Every year, the stack of dominoes known as NASCAR’s Silly Season needs a major talent to come tip the scales. In order for there to be movement among teams, especially in an era where new owners and opportunities are going the way of the dinosaur there needs to be a spark in the form of a dissatisfied or underperforming driver.
We saw it in 2007, Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s decision to leave his family’s team causing a volcano that erupted through half of NASCAR’s Cup Series. By the time the smoke cleared, in February ’08 the sport’s Most Popular Driver was paired with its Most Powerful Owner; around them, nearly half the weekly Cup roster had changed rides. We saw it last year, one of the smallest crops of free agents in recent memory when Carl Edwards decided his tenure at Roush Fenway Racing had come to a close. His move to Joe Gibbs Racing, a clear-cut decision that had been in the works for months, became one of the few notable changes in a Silly Season hampered by long-term contracts.
So who will be this year’s spark, the match that lights the keg of driver dynamite on pink slips and resignations? The answer brings us to one of Sunday’s underreported stories: Danica Patrick.
It’s hard to believe the sport’s GoDaddy girl, the queen known for generating headlines would get lost in the shuffle. But a NASCAR Drivers’ Council, the feel-good victory of the season and even tunnel turn bumps made her a bit of an afterthought at Pocono. More attention was given to boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s wreck Sunday than Patrick’s mistake off turn 3, a drifting into the outside wall that led to a cut tire and a day destroyed just a few seconds later. In fact, more attention was given to a late-race spin, one that didn’t draw out the caution flag with her battered racecar coming to pit road instead of the battering she took into the turn 1 wall just moments before.
On paper, the bad day didn’t seem like a big deal. A 37th-place finish is all too familiar on Patrick’s Cup resume, especially at Pocono where she’s never run better than 29th. But NASCAR’s lone full-time Cup female, searching desperately for 2016 sponsorship was running with a major bargaining chip in her hand: staying on the verge of Chase contention. Late in the race, she was solidly in position to score a top 10 on a day where drivers on the edge of the postseason (Paul Menard, Aric Almirola, Ryan Newman) suffered disastrous luck. Indeed, had Patrick cashed in on a seventh-place finish, where she’d been much of the race that would leave her 17th in points, just 16 behind Newman and bring merit to that playoff case.
Instead? The Pocono wreck all but killed it. Patrick now sits 20th in points, having her best year in Cup by far but now 46 points behind Newman for the last spot in the Chase. Among those above her now are two drivers – Kyle Larson and Clint Bowyer – who appear close to getting their act together. Add in a potential shrinking bubble, in the form of Kyle Busch winning a race of his own and a Chase bid for Patrick now seems near impossible. She’d have to gain nearly four points on her rivals each weekend or (gulp) win a race. With her track record, despite a year of improvement even Victory Lane at Daytona seems out of reach.
That leaves her employer, Stewart-Haas Racing, faced with a clear choice: search for sponsorship, keeping Patrick in the fold through a contract extension or let her go. The answer isn’t as clear-cut as you think. Keep in mind Earnhardt, despite his popularity, had races go unsponsored in 2014; Patrick isn’t exactly that competitive by comparison. Her branding with GoDaddy has faded, making it easy for the domain provider to let her go and at age 33 straddles the line between “young gun” and “over the hill.” Committing to her now for several more years may be too much of a project, especially with co-owner Gene Haas obsessed with Kurt Busch and his soon-to-be Formula 1 program, a team which Patrick has been ruled out of driving for. Considering Haas pays for one team out of his own pocket, I’m sure he’s hardly concerned with how marketable Patrick remains and how revenue compares to her peers. It’s money he doesn’t need.
The plot thickens when you realize that among the sport’s top programs, SHR is the only one in position to open up a spot on their roster. Consider the situations of the following teams below…
Hendrick Motorsports: Long-term deals for Earnhardt and Kasey Kahne. Jimmie Johnson, signed through 2015 or ’16 isn’t going anywhere (extension pending) and Chase Elliott is already set to replace Jeff Gordon.
Joe Gibbs Racing: Denny Hamlin came out recently and said he’s signed through 2016. That was the only question on a driving roster that has Kyle Busch, Edwards and Matt Kenseth under contract through at least ’16.
Team Penske: Owner Roger Penske, having locked up “young guns” Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski for several more years, has outright refused to expand his program beyond two cars. If Ryan Blaney gets a full-time ride next year it’ll be with the satellite Wood Brothers team, not with them.
Richard Childress Racing: Newman is signed through 2016, as is Menard. The Dillon brothers, Childress’s grandkids will be in the fold until the team folds. Simple as that.
Stewart-Haas Racing: Tony Stewart, despite his struggles is the owner and dedicated to turning his team around. Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick, putting top-five finishes on the board virtually every week, aren’t going anywhere.
Those teams represent 17 cars, by and large the entire field of drivers not named Truex in contention to win the Chase. Everyone else is a rung below, to the point any movement among drivers would be less newsworthy and not altogether unexpected. But even in that “middle-tier” group, you have drivers like AJ Allmendinger that just signed a contract extension with JTG Daugherty Racing through 2020. Jamie McMurray, on a year-to-year deal with Chip Ganassi Racing, seems predestined to stay there; he’s seventh in the current Cup standings.
It all adds up to a quiet Silly Season if Patrick stays put. You could be in a situation where Gordon becomes the only top-25 driver to shift rides for 2016 (retirement), leaving Elliott as the lone rookie and the lone storyline. Except… that never ends up the way Silly Season plays out. Athletes, along with their owners are on a constant search for competitive edge. When there’s a chance to make their team better, they go for it.
It looks like the odds, in all reality are 50/50. Patrick has a good rapport with the SHR program and gets along surprisingly well with crew chief Daniel Knost, a pairing that felt like a throwaway when Tony Gibson was ripped away last fall. This year, there has clearly been growth, new rules and top-tier setups helping Patrick advance up the ladder. But stats on paper would still tell you kicking Patrick out, giving her a fresh start elsewhere gives SHR a chance to be a better team. It also might put them in position to grab a driver they want long-term, even if under contract elsewhere through 2016 with the way they’re peaking in the Cup Series. Who wouldn’t want to jump ship and join a program where its top driver, reigning Cup champion Harvick, just tied a NASCAR record for top-two finishes through 14 races? (He’s got 10.) Hamlin was once rumored to go here and keep in mind Newman, once an SHR driver, has Ty Dillon underneath him who’s openly struggling to get sponsorship to move up to Cup. Moving him out, however unlikely that sounds right now could make it easier for Childress to get the setup he needs.
So if Patrick did get shifted out, starting the dominoes where would she end up? The answer, as always these days hinges on sponsorship, but keep in mind Michael Waltrip Racing has one of the few turnkey deals remaining in Aaron’s. Patrick, if she can’t attract sponsorship could go to the No. 55 car, get paired with a similar marketing genius in Mr. Waltrip and stay afloat in NASCAR while rebuilding her brand. MWR gets itself a personality to pair with another unique driver in Bowyer and has the tools to stay relevant – even if the on-track results are far from ideal. There are other potential options as well (Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports), but none of them feel like remotely the right fit.
All of it right now, let me make perfectly clear is educated guess speculation. But what we do know for sure is none of the other dominoes start falling in NASCAR Silly Season 2015 until Patrick makes her move. Sunday made it clear, at least to me that SHR won’t get the Chase bid they need to sell sponsorship for the No. 10, making their move to keep Patrick that much more difficult. Will they keep her around or will they part ways? The answer could come sooner when we think; and once it does, we’ll know quickly just how big this row of dominoes will actually get.