Thomas Bowles · Sunday July 24, 2005
Well gang, as we head into a week off on the Nextel Cup tour, it hardly feels like it. The garage is abuzz with more news than it seems we had in February at Daytona, and although there were only two official ride switches at midseason (at the small #66 & #92 operations), you can expect the firing squad has stocked up on ammo and loaded their guns. For as we head into the heart of what may become the wildest Silly Season in the past decade, it suddenly appears that no one is safe.
After a year or two of relative calm on the Silly Season front, there’s a lot to explain why this year is the time things have gone mad. A whole generation of drivers on the tour, about a dozen of them, in fact, were approaching their high 40s entering 2005, and it was only a matter of time with NASCAR’s hectic schedule before they decided to head for the exits. When Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin announced their retirements in October, you knew that at least two quality rides would be open, and the futures of fellow 40-somethings Ricky Rudd, Kyle Petty, and Sterling Marlin were also uncertain (and still are, in fact).
Not only that, but after a year or two of Nextel Cup “field-fillers,” underfunded teams who showed up to fill the field & start and park due to lack of funds, NASCAR is experiencing an economic rebound. People forget that the “field-filler” years of the 21st Century aren’t all that different from a period NASCAR experienced back in 1995 & ‘96. During those years, only 40 fully funded teams would show up to the track to qualify on any given Sunday, and NASCAR struggled to find teams to fill the gaps. But when Busch teams and ambitious businessmen saw those 3 openings in the 43-car starting field, they started making long-term plans to join NASCAR’s top tour, and by 1997, the sport was approaching 50 fully funded cars showing up to qualify each week. Not all of them lasted, but there underlies the peaks and valleys of the sport…and with the same type of cycle happening again, looks like we’re heading toward another car-count peak.
Adding even more intrigue into the mix is Toyota’s probable ascent into the Nextel Cup Series in 2007. Now, you’d think most drivers would bolt into the Toyota camp at the end of 2006. But it’s not going to happen that way; with Toyota already snapping up some drivers in the Truck Series for ascent to Nextel Cup in ‘07 (like Todd Bodine & David Reutimann, among others), drivers are jockeying for position now and signing deals to make sure they’re not the ones left out of the mix. Michael Waltrip’s sudden departure from DEI has Toyota written all over it, and you’d better believe that the car he drives in 2006 will be in the final year of their Nextel Cup manufacturing contract. The wily veteran is just one of several expected in the foreign car makers’ camp when they make their Nextel Cup debut; luckily, Toyota’s not as excited about the “young guns” as they are about putting a winning product on the track, so other veterans, such as 40-somethings Marlin and Rudd, may have opportunities there if their Nextel Cup well runs dry.
All of this has caused a rumor mill of epic proportions in which almost every driver not named Jeff Gordon has been touched. Name a driver, and you’ll find a rumor. Greg Biffle? Linked to everyone under the sun until he re-signed with Roush two months back. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? Linked to a move to Richard Childress before Truex’s contract and a win at Chicagoland quieted those rumors down. Ryan Newman? Linked to Roush for over a month, until Penske took control of Rusty’s #2 team to ensure that Newman would ultimately be the winner in his feud with Wallace. And, perhaps most surprising of all, who would have predicted Bobby Labonte would have been thrown in among the 40-somethings possibly out of a ride? The Texan has been Gibbs’ right-hand man since 1995, but so was Jeff Burton with Roush this time last year, and look where he ended up…
All of this has amounted to one exciting gossip train, something that may not come along for another decade. Think about it…another few years, and all the 40-something drivers are gone, which makes it harder for rides to automatically open up, all while the “young guns” are slowly being locked up with long-term deals. That creates a “trickle-down” effect, and with less top options available for owners, they may look to be more patient with the “young gun” they’ve already got rather than try and sign one away from somebody else.
So sit back, relax, and enjoy all the moving around, because once the ball starts rolling, it’s gonna turn into an avalanche that won’t stop until Daytona in 2006. I just hope you have your scorecard; I write for the sport on a near-daily basis, and for me it’s even become hard to keep track.
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