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Loose Lug Nuts: Happy Silly Season

by David Grayson
Sunday, June 22, 2008


Where will Tony Stewart end up next?
As spring slides into summer it is once again time for my favorite part of the year: NASCAR's silly season. It's that time of the year when the garage rumors hit a fever pitch and we are regaled with intriguing stories of what driver and sponsor is staying put and who's looking for greener pastures. With that thought in mind let's take a look at the 2008 silly season.

McDowell is considered an integral part of this operation's future and will be back in 2009. But the big question here is his sponsorship program. Napa Auto Parts is rumored to be moving from Michael Waltrip's #55 to the #00.

Sadly this operation is virtually a lost cause with too many finishes around 30th. In fact, a top 20 for this team is grounds to pop champagne corks. DEI's spin doctors are working overtime denying rumors that this team will be completely shut down. If it does return next year it remains unclear if Smith will be in the driver's seat. Also very much in the air is major sponsorship. In the past few races Principal Financial Group has been on the fenders and the DEI logo has been on the hood where a major sponsor's names is usually  located.

Richard Childress has announced his intent to pick up Bowyer's contract renewal option That's a good move because Bowyer is well on his way to becoming a NASCAR superstar. But the silly season rumors are saying that this picture isn't exactly that clear. Those flying rumors say that Bowyer's name has been attached to replacing Casey Mears in the Rick Hendrick owned #5 Chevrolet. The rumors also say that if Bowyer leaves then Ryan Newman may be interested in moving into the Jack Daniels ride.

This is the first of a few extremely high profile free agents. Still reeling from the loss of Dale Earnhardt Jr last year, DEI is reportedly pulling out all of the stops to make sure Truex stays with them. If Truex decides to seek greener pastures he appears to have some excellent options available to him. He's reported to be on the short list as the driver of Richard Childress Racing's new fourth team. There are whispers that he could land in Roger Penske's #12 if Ryan Newman leaves. Then there's the wildest rumor of all. If Tony Stewart proceeds with rumored plans to buy into Haas CNC Racing then Truex could be going to work there. Primary sponsor Bass Pro Shops is signed with DEI through 2010 but even they are rumored to be saying they would like to stay with Truex no matter where he goes.

Mears is a good driver and capable of getting the job done but he's frequently the victim of horrible racing luck often launched by another driver. Mears insists that he is signed with Rick Hendrick through 2009 and his job is safe. The rumors got red hot prior to the Infineon Raceway event when a story surfaced that Mears was told that he will not be returning to the team next year. The silly season advocates are dropping the names of Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr as possible replacements. There is some confirmed good news here: primary sponsors Kellogg’s and Carquest will be returning.

Here's a young man with a lot of potential and you have to think that Roush Fenway has big plans for him. However the team is experiencing sponsor problems right now. Triple A has announced that they will be leaving at the end of this year. Also bear in mind that Roush Fenway is going to have to comply with the NASCAR mandated ownership cap by the start of next year. That means the organization will have to pare down from five to four teams.

Gordon is the last of a dying breed: the owner and driver of a single car operation. In today's racing world it may be the ultimate uphill battle. Gordon is reported to be considering taking on a financial partner that could allow him to expand the operation to at least two cars. It would be a very wise move right now because he has serious sponsor problems. It's not clear that the small group of associate sponsors that has helped for the past two years are going to return in 2009.

There's no question about it, DEI is having a very tough silly season this year. First off, there are hot rumors that says their primary sponsor for their 8 car, U.S. Army, will not be returning. The Army is rumored to be talking with Michael Waltrip Racing and are reported to be very interested in Haas CNC Racing but only if Tony Stewart buys into the team. As for the drivers Mark Martin may stay with DEI on the same part time deal he has at present but it's been rumored that he's interested in the Haas-Stewart-Army possibility. There is absolutely no word at all regarding Almirola's future plans.

This very likeable French Canadian is expected to return to GEM in 2009 if they can land a major sponsor. Right now the money situation is looking a little bleak.

