The Frontstretch: Who Gets An Early Christmas Gift? Sorting Through Potential Busch Replacements by Thomas Bowles -- Tuesday December 6, 2011

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Who Gets An Early Christmas Gift? Sorting Through Potential Busch Replacements

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Tuesday December 6, 2011


For Sprint Cup’s crowded field of free agents, matching the current state of unemployment in this country Christmas will come a little early this year – at least for one. Kurt Busch’s departure from Penske, leaving a seat that was 11th in points last season produces a top-tier job opportunity for 2012 at a time when fully-funded Sprint Cup teams are set to decrease by almost 10 percent. Yes, whoever gets it will likely get a one-year deal regardless of their success in the car: “A” level free drivers like Matt Kenseth or Denny Hamlin could be available next season, with Sam Hornish, Jr. moving up regardless of funding in 2013. But who wouldn’t take a “Kasey Kahne” type of “lame duck” ride, a temp job that could produce both victories and a Chase appearance immediately?

No wonder why drivers are already banging down Penske’s door by the dozen. With Busch out, here’s a look at the most likely candidates to take the slot:

David Ragan’s the frontrunner at this point to take over driving duties of the No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge in 2012.

David Ragan. Everyone on the national beat has pegged Ragan, formerly of Roush Fenway Racing as the overwhelming favorite to take the seat. The driver himself even publicly lobbied Monday, informing ESPN he “wanted to be under consideration for that car” and acknowledging a call with Penske President Tim Cindric. Both sides will sit down sometime in the next week to conduct a formal interview for the seat.

For the record, my sources have Ragan as the No. 1 candidate as well. I can see why he fits: after taking the public relations hit of Kurt Busch, Shell/Pennzoil is willing to give up championship caliber performances for political correctness. And while Ragan won’t win a title, even make the Chase in the No. 22 he’ll fit the Penske image of “clean cut” while not making a peep on the publicity front for 12 months. Note that Shell wasn’t exactly using Kurt Busch for their national commercials, right? The on-track exposure of their colors on the car, combined with the benefits of a business-to-business relationship with Penske is enough for them. That leaves Ragan’s wallpaper personality virtually irrelevant; the fact he could eke out a restrictor plate victory, maybe two under the right circumstances is an added bonus.

We should note the Georgian did take a slight risk; his release from Roush Fenway Racing Monday morning, which was granted, did cost him at least a part-time opportunity. Sources told me over the weekend there’s an investment group negotiating to buy some of the RFR Fords, start their own satellite operation and run a part-time schedule with the No. 6. Ragan was supposed to be in that seat; but if the odds fall in his favor at Penske, one thinks he’ll be much happier driving the No. 22. CHANCES: 70%.

Brian Vickers. Team Red Bull’s former main squeeze is looking for an energetic opportunity to continue his Cup career. I think a few months ago, before the Chase Vickers would be the clear No. 1 candidate. There’s no one else on the sidelines with postseason experience, and people forget Vickers is one year removed from blood clot that nearly ended not just his Sprint Cup career but his life. It takes time to settle in and recover from that, and the 2009 postseason participant should be sharper in whatever ride he gets in 2012.

Sadly, though the Martinsville-Phoenix debacle with Matt Kenseth seems to have put a permanent dent in Vickers’ reputation. It was bad enough the man was part of half-a-dozen cautions at the short track; the fact he used Phoenix for revenge, when Kenseth was battling for a championship did not sit well with most insiders. The explanation from Vickers that Kenseth’s brakes failed, causing him to wreck into the No. 17 in the desert didn’t break through the minds of most, even if it was true – occurring on the same weekend as teammate Kasey Kahne’s victory, that was an ugly comparison at the worst possible time. You don’t want the season to end and have everyone’s enduring image be of you wrecking people.

Yet that’s where we are with Vickers. There are other obstacles, too; his extreme sports hobbies, a great fit with Red Bull clash with the conservatism of “old school” Penske. But for this ride, he would be my choice and clearly has the most talent of anyone on the sidelines. It’s just an uphill battle to remind people of that. CHANCES: 10%.

Casey Mears. A longshot, or so it seems but don’t we always say that about this guy? Mears is the only Cup driver to have slipped behind the wheel for Chip Ganassi, Hendrick Motorsports, and Richard Childress during an underachieving career that’s produced just one lone victory, at the Coca-Cola 600 in 2007. That top-tier portion of his career has faded away; currently, he drives the GEICO Toyota for a single-car team in Germain Racing that doesn’t even have funding to run the distance in all 36 events. And did I mention his last top-5 finish came three years ago?

