Three, as any true fan of driving fast and turning left a lot, is an auspicious number in the great sport of NASCAR. Made famous by the inimitable, irascible, hardscrabble wheelman, Dale Earnhardt, the black No. 3 Goodwrench Chevy is an iconic car that arguably almost transcends the sport. It is then entirely appropriate that with just three races to go on the grueling 36-race marathon that is the Sprint Cup Series, three drivers will contest the 2010 championship unless something bizarre befalls Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin at each of the next three circuits. But while the big boys fight it out for the giant check and the shiny, ornate trophy, there are plenty of other drivers already wondering, with some trepidation, about what next year will bring. Here are five in particular as we head into the final month of the 2010 season.
Let’s start with the amiable veteran Elliott Sadler, who is out of contract at the end of the season and without definitive plans for next year at this stage. With some 426 races over 13 years under his belt, it would take only someone of immense stupidity to argue that Sadler hasn’t had the chance to show what he can do. One top-10 all year (ninth at the second Michigan race) quite simply isn’t going to cut it. When your season “highlight” is the hardest recorded crash in the history of the sport… you know it isn’t good. The future for Sadler probably lies in the Nationwide or Truck series, most likely under the KHI/RCR banner. Here’s hoping one of the sport’s true good guys finds somewhere he can run competitively, because despite the results to the contrary, it’s clear the fire still burns in the Virginian.
Sam Hornish Jr.
Making fun of Sam Hornish Jr.’s prowess in a stock car is just a little too easy. In fact, it pretty much makes shooting fish in a barrel appear tough by comparison. After three years in good – if not top, top equipment – the numbers don’t lie. Sam just hasn’t got it done, picking up two top-fives and eight top-10 finishes in 105 races. His high water mark in 2010 was a 10th-place run at Loudon in the first race of the Chase. With no deal in place for 2011 (Hornish says he’s looking) and no sponsorship lined up – current backer Mobil 1 will move to Stewart-Haas Racing next year – the next three races could very well be the last of his career in stock cars. A return to open-wheel might not yield the immediate success Dario Franchitti saw, but Hornish would surely run significantly more competitively. That’s not so very hard to do though, to be fair…
Marcos Ambrose has had, all told, a pretty shocking year. Expected to make a serious push for the Chase after a solid first full season, the sophomore has struggled through a difficult 2010 replete with bad luck, ill-advised moves and none of the sporting luck that often seems to surround the Australians. Ambrose signed a multi-year contract to drive the No. 9 car in 2011 for Richard Petty Motorsports, and sponsor Stanley Black & Decker is on board. The question remains whether there will be actually any sort of company left before the turn of the year to go with. Describing his move to come to America and race stock cars as “stupidity and bravery,” Ambrose faced up to his terrible mental error at Sonoma (he turned off his engine to save fuel under yellow, while pacing the field with a handful of laps left, then couldn’t get it re-fired and lost his lead in truly bizarre fashion) head on. That won him a lot of respect, especially when it would have been easier to hide. Whatever happens with RPM, and certainly if the company folds, I can’t help but hope Ambrose lands somewhere for 2011. Simply put, the sport needs characters, and a character Ambrose most definitely is.
Just as with Ambrose, the immediate future is anything but clear for AJ Allmendinger. “I wish I had answers,” noted the RPM wheelman before the AMP Energy Juice 500 this past Sunday. “I wish I could tell my team guys it’s going to be OK. I wish I could have the answers that everybody wants, but I don’t…. I’m not sitting at home thinking everything is peachy. I’m a guy who stresses a lot about everything, so in the end we’re here racing the car.” Or, in Allmendinger’s case, at Talladega flipping the car on a frantic final lap – a career first, he claimed post-race. As with Sadler and Ambrose, it’s hard to root against Allmendinger. In fact, it’s quite the opposite for most people. Yet to consistently have the finishes his early race form indicates, you get the sense that the penny has dropped this year and he’s finally working out what it is he needs to do to make it happen week-in, week-out. Will he get the chance to finally make the breakthrough next year? Maybe.
When Jack Roush chose between David Ragan and Jamie McMurray for the fourth and final seat at RFR this season, most observers felt it was a no brainer of a choice. 33 races later, the exact opposite looks to be true. McMurray, Chase or otherwise, has had a career year full of unexpected and brilliant highs. Ragan, meanwhile, has been all but anonymous. With his contract expiring at the end of 2011 and a measly four top-10 finishes, no wins and no top-fives in the last 69 races, Ragan needs a strong finish in the worst way. It seems unlikely to suggest he would be replaced over the offseason, but if Ragan doesn’t put it together in 2011, he might find himself out of top flight racing before he really got going. One good thing – his UPS ads were exceptional – but it’s a sad indictment when that’s the best you can say after 33 races and nine months of action.