Vito Pugliese · Thursday September 19, 2013
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With the revelation this week that Juan Pablo Montoya will not be assuming the seat of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet, but rather returning to the IZOD IndyCar Series with Roger Penske, NASCAR’s biggest ride remaining for Silly Season has been blown ride open. Now, pure speculation surrounds who will replace Kurt Busch for 2014 at the only single-car operation to make the Chase. Since Busch and crew chief Todd Berrier have arrived at the Colorado-based team, Barney Visser’s operation has been riding a Rocky Mountain High that it hasn’t seen since Regan Smith won the 2011 Southern 500. With Busch exiting at season’s end, they must now find a wheelman to replace The Outlaw.
Who, then might be a candidate to take over the flat black Chevrolets?
Jeff Burton: Despite a sea of youngsters being interviewed, Burton is probably the odds-on, most logical choice. His handling of the announcement that he’d no longer be driving the No. 31 RCR Chevrolet this year was as you would expect from Burton: conciliatory, classy, and cooperative. No pulling up railroad ties, salting the fields, and leaving a wake of destruction in his path. Burton understands he’s not the future of RCR; however, he can still play an important role in the operation and the development of Austin and Ty Dillon as their burgeoning Cup careers materialize. Furniture Row’s RCR alliance is well-known, and this would be Spock-like logical. Besides, with nephew Jeb Burton waiting in the wings, as he has shown much promise and progression in the Truck Series, this alliance could just prove to be a family tradition in the making.
Bobby Labonte: It’s hard to believe it’s been 13 years since Bobby Labonte won a Cup Championship. Even harder to believe it’s been ten years since he’s won a race. After leaving Joe Gibbs Racing, his stints with Petty Enterprises and JTG Daugherty Racing have been less than inspired, kind of an unseemly way for a champion to fade into the background. Might being the sole focus in a ride that has shown promise, once a championship-caliber driver is placed in the seat be just the jumpstart his career needs? Labonte, at age 49 could also provide Furniture Row some stable veteran leadership. Or will he choose to ride off into the sunset of retirement instead?
James Buescher: The 2012 Truck Series Champion and winner of the Nationwide race at Daytona I feel has been a bit overlooked. He’s been gaining ground on Matt Crafton in the Trucks for the last five weeks, and his side-draft pass on Kyle Busch to win at Michigan a few weeks back was no rookie move. He might be ready to take the next step, though it would seem most likely he’d follow along a Hendrick-affiliated path given Turner’s association with HMS. It’s notable, too Turner Scott (through Harry Scott, Jr.) is moving into the Cup Series with Justin Allgaier in what used to be the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolets. However, since he’s in the Chevrolet camp, if FRR is looking to build long-term around a driver, his qualifications and potential seem like a solid deal.
Mark Martin: At first glance, Martin might be a perfect fit for this team. The veteran has proved to turn around and make an impact at the last three organizations he’s been with, since leaving Roush Fenway Racing at the end of the 2006 season. An aborted part-time schedule nearly resulted in a Cup title in 2009, and Michael Waltrip Racing suddenly had three contending cars with the arrival of he and Clint Bowyer in 2012. But even though Batesville (Arkansas) is closer to Boulder than Mooresville is, I don’t see this hiring happening. Martin seems ready to move on to the next phase of his career, and his mentoring role with Stewart-Haas and testing for Tony Stewart might be where he’s most comfortable. Besides, lifting weight in thin air probably takes a lot out of you.
David Ragan: The former Roush prodigy who seemed to always be on the cusp of breaking through and making the Chase has been with Front Row Motorsports the past few years, after sponsorship for the former No. 6 flagship was unable to be secured. Naturally, Ragan finally won a race in his last season with Roush, and since then has been biding his time with the small Ford team, running 20th-25th each week while waiting for another top-tier opportunity. He put the racing world on notice he’s a Cup-worthy contender, though with his out of nowhere move on former Roush teammate Matt Kenseth to win at Talladega earlier this year. As good a superspeedway driver as there is, Ragan has made the most of when his car does have the leverage to run well. So if FRR wants to make some headlines, perhaps with a Daytona 500 triumph – here’s your guy.
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