(The future of Team Red Bull will have a major impact on the 2012 Sprint Cup Series driver lineup)
NASCAR’s playoff system is unique in that as the battle for the championship rages on for 12 drivers over the course of the final 10 races of the season, there are 31 others still in competition.
The Chase for the Sprint Cup opener Monday at Chicagoland Speedway saw eight of the title contenders finish inside the Top 10 with only a pair of interlopers – Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin – breaking into the front of the field.
It’s interesting to note that duo enjoyed relative success in the Chase opener, since neither driver has announced where they’ll be racing next season.
Both Bowyer and Martin find themselves in the unenviable position of ending this year’s schedule without any guarantee of what lies ahead in 2012 and beyond.
Bowyer’s career at Richard Childress Racing is all but finished when the final checkered flag of the year waves in Homestead come November. Although team owner Childress has repeatedly said there were no hard feelings between the two, the lack of sponsorship for the No. 33 entry has added up to Bowyer simply not having a ride as his contract expires.
Unfortunately for Bowyer, being a free agent in this uncertain economic time isn’t a good thing as the list of potential suitors for his services are few and far between. It’s not that Bowyer isn’t considered a talented driver or valuable commodity, but with most teams struggling to keep their heads above water on the sponsor front, adding someone to the mix without the necessary corporate backing is an impossibility.
Bowyer does appear to have some funding attached to him with 5-Hour Energy reportedly bringing about $10-12 million to the table. The company has adorned Steven Wallace’s Nationwide Series car for the last couple of years and has indicated a desire to move up to NASCAR’s top series.
However as odd as it may sound, $10-12 million bucks doesn’t pay for an entire Sprint Cup season with a competitive team and whoever takes on Bowyer will need to augment that investment with a partner.
Although it appears Michael Waltrip Racing is willing and able to do that, no official announcement is close at hand. Waltrip acknowledged his organization is in discussions to bring Bowyer on board to pair with incumbents Martin Truex Jr. and David Reutimann in a three-car effort, but additional funding still needs to be found.
MWR has paved the way for a third full-time entry by ending its affiliation with JTG Daugherty Racing, which had housed its No. 47 entry at the team’s headquarters as part of its alliance. Team owner Brad Daugherty plans to keep his organization on track next season but is currently looking at options to align with another team, with speculation of a partnership with Richard Petty Motorsports.
Daugherty’s affinity to and admiration of Petty has even included the former college basketball and NBA star wearing the No. 43 throughout his career. An association as NASCAR business partners would further that connection. RPM was close to launching a third team with Bowyer before contract talks with the driver broke down, so the desire to expand is evident.
While there has been much conversation about Bowyer’s new direction, not much has been said regarding Martin.
The veteran driver will leave Hendrick Motorsports at season’s end to give way to Kasey Kahne taking the wheel of the No. 5 Chevrolet beginning next year.
Martin has indicated he plans to stay active in 2012 but perhaps in a more limited role.
Tony Stewart has stated his aspiration to bring Martin on as a mentor to Danica Patrick next season as she makes a full-time NASCAR move that will include a complete Nationwide Series effort for JR Motorsports and 8-10 Cup starts for Stewart-Haas Racing. Martin would be the perfect complement to Patrick, serving as both adviser to Patrick as well as taking the wheel for the balance of the schedule.
But again sponsorship will drive the SHR plan and with GoDaddy.com only locked in for Patrick’s limited run, putting the car on track for the full calendar won’t happen without funding.
Martin’s other option could be whatever Team Red Bull becomes next season if General manager Jay Frye is able to find investors to keep the organization alive. Red Bull will no longer own the operation after season’s end and Frye has been scrambling to find new ownership to transition the team into its new incarnation next season.
Martin would certainly fit the bill as the veteran presence to team with a younger driver in a two-car effort, but as of now there are questions about the team being able to survive to its next evolution.
Open wheel star Jacques Villeneuve’s name has recently been attached as a potential investor, but with 2012 coming faster every day, time is of the essence to make the operation a viable competitor next year.
There’s a Sprint Cup championship on the line for twelve drivers over the course of the next three months but for others their very racing careers hang in the balance.
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