Good thing there’s Uncle Rick to save the day. The multiple Indy 500 winner, whose ties with former owner Penske remain strong could make a difference after years of verbal abuse by Busch. If there’s one thing NASCAR’s nice guy has proven, it’s that he won’t cause any problems and bring the equipment home in one piece; the epitomy of “average” when this situation requires nothing more, nothing less. And if the seat is being kept warm for Hornish, there will be little controversy on who should get it at year’s end. A compromise pick if there ever was one. CHANCES: 8%.

David Reutimann. So far, in talking to sources I haven’t heard his name come up yet. That’s much to fan’s chagrin, as many people thought Reutimann got the shaft with his October release from Michael Waltrip Racing. But loyalty, however strong does not erase a total of two career victories in five seasons. Unlike Vickers, Reutimann never made the Chase; unlike Ragan, he’s not as marketable a personality. There’s a reason why big companies, like UPS have shied away despite the success.

Even on the racing side, Reutimann faces an uphill battle. A Toyota guy his whole career the Florida native hasn’t exactly dealt with the adjustment of switching manufacturers. Sure, it’s not as difficult as it used to be; but when you’re already down two strikes in the count, it’s enough to knock you off the list. CHANCES: 6%. (And that’s being generous)

Sam Hornish, Jr. The top internal choice, Hornish was being prepped for a full-time Nationwide Series schedule before Punch-Gate. A win at Phoenix last month, his first in NASCAR’s “AAA” division shows how far the Indiana native has come since stepping back from the major leagues. But without one more season under his belt, adding the experience of battling for a championship Hornish may be moving up too quickly. Penske has already been there, done that; and let’s just say you don’t become the winningest man in Indy 500 history by making the same mistake twice. CHANCES: 5%.

Parker Kligerman. Kligerman, at 21 has progressed nicely while driving for Brad Keselowski’s Truck Series team. 11th in the season standings this year, he posted four top 5s, eight top 10s, and acquired solid sponsorship that should help him contend for the 2012 championship. Ditching that for a jump straight to Cup? That’s careless, and everyone knows it. Nowhere close to ready; he’s two years away, at least, and even owner Keselowski would help protect him. CHANCES: 1%.

So there you have it; surprisingly, Ragan is the overwhelming favorite but as we’ve seen in the Republican Presidential Race, anything can change until that signature is on the dotted line. Meanwhile, while our Bryan Keith has Kurt Busch covered, one quick note on his future: it will be defined by the lack of new ownership in this sport. With 30+ teams under the umbrella of a handful of owners, Busch’s clashes with not just Penske but Roush (who makes up all of Ford) eliminate plenty of opportunities. Hendrick? Not a chance with that personality. Childress? The man just fought his younger brother. And trust me, Tony Stewart would rather take on that dead weight, parading her through a week’s worth of festivities in Vegas and shower her with love instead of coming within a continent of hiring Busch.

So out of the megateams, who does that leave? Bryan’s suggestion of Joe Gibbs Racing. Simple process of elimination… and now, for that franchise Busch becomes like the poison apple in the Garden of Eden. Will they pick it?

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12/06/2011 06:58 AM

We won’t miss your punk ass Kurt!

12/06/2011 09:20 AM

I’d rather they didn’t rush Hornish into the seat. Let him run a full season and possibly win a title in Nationwide.

Reuti’s my pick, sorry to see he’s not high on anyone’s list. :(

Kyle Rohde
12/06/2011 11:19 AM

Kurt was featured in a lot of different print advertising, in-store displays and I swear he was also in TV spots too for Shell. He wasn’t the star, just one of many people featured including Helio, but he was there (I swear!).

Bruce Simmons
12/06/2011 11:26 AM

Ragan would seem to be the best choice, both in image and as probably an emotional fan-favorite.

Vickers, um, well, he didn’t think that one through, did he?

Hornish needs a full season of NNS time under his belt. I think if he’s going to shine, he’ll do it there first.

It would be nice to see Reutimann get a chance…

zhills fan
12/06/2011 12:20 PM

David Reutimann would be my choice by a very wide margin. Good driver that takes what is given to him and don’t wreck the equipment in doing so. Remember he has won 2 cup races and one of them (Chicago) he won by a wide margin. If you don’t believe it ask Gordan and Edwards.

Sue Rarick
12/06/2011 01:50 PM

So it would look like Penske and Shell will be satisfied with a team running in the middle or back of the pack. Has anyone realised that the information Keselowski gets from that second team with Ragan or Mears will soon have them back to running in the middle or bottom as well? Given the records ragan, Mears and Vickers had with top teir teams I would not like to be a Dodge fan next year. It could be a long long season.

Kevin in SoCal
12/06/2011 02:33 PM

I remember at least one Kurt Busch / Shell commercial with him and several Shell people standing in a gas station, and Kurt was opening several banners and streamers to announce a Shell promotional giveaway.

