Two races still remain in the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, but much of the talk in the Cup garage already centers on 2010.
Former series champion Bobby Labonte confirmed this weekend that he has signed a one-year deal to drive the TRG Motorsports #71 next season, with a 12-race sponsorship from TaxSlayer.com. Labonte and TRG owner Kevin Buckler continue to seek backing for the remaining 24 events, and Buckler said he is also close to a decision on manufacturer affiliation for 2010.
"We're talking to several manufacturers right now,” said Buckler. “We're in the middle of some strong negotiations with them, and… we have to do what's best for the team. I tend to be very, very loyal about stuff -- maybe too much so -- but I've got a lot of partners and other people to consider here. Our final decision needs to be based on what's best for TRG Motorsports."
TRG has campaigned Chevrolets in each of the last two seasons, primarily because their cars were purchased in Impala livery from Richard Childress Racing. The team receives sheetmetal and some technological support from General Motors, but has reportedly received a competitive offer to jump to the Toyota camp next season.
Buckler revealed that he will field a second car in the season-opening Daytona 500 with a yet-unnamed driver, and would like to make the second entry permanent, if sponsorship can be found.
There are changes afoot at Roush-Fenway Racing, as well. Sources tell Sirius Speedway that Donnie Wingo will replace veteran Jimmy Fennig as crewchief of the #6 UPS Ford and driver David Ragan. Long recognized as one of the top nurturers of young NASCAR talent, Fennig is in his 13th season as a crewchief with Roush-Fenway, and has hinted that he is ready to cut back on travel in favor of a management position.
Sources say he will soon be named the team’s new head of Research and Development, and while there has been no official confirmation of the move, Ragan said Saturday at Phoenix International Raceway that he does not expect Fennig to return to his pit box next season. "He's been a teacher and crewchief and mentor, and really taught me a lot the last couple of years," said Ragan. "Ninety percent of what I know today, I learned from Jimmy Fennig.”
The U.S. Army announced last week that it will return as sponsor of Ryan Newman’s #39 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet in 15 races next season. Stewart-Haas also announced a two-year sponsorship agreement with Ruiz Foods that will make its Tornados brand -- meat, cheese and tomato sauce rolled in a seasoned crust -– a major sponsor for five Sprint Cup races in each of the next two seasons. Tornados will make its primary sponsorship debut at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March, and will serve as an associate sponsor for both Newman and Tony Stewart in the other 31 events.
The sponsor news is not as good for Robby Gordon, who learned recently that Jim Beam will not return as his team’s major backer in 2010. Gordon currently has sponsorship for only eight races next season, and said, “I'm looking at a lot of weekends off.”
Gordon said that while sponsorship is difficult to find in these tough economic times, the situation has been exacerbated by some of the sport’s mega-teams, who he claims are cutting deals for far less than it costs to field a car. He called the trend, “sponsorship suicide,'' saying he expects to see more start-and-park teams next season. He pledged that he will not be one of them, however, vowing, “We're going to continue to work hard to sell races through March of next year. After that, I'm looking at a lot of weekends off."