favorite for the No. 29. If that does indeed happen (not a bad move for RCR, because Newman is good for a win or two a year), then either Jeff Burton will also be shown the door, vacating the No. 31 for Dillon, or RCR will make another attempt at a fourth team, something that hasn’t worked well in the past. Burton, like Martin, would be a good fit for a small team if he’s willing to go that route, but in the twilight of his career, he’s not likely to land a top-flight ride. Unless…
After the announcement this week that Juan Pablo Montoya will not return to the Earnhardt Ganassi No. 42 operation, that seat is currently vacant. While it’s likely that whoever takes it will be merely warming the seat for young phenom Kyle Larson, that wouldn’t be a bad role for someone like Burton to fill. EGR has fallen behind the competition in recent years, and a veteran’s solid feedback could help them get back on track. Kurt Busch is another name in the hat for the No. 42, but honestly? Busch is better off where he is. While he may be looking for a team with a bigger name attached, he’s got full benefit of RCR’s resources at Furniture Row Racing, and right now, RCR’s equipment is superior to EGR’s. The bottom line is, Busch is in a better ride right now than he’d be in in the No. 42.
Larson’s name has also been linked with the No. 42, and he is under contract with EGR—but rushing a young driver into the Cup Series with so little experience in the Nationwide and Truck Series has rarely paid off…and Ganassi should know; he rushed to put Reed Sorenson in the seat before Sorenson had the experience to warrant it…and the driver never reached his potential. The name Casey Atwood should also ring a warning bell here. Larson is an outstanding talent, but he’s going to be just as talented, and a smarter driver to boot, in a year or two with more national touring races under his narrow belt.
If Busch does leave FRR for EGR, that would leave a very good seat open for a driver as well—Newman could wind up there, or another talented driver that the bigger-name owners don’t want to take a chance on, as with Busch. AJ Allmendinger would be an interesting choice, as might former Cup champion Bobby Labonte. Labonte’s current No. 47 ride is in desperate need of an overhaul, and Allmendinger has done a decent job in a few races this year, though whether he’s been better than Labonte is, at best, debatable. The ride, a mid-level small team gig, could also be a step forward for someone like David Ragan or Travis Kvapil.
Most of Silly Season 2013 is still mere speculation at this point, but that’s part of what makes this time of the NASCAR year interesting—everyone is on their toes until the dominoes start to fall into place, and many fans are hoping that their driver will land a top ride if he’s not performing to their satisfaction. This year’s version, while not as volatile as some, carries the potential of a few shakeups among the top teams and the possibility of improvement for a few smaller teams as well. There could be some new faces in Victory Lane and the Chase a year from now, and that’s always appealing to those longing for a break from the same old, same old. Any way you slice it, it’s a great time of year for the sport—one where hope springs eternal, and everyone is hoping for those elusive greener pastures.
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