Race Weekend Central

Bowles-Eye View: Who’s the Best NASCAR Free Agent Left?

With the 2009 Silly Season circus coming to a close, there’s more drivers left than rides to fill in the NASCAR Cup Series these days. Once Jamie McMurray signs with the No. 1 of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing (expected to happen this week), the only car available with primary sponsorship money secured, in fact, is the No. 09 car owned by James Finch. No less than four experienced drivers are competing for that seat as finalists, a sign of how the tough economy will easily leave more than a few on the outside looking in.

So as the free agent pool begins to deplete itself, who’s the best guy left without a 2010 contract? Let’s examine the pluses and minuses of each one to see who has a good chance to stay afloat on the Cup side next season – and who might be better off flipping burgers:

Bobby Labonte

Credentials: 2000 Cup Series champion, 21 wins and 199 top 10s in 580 Sprint Cup starts

Pluses: Labonte comes packaged with the most recent past champion’s provisional, meaning he gives any team outside the Top 35 six free passes into any race should the car be too slow to qualify on speed. He’s also got the most experience of any driver still standing, having driven a Ford, Chevy and Dodge under the Car of Tomorrow banner in just the last two years.

Minuses: Age and pride. At 45, Labonte’s not getting any younger in a sport where 40 is suddenly a midlife crisis point for sponsors unwilling to commit. And after four dismal years on the circuit after leaving a cushy gig at Joe Gibbs Racing, this former champ’s not exactly enthused about putting together a half-hearted effort. If he’s a part of a building process like at TRG Motorsports, that’s one thing. But pulling the equivalent of a start-and-park with a team that has no direction? He’d rather just go retire and join his older brother on the sidelines.

Chances of a ride in 2010: Highest of all the candidates. Even though sponsorship is still pending, owner Kevin Buckler has made it clear he wants Labonte back in his No. 71 car for TRG next season.

Casey Mears

Credentials: One win, 46 top 10s in 250 Sprint Cup starts

Pluses: The knock on Mears is he doesn’t get the car to victory lane… but he sure brings it home in one piece. He’s averaged just two DNFs over the past four seasons and has finished each of his 34 races in Richard Childress’s No. 07 Chevy in 2009. That’s put him in position to finish in the top 20 in points for a fourth straight season. Is that as good as making the Chase? Of course not… but it’s not too shabby to put on a resume, either.

Minuses: For the past four seasons, Mears has also had the benefit of top-level equipment: from Chip Ganassi’s No. 42 in 2006 to Rick Hendrick’s team in 2007-’08 to an RCR car in ’09 that had finished in the top five in points two straight years with Clint Bowyer. Yet all Mears has to show for it is one fuel-mileage win at Charlotte, just eight top-five finishes in 142 starts and a boatload of unfulfilled potential. Sure, he’s got a famous name and he’s one heck of a nice guy. But when the economy’s tanking, that ain’t enough to earn you a paycheck.

Chances of a ride in 2010: Let’s just say RCR better get sponsorship for his ride. Otherwise… looks like he’s finally the odd man out.

David Gilliland

Credentials: One Nationwide Series win, two poles and four top 10s in 116 Cup starts

Pluses: The lone success story out of the back of the garage this season, Gilliland ran hard for the underfunded TRG Motorsports camp, qualifying for every race he attempted in the No. 71 with a best finish of 15th at Las Vegas in March. With the type of rides left available, qualifying will weigh heavily in the selection process, and there’s no doubt this guy can get any type of car in the show. And as for his talent? It was enough to impress Joe Gibbs, who set him up with a partial schedule in a fourth car in the latter half of 2009.

Minuses: At 33, Gilliland’s not exactly a young gun and hasn’t lived up to potential displayed by his miraculous 2006 Nationwide Series win at Kentucky. With just 24 lead-lap finishes in 116 Cup starts, he has yet to show the in-race consistency teams are looking for to replicate that Friday success two days later. Will the right team have the patience to wait for that to develop?

Chances of a ride in 2010: If Buckler had his way, he’d have both Gilliland and Labonte in his stable. But sponsorship will likely leave an opening for only one, which means Gilliland may be far better off begging JGR for another partial schedule in 2010, riding out the economy and waiting for one more full-time chance in ’11.

Travis Kvapil

Credentials: 2003 Truck Series champion, six top-10 finishes and one pole in 111 Sprint Cup starts

Pluses: Kvapil was arguably one of the most improved drivers on the Cup circuit last year, scoring four top-10 finishes and a pole for a Yates Racing team that could never even put together full sponsorship for him. Finishing a career high 23rd in points, the 33-year-old showed he has what it takes to compete at the sport’s top level after a one-year hiatus.