Here's another one of the high profile free agents for 2008. The winner of this year's Daytona 500 has some very good options lined out for him to choose from. He's reported to be on the short list for Richard Childress racing's fourth team that will debut next year. He's also rumored to be going to Joe Gibbs Racing's Home Depot team if Tony Stewart leaves. He also has the option of staying put if sponsorship questions can get resolved and those issues are highly interesting. Alltel, the long time team sponsor may have to exit due to an agreement in place with NASCAR's Cup Series title sponsor. When Nextel, and then later Sprint, signed on to sponsor the Cup series it was done so with the understanding that no additional telecommunications companies would be allowed to participate in the sport. Companies already in the sport, such as Alltel, were grandfathered into the agreement and allowed to stay. But earlier this year that situation got interesting when an announcement was made that Alltel was planning to merge with Verizon. Under NASCAR's contract agreement Verizon will not be able to sponsor the Penske Racing car. However it is possible that Alltel could remain on the car for as long as the start of the 2009 season because a merger this big takes a long time to complete and become official. There's also a red hot rumor that says UPS is reported to be leaving Michael Waltrip Racing and would love to have Newman as the next driver of their big brown truck. So what happens if Newman does leave Penske? The silly season rumors state that the names of drivers Martin Truex Jr and David Stremme have been mentioned.

Here's another DEI team that really hasn't lived up to its potential. Paul Menard's contract is up at the end of this year but so far there hasn't been a single word on what will become of that situation. A few months ago Tony Stewart, who was a little upset with Menard at the time, made a comment on his Sirius Satellite Radio program saying "as far as I'm concerned the kid has that Cup ride because of his daddy's checkbook." There's actually some truth to that. Daddy, by the way, is John Menard the owner of Menard's Home Improvement stores and he does write a big check to sponsor this team.

You many want to take a break here to use the bathroom, stretch your legs or perhaps make yourself something to eat. This one is going to take awhile. I'm sure that we all agree that Stewart is, and will always be, one of the most interesting characters in the world of NASCAR. We hang onto every word he says and we love it when he becomes Tony The Terrible and launches one of his famous tirades. In case you haven't noticed it yet it appears that Stewart is the lynch pin to the entire 2008 silly season. After ten highly successful years with Joe Gibbs Racing Stewart floored everyone with an announcement that it was time for a change. Now in his mid thirties, Stewart is laying the groundwork for the next phase of his racing career after he retires as an active driver. That includes being an owner. In recent years he started that process by forming Tony Stewart Racing which is a highly successful USAC open wheel racing operation. He's also involved in the ownership of two very high profile dirt tracks. He's also a well known Chevrolet man and one has to think that he wasn't that thrilled when Gibbs Racing switched to Toyota this year. Presently Stewart's contract with Gibbs runs through the end of 2009. Stewart has asked to be released from the contract and has reportedly even offered to buy out the remainder of the deal which is something we have seen before in recent years. However, company President J D Gibbs has reportedly said "no way, he's staying for the full term of the contract."

As you probably already noticed the rumor mill is going crazy with a story that says Stewart is planning to buy majority ownership of Haas CNC Racing and will drive one of their cars next year if he can get the release from Gibbs. It's not likely that Home Depot will be leaving with him. Their contract with Gibbs reportedly runs through the 2010 season. Superstar Crew Chief Greg Zipadelli’s contract with Gibbs also runs through 2009 and it's not exactly clear if he wants to stay or move with Stewart his long time friend. 

Wait a minute there's more and this one comes from my Charlotte- North Carolina cousin who is a part time racing writer and visits the NASCAR race shops on a weekly basis. My favorite cousin contacted me recently and said "Haas my ass, Stewart is going to hook up with his buddy Junior. WHAT?.  We all know that Dale Earnhardt Jr has his own Nationwide Series team known as JR Motor Sports. It's also official that the series will be launching it's own version of the Car Of Tomorrow and will run it on a part time trial basis similar to the new Cup car last year. It's well known that Junior is not too thrilled with the situation and said that if he's going to be forced to endure the cost of constructing COT's then he might as well move the team up to the Sprint Cup level. If there's an ounce of truth to an Earnhardt-Stewart merger, and the North Carolina cousin is rarely wrong, then it could have all of the right elements for Stewart. The team is well established and on its way to a successful track record. Rick Hendrick is also involved in JR Motor Sports and that means the very best equipment including power plants. The move will also reunite Stewart with Chevrolet under the very best of circumstances. No matter which way this all turns out, Stewart is definitely the focal point of this year's silly season.

