Monday, August 02, 2010

Silly Season Now Underway In Earnest

Kasey Kahne kicked off the 2011 edition of NASCAR Sprint Cup Silly Season more than a month ago, announcing that he will leave Richard Petty Motorsports at season’s end to fill an as-yet-unnamed seat in 2011, before replacing Mark Martin at the wheel of the #5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet the following year. Now, a number of other dominos are beginning to fall.

Rick Hendrick said last week that he intends to honor the final year of Martin's contract, but would not rule out Kahne driving the #5 Chevrolet next season. "If I tell you what I will do, (then) do something different because I haven't thought about it, you'll think I lied to you,” said Hendrick last week. “I'm keeping all options open (and) trying to make everybody happy.” Martin has repeatedly stated that he will return to the #5 car next season, and Hendrick said of Martin’s status, “Right now it's his seat and it's his call. Mark has made a heck of a contribution to our organization and I wish he could drive four or five more years."

He also apologized publically to Martin for igniting a storm of speculation about Martin’s future that has angered the veteran driver. "It pissed Mark off, and I take 100 percent (of the blame). I never signed a driver this early and you've got to make everything fit with the sponsors and everything else. It's a very complicated deal, (but) I've got ideas and I want to make it best for everybody involved.''

Marcos Ambrose announced last week that he will leave JTG Daugherty Racing at the end of the 2010 campaign. "After five years, I personally felt it was time for a change,” said Ambrose. “We haven’t had the year we wanted to have, and I felt stale in what we were doing. I don’t want to impede JTG’s progress. I want to get out of their way and let them transition to their next driver with plenty of time left this year.” Ambrose said he has no “Plan B” in place for 2011 and could even return to his native Australia if another Sprint Cup opportunity does not surface, but multiple sources say a deal with Richard Petty Motorsports is nearly complete to put the popular Aussie in the #9 Ford next season, replacing Kahne.

Ford Racing Marketing Manager Tim Duerr declined to comment specifically on the report, but said the automaker has longstanding ties with Ambrose. “Marcos started with Ford and Ford brought him to NASCAR,” said Duerr. “He bleeds Ford blue, and we would love to see him back in a Ford next season. I don’t think that Marcos has a signed Sprint Cup ride for next season at present. It all depends on him, a sponsor and a team putting something together, but I am optimistic that we will see Marcos back in a Ford next season.”

A spokesman for Richard Petty Motorsports declined to comment, calling the report “speculation.”

Bobby Labonte will replace Ambrose at JTG Daugherty next season, after finalizing a deal with the team last week. Ambrose says he expects to finish the season in the #47 Toyota, but would step aside early, if asked to do so.

RPM has three additional holes to fill, with drivers AJ Allmendinger, Paul Menard and Elliott Sadler all in the final year of their respective contracts. Sadler has said he does not expect to be a part of the team’s lineup next season, though RPM Executive Director of Racing Operations Robbie Loomis said recently that Sadler is still on the team’s list of potential drivers for 2011.

Allmendinger, meanwhile, is believed to be close to a new, multi-year deal that will keep him in the team’s legendary #43 Ford in 2011 and beyond. “I have had some great conversations with the people here at Richard Petty Motorsports, and with other organizations,” said Allmendinger. “I’m confident that I’ll have something to announce in the fairly near future.”

Menard also has multiple options for next season. Richard Childress said this week that he is “looking at” the possibility of expanding to a four-car Sprint Cup operation again next year, after being forced to downsize to three cars when a sponsor could not be found to retain Casey Mears for 2010. He refused to comment on the possibility of signing Menard, but admitted that a fourth team is once again possible, pending sponsorship. Menard obviously comes fully sponsored, and is reportedly negotiating with both RCR and RPM.

Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing is working hard to sign Jamie McMurray to a new contract. The Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 winner signed a one-year deal with EGR during the offseason after leaving Roush-Fenway Racing, and when asked if he hoped to sign McMurray to a new, long-term pact, team owner Chip Ganassi joked, "I'm going to fire him. What do you think?" Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris has said that he is happy with both McMurray and the team, and expects the company to return as sponsor next season.

Finally, Red Bull Racing General Manager Jay Frye says a decision on the future of driver Scott Speed will be announced within the next month. Speed is currently ranked outside the Top 25 in championship points, with only two Top-10 finishes this season. Sources close to the team say the former Formula One driver has been informed that he must produce tangible results soon to save his job.

Frye admitted unhappiness with Speed’s performance recently, saying, "We need to perform. We need to do better. We started the year off pretty strong, (but) we kind of regressed.” Asked about his contract status, Speed said, "I don't know if I'm allowed to talk about it.”

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