Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Green Flag Drops on Silly Season

As expected, Hendrick Motorsports announced on Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway that Casey Mears would not return to the No. 5 car in 2009. The move was first reported following last week's race at Sonoma, where it was rumored Mark Martin would fill the ride after leaving the No. 8 car and Dale Earnhardt, Inc. behind.

While Rick Hendrick would not address who will drive the No. 5 car next season, his confirmation of Mears' departure made official a move I hoped wouldn't come. At 24th in points, Mears was the odd man out at Hendrick anyway, considering the success of his three teammates. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have six Sprint Cup titles between them, and new guy Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits third in points in his first season with the team.

Mears finished fifth at Infineon last weekend, and won last year's Coca-Cola 600 on excellent fuel strategy, but Mears never clicked at Hendrick, much like he didn't click at Target Chip Ganassi before. Mears is rumored to be a lead candidate to pilot Richard Childress' fourth Cup car next season, but there comes a point where one must ask: is the 31-year-old Mears really cut out for the Sprint Cup Series?

I hate to ask this, because Mears is a talented driver and a class act. He deserves a chance in the series, but if he couldn't flourish with one of the series' most successful organization, what are the chances he'll find sustained success elsewhere? Anything's possible, but I sadly don't see it.

Stories told that Hendrick's son Ricky -- who before he died in that 2004 plane crash owned part of his father's Nationwide Series ride -- talked Hendrick out of putting Mears in that car, choosing instead Brian Vickers. The move has paid off more or less for Vickers, but Mears could've turned that seat time into experience and found more success on the Cup level.

As for Martin, will he make one more run at the Sprint Cup championship? If he wants, Hendrick isn't a bad place to go. Even so, with rampant speculation regarding the future of JR Motorsports -- a Nationwide Series operation co-owned by Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick, rumors have Martin splitting the No. 5 car with Brad Keselowski.

Though I think Keselowski, who sits second in Nationwide Series points, isn't ready to drive a Cup car yet, I can't argue with the notion of having Martin mentor him.

This is a bad deal for Mears, even though he realizes his performance justified the move. I hope Mears finds his footing, even if he has to leave the Sprint Cup Series to do it.

Elsewhere ...

-Greg Biffle finally signed that three-year extension with Roush-Fenway Racing, keeping him with the organization he's spent his entire NASCAR career in through 2011. Biffle will have 3M as his primary sponsor.

Biffle is seventh in Cup points, looking to make the Chase and hopefully win a few races along the way. Considering his success with Roush-Fenway -- he won Craftsman Truck and Nationwide Series titles, and finished second in the Sprint Cup standings in 2006 -- I'm not one to argue against The Biff.

-Forget those Clint-Bowyer-to-Hendrick rumors (thanks a lot, -- the third-year Cup driver also announced a three-year extension at NHMS. Bowyer, who won his first Cup race at Loudon last September, will stay with Richard Childress Racing through 2011.

-Tony Stewart acknowledged the Casey Mears situation on Friday at New Hampshire, telling's David Caraviello, "Absolutely (I would look at the No. 5 car). You've got to. There's nobody in the garage area that's not going to look in that direction. You've got to look at that."

While I'm sure Kyle Busch would argue the "anyone would look at the No. 5 car" point, Stewart's admission is a rare sign of honesty in what is normally a very hush-hush time in the sport. Do I think Stewart will drive the No. 5? No -- much as some fantasy geeks might love it, I don't see a super team of Gordon, Johnson, Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart -- but you can't deny the leverage the opening at Hendrick will give Stewart when he goes to ask Joe Gibbs for a release from his contract.

If anything, Stewart is more likely to take the offer at Haas-CNC Racing, if for no other reason than the chance to gain partial ownership of a Cup team. While that operation is in serious need of a makeover, I don't doubt Stewart desperately wants in on the ownership aspect of the sport, and I don't see established names like Gibbs or Hendrick giving him that.

-Don't look now, but DEI could be in trouble. Martin Truex Jr., the leading man at DEI since Dale Earnhardt Jr. left for Hendrick Motorsports, isn't happy with his team's performance this season. Truex made the Chase last season and won his first career race at Dover, but this year Truex sits 17th in points with just four top-10 finishes.

Apparently, lead driver at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. doesn't mean what it used to.

Truex is unhappy for many of the same reasons Earnhardt was in his last few years at DEI -- a lack of resources and horsepower when compared to the other top teams in the Sprint Cup Series (not to mention Junior blew about a million motors last year). On top of that, Truex and the team have yet to agree on an option for 2009. If no agreement is reached, Truex will be a free agent at the end of the season.

Would Truex join his friend Earnhardt at Hendrick? Highly doubtful -- the recently-open No. 5 appears destined for Mark Martin -- but Truex will have options, especially if Stewart opts out at Gibbs. Ryan Newman's future with Roger Penske's team is also in question, providing another potential open seat should Truex decide to give Teresa Earnhardt his walking papers.

When it was announced last weekend that Martin would leave DEI after this season, the Army also announced it would be leaving the team. So as it stands now, DEI is losing a top-flight driver, a sponsor with deep pockets and possibly another talented wheel man.

If all of this pans out as expected, DEI will enter 2009 with four cars, two sponsorship deals and three unproven drivers in Aric Almirola, Regan Smith and Paul Menard (though to call Menard unproven instead of bad is being charitable).

Something tells me this isn't exactly what the late Dale Earnhardt had in mind when he first formed DEI all those years ago, and certainly not what he had in mind when he decided to leave the company to Teresa upon the event of his passing. A lot of fans are still mad she let Junior get away, and will likely see this fallout as nothing more than the racing gods exacting karma on Teresa for what she's done to her late husband's company.

DEI was supposed to be the Earnhardt legacy -- for both Senior and Junior. But as it stands now, if things don't change -- and fast -- DEI could wind up being DOA.

No comments: