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Caraviello: For potential free agents, no place like home

September 03, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Welcome to the year of staying put. Dale Earnhardt Jr. signs a new five-year deal with his current team, Hendrick Motorsports. Carl Edwards re-ups with Roush Fenway Racing. Juan Montoya has given every indication he will re-sign with Chip Ganassi, the only NASCAR car owner he has ever known. Even Danica Patrick, when she finally made her much-ballyhooed decision to move into stock cars full time, stuck with her current team, JR Motorsports, and inked a limited Sprint Cup deal with an affiliated program at Stewart-Haas Racing. What's usually known as "silly season" seems rather sensible by comparison.

Now clearly, Earnhardt and his marketing magnetism could have gone anywhere he wanted, Edwards was being wooed by Joe Gibbs Racing, and just about everybody in the garage area bought a ticket in the Danica sweepstakes. But those situations belie the fact that this is a rather stagnant time in the driver market, with very few big names swapping seats. The last major free agent to change teams was Kasey Kahne, who left Richard Petty Motorsports for Hendrick by way of Red Bull, and that was almost a year ago. What movement there has been is among lesser names who, while capable of winning races, don't exactly qualify as members of the sport's elite.

"You can't just say yes, let's do it. It takes time to put the sponsorships together, it takes time to have meetings, and it takes time to do all that."

--CLINT BOWYER

Granted, some of that has to do with the fact that so many top-tier drivers -- Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch among them -- recently locked themselves into new contracts. But even those guys all stayed in the same place. There's a greater force at work here, something that supersedes even a driver's talent or his perceived market value. Years of economic duress have taken their toll on the NASCAR garage area in the form of contraction, whereby teams have merged with other organizations or folded up completely. We're seeing it play out again right now, as Red Bull struggles to stay alive. The grand result of this process is that there are simply fewer rides available, and fewer options for top drivers even if they want to move.

That's not to say NASCAR is any less competitive -- this season, in which Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith and Paul Menard have won three of the sport's four biggest races, indicates exactly the opposite. But when it comes down to winning the championship, the picture changes entirely. That rarefied air is still the property of five or so elite organizations, and any driver who harbors legitimate title hopes can't venture too far beyond those limits. For a top-level driver to move, he needs to find that perfect combination of championship-caliber team and full-season sponsorship. In a sport where programs often perform at a level proportionate to their funding, anything less is asking to take a step down.

In that environment, a driver can find his options to be limited, and his hand to be forced. To a certain degree, that's the scenario that played out in 2009 involving Kevin Harvick, who was once so disgusted with performance at Richard Childress Racing he said he was ready to seek opportunities elsewhere. And yet, in the depths of a recession, choices were limited. Those who prematurely penciled him in for a third car at Stewart-Haas glossed over the fact there was no sponsor available to bankroll such an effort. Early the next year, Harvick signed an extension with RCR. It worked out for all parties -- Harvick and Childress repaired their relationship, and the No. 29 team had its best season in 2010. But it happened, in part, because there really wasn't anywhere else for Harvick to go.

In NASCAR, how much leverage a driver has is often dictated by forces outside his control. Edwards' situation differed from Harvick's in that it occurred in a slightly better economy, and it involved the presence of another team that was willing to make room for him, perhaps by shuffling out another driver. But those conditions are fluid, and unpredictable, and far from uniform. Unless a driver has a sponsor willing to follow him wherever he goes -- like Menard has with Menard's, or Patrick has with GoDaddy -- nothing is guaranteed. That's particularly true in a sport where a few once-great teams have faded from the landscape, taking available rides with them, and where operations below that top tier of championship contenders fight for whatever sponsorship scraps they can get.

All of which brings us to the matter of Clint Bowyer, who is in the final year of his contract with RCR. Andrew Murstein, the taxicab-medal mogul who is majority owner of RPM, recently said in a satellite radio interview that he'd like to lure Bowyer over to the Petty organization. RPM is one of those few outfits currently under NASCAR's four-car limit that has made no secret of its desire to expand, something that can be extremely difficult in a climate where mid-tier teams can have trouble attracting sponsorship dollars. No question, RPM has done a fine job repositioning itself as a scrappy two-car organization after financial instability under George Gillett almost wiped out the most famous name in stock-car racing. Marcos Ambrose won at Watkins Glen, A.J. Allmendinger can run toward the front, and the King's team seems headed in the right direction.

And yet, Bowyer is a driver who is bidding for his fourth appearance in the Chase, and seems completely capable of taking the next step in his career given the right conditions. Can he do that at RPM, a team that's won a single race and not sniffed the Chase in the post-Kahne era? Given RCR's history of fielding championship-contending teams, is this really even a decision for a driver who thinks he can win many races and vie for titles in the years to come? None of this is meant to disparage Bowyer or RPM, only to illustrate the meager choices even top-level drivers -- and by all accounts, Bowyer is one -- have these days. No wonder so many of them are staying right where they are. Oftentimes, what appear to be options aren't really options at all.

Bowyer didn't address his contract situation at Atlanta Motor Speedway; the only question he was asked about his future Friday was by a European journalist who inquired about a report linking the driver to BMW. Bowyer could not suppress a laugh. "I have no idea what you're talking about," he said. In a driver diary for Speed TV, he mentioned working on a deal to return to RCR. As he did a week earlier at Bristol Motor Speedway, he emphasized that getting everything locked down was all about time -- even if time in what remains of the 2011 season is rapidly running short.

"You know, we're just working on it," he said at Bristol. "It takes time, those deals. You can't just say yes, let's do it. It takes time to put the sponsorships together, it takes time to have meetings, and it takes time to do all that. You have got to be patient."

In essence, it appears another driver is staying put. Granted, all it takes is one domino to fall for the entire equation to change. The right driver leaves, and a flurry of action follows. That surely would have been the case had Edwards bolted for Gibbs, which would have set off a series of events that at the very least may have included Joey Logano, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne, and championship-caliber rides in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series. All it takes is the right person to move -- remember all the craziness that involved Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin, Todd Kluever, Reed Sorenson and Casey Mears in the great Roush/Ganassi shuffle prior to the 2006 campaign -- and silly season suddenly becomes very silly again.

The right support systems, though, have to be in place for those kinds of moves to unfold, and 2011 offers a climate very different from late 2005. There aren't as many teams in the garage area, aren't as many sponsors willing to write the kinds of checks it takes to back a full-time ride on the Sprint Cup tour, aren't as many options available for a driver in a contract year. Regardless of how good they are or how many races they've won, competitors potentially looking to move have only as much leverage as outside forces allow. No wonder so many of them are ultimately deciding there's no place like home.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.