12/06/2011 02:51 PM

Reuti would get my vote, saves equipment and has the ability to run up front given decent cars. Shoot look at what Ragan has done in the #6 and what Reuit has accomplished in the #00. Discussion over.

Ed in Indiana
12/06/2011 03:06 PM

“how far the Indiana native has come since stepping back from the major leagues” Sam Hornish is an Ohio native

Doug in Washington (State)
12/06/2011 03:20 PM

Penske, Shell, and everyone else decided that the problems caused by Kurt outweighed the fact that he was a proven winner, consistently getting at least 1 win a year. But for the organization to work as a team, it needs their 2 cars to work AS teammates. It was no secret that Kurt did NOT like Brad, and didn’t want to work with him. Just look at the plate track pairings- when every other organization kept the pairings in-house, Kurt and Brad stayed away from each other.

So let’s look at the contenders:

1) David Ragan has but one PLATE track win in 5 years driving top-tier equipment. His numbers aren’t there- 23rd, 13th, 27th, 24th, 23rd. 2008 was an aberration. But he’s loyal, marketable, and he’s not going to tear his crew a new one 10 times a race. Or likely ever.

2) David Reutimann’s 2 wins in 5 years looks better on paper than Ragans, though the rain-win in the 600 doesn’t prove anything but his win in Chicago, driving what normally is vastly inferior equipment speaks volumes (ask Truex how good MWR stuff is). He has never had a chance to prove himself in good equipment, but he DID drive 2 cars into the Top-35 in 2008. That’s not an easy feat. His numbers aren’t great- 38th, 22nd, 16th, 18th, 28th, but the 38th was with missing 10 races (Ragan has always started the season locked in, Reutimann had 2 years having to qual in). 2011 probably torpedoed his career, though. He still finished ahead of his quasi-teammate Labonte. The big issue is he is deemed “unmarketable” due to his age (44) and lack of TV presence, but geez, how do you get TV time when your car owner, who has an ego large enough to orbit planets around, hogs all the TV time?

3) Brian Vickers’ 2 wins also look better than Ragan’s 1, but like Ragan his first was on a plate track. The second was a fairly dominant win at Michigan. But he only managed 1 win in top-tier equipment, then 1 win in middling stuff. He was the 2003 Busch Grand National champion, so he had success there. 2011 really messed up his future, unlike Kahne who knew where he was going Vickers knew he was out of a job at the end of the year, but didn’t go the right way about it.

4) Casey Mears has the same issue as Vickers- ONE win in top-tier equipment, in a fuel-mileage race. Multiple chances showed he isn’t a top-tier driver. He’s had his shot.

Who else?
David Gilliland, Travis Kvapil, and JJ Yeley. No wins amongst the 3, Kvapil is a former Truck series champion and Yeley is a multiple USAC champion. Kvapil actually drove for Penske at one time (2005), which was probably the best ride he had though running for Yates was similar. Gilliland’s best ride was Yates. Yeley’s best ride was Gibbs and he wasn’t particularly great, being releases after 2 years.

Now, there’s always the possibility of poaching a driver from another team. If Kurt Busch takes an already occupied seat, that could cause a domino effect. Kurt to the #20? Where does Logano go? Roush decides they can’t afford to run Kenseth unsponsored? There’s your champion-tier driver. I don’t see that happening, but stranger things have.

12/06/2011 04:32 PM

Vickers and Ragan are mediocrities who’ve had their shots,and failed, with top teams. Where’s the new blood in Nascar?

12/06/2011 05:09 PM

None of the ones listed. The Captain will surprise you.

Sherri T
12/06/2011 06:12 PM

I think they should try to get Bobby LaBonte out of his current contract. He just needs some top equipment and I think he would show well – and you don’t see him flipping off officials and cussing out media!

Shayne Flaherty
12/06/2011 06:41 PM

This is where NASCAR’s youth movement has failed. Most drivers mentioned were brought up to the Cup level too soon. Now, we have a huge surplus of young, politically correct, talentless race car drivers.

12/06/2011 07:36 PM

Give Johnnie Benson a call. I think he might fit the bill for Penske/Shell.

12/06/2011 08:23 PM

I would like to see Travis Kvapil get the seat. He was suppose to get the seat Roush gave to Ragan a few years ago. I would like to see Travis get his ‘big’ chance.

12/07/2011 12:41 AM

The perfect fit for Shell/Penzoil/Penske would be Matt Kenseth. Anybody else would be a seat warmer.

12/07/2011 10:29 AM

Regan Smith needs a shot in a quality ride.

12/07/2011 12:46 PM

Kenny Schrader fow the win!


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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