Minuses: As good as 2008 was, ’09 was a serious regression. Yes, his team was pulled out from under him, but an embarrassing DNQ in the first five races helped seal the deal on his ouster from Yates due to sponsorship woes. Kvapil’s then spent most of the rest of the year on the sidelines, with his quiet, unassuming personality great for team chemistry but awful for marketing execs looking to put a sponsorship package together. In this age where you have to bring money to the table more than ever, can a humble guy from Nowhereville, Wis. attach himself to the right company?

Chances of a ride in 2010: He may not like to hear it, but right now someplace in the Nationwide or Trucks is probably a better fit. For the start-and-park equipment Kvapil will likely be offered, wouldn’t you rather go find a home someplace where you can compete for a title?

Reed Sorenson

Credentials: Three Nationwide wins, 14 top 10s in 143 Sprint Cup starts

Pluses: Just 23, you’d think Sorenson still has a whole career ahead of him at this level. And while he’s gone 33 straight races without a top-10 finish, just one DNF has him 28th in the standings. His whole “racing for free” scenario (it was either that or be fired from RPM) also has erased some of the negative vibes from a guy labeled a problem child by former car owner Felix Sabates.

Minuses: For years, the knock on Sorenson has been he doesn’t put the effort in to succeed in a Cup ride, that he’s a victim of too much success too soon. Right now, there’s no evidence out there to contradict that assessment. Described in inner circles as one of the most laid-back guys on the circuit, the line between “laid back” and “lazy” appears to be blurred here.

One year after being given a chance to drive the famed No. 43, Sorenson lost out on a chance to stay with the team due to the effort and determination of late addition AJ Allmendinger. And considering the dedication you’ll need to simply survive in one of these small-time rides still available… would Sorenson be able to step up to the plate?

Chances of a ride in 2010: Todd Braun has a soft spot for Sorenson, and some races are available in the No. 32 car the two paired up with to drive to victory at Gateway two years ago. Sorenson has his hopes up for Cup, but I have him a longshot at best for every ride still available – meaning a limited Nationwide Series ride might be good to help him grow up.

David Stremme

Credentials: Three top 10s in 108 Cup starts

Pluses: Hard to find them in a difficult year with Penske, but hey, at least Roger thought he was talented enough for the No. 12 ride! Over on the Nationwide side, it’s a different story, but the consistency of 49 top 10s in 133 starts just hasn’t ever translated over to the next level.

Minuses: No top 10s in 33 starts in top-level equipment? Ouch. That’s kind of tough to rebound from considering Penske was not Stremme’s first but second go-round in this series. With six DNFs and a history of wrecking, there’s not much to elevate him past more successful drivers like Mears who have yet to be picked up.

Chances of a ride in 2010: Believe it or not, Stremme might get lucky, as Finch and Stremme used to work together over in Nationwide (Stremme drove his car to Rookie of the Year in 2003). But if he blows his chance at Homestead with the No. 09, Nationwide is the likely solution for him… and this time, expect him to be more like Jason Leffler as there will be no third chance at Cup glory.

Scott Riggs

Credentials: Four Nationwide Series wins, 16 top 10s in 175 Cup starts

Pluses: Riggs was once looked at as an up and coming star, and has six years of Cup experience under his belt. Having worked for the rich (RPM), the middle class (the former MB2 Motorsports), and the poor (Tommy Baldwin Racing), he knows how to get the most out of the car in each situation.

Minuses: After leaving TBR in May when the team changed its strategy to starting-and-parking, Riggs hates the concept. But you wonder if his Sprint Cup disappearing act has left him off the radar screen for car owners with half-a-dozen drivers coming up to them asking for work each weekend inside the garage. At 39, Riggs is no spring chicken either, and has needed some serious adjustment time for every Cup ride he’s taken. In this era of no patience, you wonder if that’s going to be acceptable.

Chances of a ride in 2010: Out of sight, out of mind. There was a great NASCAR Illustrated piece that talked about what might have been with Riggs. And come Feb. 2010, that’s exactly what he’ll be wondering when sitting on the sidelines.

Who I Would Hire – In Order, as of 11/10/09
1) Bobby Labonte
2) Travis Kvapil
3) Casey Mears
4) Scott Riggs
5) David Gilliland
6) David Stremme
7) Reed Sorenson

Tom Bowles is now on Twitter! Click HERE to become a follower.

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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