One of the most prolific teams in NASCAR's history has seen nothing but frustration over the last several years and a lot of old school fans would love to see a return to their former glory years. Don't look for it anytime soon. The team employed the part time services of former champion Bill Elliot. Elliot's past champion's provisional status guaranteed the team a starting berth during key races when the team was outside the top 35 in owner's point. Elliot will officially retire at the end of this season so that provisional will not be available to the team. 2009 drivers includes Jon Wood, the third generation member of the famous racing family, or Australia's Marcus Ambrose. A combination of the two is also quite likely. The huge problem area here might be sponsorship. Little Debbies Snacks, Motorcraft and the U.S. Air Force are reported to be still on the fence about returning next year.

Blaney is another free agent who hasn't announced his plans for next year yet. That's likely because of the uncertainty of sponsorship. Caterpillar recently announced that it will not resign with Bill Davis Racing and will be moving to Richard Childress Racing and Jeff Burton.

This is the second team expected to make its debut next year for Bill Davis. No driver has been named yet. A spokesman for BDR swears that sponsorship is being worked on for both Davis cars for next year and an announcement will be made later in the year.

Here's another interesting situation that is going to garner a lot of attention. Roush Fenway currently operates five teams and must comply with a new NASCAR rule, coming next year, that states no team can field more than four cars. At this point in time the 26 team is definitely the weak link in the operation's chain. That's largely due to a lot of bad racing luck. The rumor mill states that the Mc Murray team is going to be the victim of the new rule. This is despite frequent denials from the driver and the team owners all of whom insist that the team will remain intact along with its primary sponsor Crown Royal. For this to happen Roush Fenway is going to have to find a loop hole in the ownership rule. That loop hole may very well be Yates Racing. Rumors state that Yates might be interested in absorbing the 26 team into their stable. Bear in mind that Roush Fenway and Yates co owns a Ford engine production company and they have an on track technical alliance.

Kvapil's contract is up at the end of this season but it's highly likely that he will resign for at least one more year. The big issue here is team sponsorship. The Yates cars has seen very little financial help  this year. There has been some sporadic one race sponsor deals such as the California Highway Patrol sponsoring the team at Infineon Raceway. It's really quite amazing that this team has held on as long as it has.

Despite some intense sponsorship drama this team is in excellent shape. The drama came last year when Cingular Wireless, Burton's long time sponsor, merged with AT&T. NASCAR's contract with Nextel and Sprint states that no new telecommunications firms can participate in the sport and those already presence would be grandfathered and be allowed to advertise on their team's cars. When AT&T found out they could not place their company logo on Burton's car they filed a lawsuit against NASCAR and Sprint.  A clause in the out of court settlement stated that AT&T could place their logo on the car for the remainder of 2007 and all of 2008 but would have to be gone by the start of the 2009 season. All of this drama was removed by the recent announcement that Caterpillar will be the team's primary sponsor next year.

This is the highly anticipated fourth team that Childress will debut next year. Topping a short list of drivers Childress would like to see behind the wheel is Ryan Newman, if he leaves Penske Racing, and Martin Truex Jr, if he decides to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. Towards the bottom of the list are the names Aric Almirola, another DEI driver whose plans are up in the air,  and Scott Wimmer who has had some good runs in a Childress Car in the Nationwide Series. General Mills, and their Cheerios brand, will be the team's primary sponsor.

Gilliland is currently signed with the team through 2009 but there is a huge sponsorship concern here. He started 2008 with a six race deal with Free Credit Report Dot Com who signed on for a few more events later in the year. The race to race deals are getting few and far between and Yates Racing desperately needs full time sponsors if they are going to continue to exist.

There are some who say this operation is a work in progress and there are others who say it's a mess and changes should be made. Team owner Chip Ganassi still believes in his vision of bringing Franchitti to NASCAR and plans no changes next year. The team's sponsor program could be a different story. It's unclear at this point if they even have lined up a sponsor for next year.

This operation is another source of concern for Chip Ganassi. Sorenson’s tenure in this ride has produced very few bright spots over the past two years and he's likely going to have to step things up for the remainder of 2008 to keep his job. The hot rumor here is the name of the driver who may be taking over this ride in 2009. It appears that Ganassi may want to continue his trend of bringing open wheel racers to NASCAR. The rumor mill states that IRL Ganassi driver Dan Wheldon may be the next open wheeler to make his NASCAR debut. Also, rumors that say long time sponsor Target may be leaving are being flatly denied by everyone involved.

Montoya spent the first three months of 2008 loudly expressing his general state of unhappiness. Although he seems to be a lot more settled now it has to be pointed out that he's now working with his third crew chief since February and that alone indicates a lot of internal problems within this team. The larger problem may be coming due to rumors that primary co-sponsors, Havoline Motor oil and Wrigley's Gum, may be looking at other promotional options.

The good news here is the announcement that said Petty Enterprises had sold the majority interest of their operation to Boston Ventures. That influx of capital will allow the Pettys to elevate their teams to the technology level of their competitors and that includes more track testing and wind tunnel tests. Because of this Bobby Labonte, who was rumored to be leaving at the end of this year, has resigned with the Pettys and will be in the seat until 2012. The down side is the departure of long time primary sponsor General Mills. However, the Pettys are saying they are in close talks with a new sponsor but are being very careful about saying who it is. It's also possible that they may be fielding a third team next year if a sponsor can be found. It's likely that Petty development driver Chad Mc Cumbee will get the nod for the new team. That's also a good move. This kid has a lot of potential.

Another 2008 free agent that will bear watching because Reutimann has a lot of potential. One factor that may have him changing teams is the fact that primary sponsor UPS is not expected to return next year. Reutimann has been rumored to be talking to Richard Childress and his new fourth team, Roger Penske as a possible replacement if Ryan Newman leaves and his name has been linked to a fourth team fielded by Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Kyle Petty is slowly gravitating towards the retirement that many felt should have been announced a long time ago. He also developing a new career in broadcasting. This is a good move because he has a natural flare for it He's currently on his annual six race sabbatical to participate in the TNT NASCAR broadcasts. Two time NASCAR champion Terry Labonte will drive the car during this period. This is also a good move because Labonte's past champion's provisional status will guarantee the car will start the races and hopefully help the team get back into the top 35 in owner's points. Petty's rotation of sponsors, led by Wells Fargo and Marathon Oil, are reportedly undecided about resigning however the recent financial merger with Boston Venues may help that situation.

Waltrip has said that he plans to race a few more season before retiring and becoming a full time owner. His long time association with Napa Auto parts is rumored to be coming to an end. Napa might be switched to Waltrip Racing's #00, driven by Michael Mc Dowell, or they may be leaving all together depending on what you choose to believe. Waltrip is expected to announce that Office Depot will be sponsoring his #55 next year.

Here we go with the Tony Stewart connection again and the rumors he may be buying the majority ownership of this team and expanding it to three cars. If this actually happens Stewart will be driving one of the cars. Other names rumored to be interested in joining him include Martin Truex Jr, Ryan Newman and Mark Martin. Rumors about possible sponsors for the three car team include the names of UPS, U.S. Army and Bass Pro Shops. Scott Riggs, the current driver of the #70, is not expected to return next year.

Despite a dismal 2008 season that saw the team fall out of the top 35 in owner's points, Yeley is expected to return to the team next year. There are also reports that HOF Racing will be debuting a second car with young driver Brad Coleman behind the wheel.

Edwards is signed with his team until 2011. The big change here is the rumor that primary co-sponsor Office Depot is leaving and will be replaced by Aflac Insurance. Get ready for more crazy duck commercials.

To compile all of this I had to spend mega hours watching television and even more mega hours reading every racing Internet website in the world. I have a headache, my eyes are crossed and the back of my front feels like someone loaded it with concrete. I also suspect that my lug nuts are loose. Somehow the effort all seems to be worth it.

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