For Sprint Cup’s crowded field of free agents, matching the current state of unemployment in this country Christmas will come a little early this year – at least for one. Kurt Busch’s departure from Penske, leaving a seat that was 11th in points last season produces a top-tier job opportunity for 2012 at a time when fully-funded Sprint Cup teams are set to decrease by almost 10%.
Yes, whoever gets it will likely get a one-year deal regardless of their success in the car: A-level free drivers like Matt Kenseth or Denny Hamlin could be available next season, with Sam Hornish Jr. moving up regardless of funding in 2013. But who wouldn’t take a “Kasey Kahne” type of lame-duck ride, a temp job that could produce both victories and a Chase appearance immediately?
No wonder why drivers are already banging down Penske’s door by the dozen. With Busch out, here’s a look at the most likely candidates to take the slot:
Everyone on the national beat has pegged Ragan, formerly of Roush Fenway Racing as the overwhelming favorite to take the seat. The driver himself even publicly lobbied Monday (Dec. 5), informing ESPN he “wanted to be under consideration for that car” and acknowledging a call with Penske President Tim Cindric. Both sides will sit down sometime in the next week to conduct a formal interview for the seat.
For the record, my sources have Ragan as the number one candidate as well. I can see why he fits: after taking the public relations hit of Busch, Shell/Pennzoil is willing to give up championship caliber performances for political correctness. And while Ragan won’t win a title, even make the Chase in the No. 22 he’ll fit the Penske image of “clean cut” while not making a peep on the publicity front for 12 months.
Note that Shell wasn’t exactly using Busch for their national commercials, right? The on-track exposure of their colors on the car, combined with the benefits of a business-to-business relationship with Penske is enough for them. That leaves Ragan’s wallpaper personality virtually irrelevant; the fact he could eke out a restrictor-plate victory, maybe two under the right circumstances is an added bonus.
We should note the Georgian did take a slight risk; his release from Roush Fenway Racing Monday morning, which was granted, did cost him at least a part-time opportunity. Sources told me over the weekend there’s an investment group negotiating to buy some of the RFR Fords, start their own satellite operation and run a part-time schedule with the No. 6. Ragan was supposed to be in that seat; but if the odds fall in his favor at Penske, one thinks he’ll be much happier driving the No. 22. CHANCES: 70%.
Team Red Bull’s former main squeeze is looking for an energetic opportunity to continue his Cup career. I think a few months ago, before the Chase Vickers would be the clear number one candidate. There’s no one else on the sidelines with postseason experience and people forget Vickers is one year removed from blood clot that nearly ended not just his Sprint Cup career but his life. It takes time to settle in and recover from that, and the 2009 postseason participant should be sharper in whatever ride he gets in 2012.
Sadly though, the Martinsville-Phoenix debacle with Kenseth seems to have put a permanent dent in Vickers’s reputation. It was bad enough the man was part of half-a-dozen cautions at the short track; the fact he used Phoenix for revenge, when Kenseth was battling for a championship did not sit well with most insiders.
The explanation from Vickers that Kenseth’s brakes failed, causing him to wreck into the No. 17 in the desert didn’t break through the minds of most, even if it was true – occurring on the same weekend as teammate Kasey Kahne’s victory, that was an ugly comparison at the worst possible time. You don’t want the season to end and have everyone’s enduring image be of you wrecking people.
Yet that’s where we are with Vickers. There are other obstacles, too; his extreme sports hobbies, a great fit with Red Bull clash with the conservatism of old-school Penske. But for this ride, he would be my choice and clearly has the most talent of anyone on the sidelines. It’s just an uphill battle to remind people of that. CHANCES: 10%.
A longshot, or so it seems, but don’t we always say that about this guy? Mears is the only Cup driver to have slipped behind the wheel for Chip Ganassi, Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress during an underachieving career that’s produced just one lone victory, the Coca-Cola 600 in 2007.
That top-tier portion of his career has faded away; currently, he drives the GEICO Toyota for a single-car team in Germain Racing that doesn’t even have funding to run the distance in all 36 events. And did I mention his last top-five finish came three years ago?
Good thing there’s Uncle Rick to save the day. The multiple Indy 500 winner, whose ties with former owner Penske remain strong could make a difference after years of verbal abuse by Busch. If there’s one thing NASCAR’s nice guy has proven, it’s that he won’t cause any problems and bring the equipment home in one piece; the epitomy of “average” when this situation requires nothing more, nothing less.
And if the seat is being kept warm for Hornish, there will be little controversy on who should get it at year’s end. A compromise pick if there ever was one. CHANCES: 8%.
So far, in talking to sources I haven’t heard his name come up yet. That’s much to fan’s chagrin, as many people thought Reutimann got the shaft with his October release from Michael Waltrip Racing. But loyalty, however strong does not erase a total of two career victories in five seasons. Unlike Vickers, Reutimann never made the Chase; unlike Ragan, he’s not as marketable a personality. There’s a reason why big companies like UPS have shied away despite the success.
Even on the racing side, Reutimann faces an uphill battle. A Toyota guy his whole career the Florida native hasn’t exactly dealt with the adjustment of switching manufacturers. Sure, it’s not as difficult as it used to be; but when you’re already down two strikes in the count, it’s enough to knock you off the list. CHANCES: 6%. (And that’s being generous)
Sam Hornish Jr.
The top internal choice, Hornish was being prepped for a full-time Nationwide Series schedule before Punch-Gate. A win at Phoenix last month, his first in NASCAR’s “AAA” division shows how far the Indiana native has come since stepping back from the major leagues.
But without one more season under his belt, adding the experience of battling for a championship Hornish may be moving up too quickly. Penske has already been there, done that; and let’s just say you don’t become the winningest man in Indy 500 history by making the same mistake twice. CHANCES: 5%.
Kligerman, at 21 has progressed nicely while driving for Brad Keselowski’s Truck Series team. 11th in the season standings this year, he posted four top fives, eight top 10s and acquired solid sponsorship that should help him contend for the 2012 championship. Ditching that for a jump straight to Cup? That’s careless, and everyone knows it. Nowhere close to ready; he’s two years away, at least, and even owner Keselowski would help protect him. CHANCES: 1%.
So there you have it; surprisingly, Ragan is the overwhelming favorite but as we’ve seen in the Republican presidential race, anything can change until that signature is on the dotted line. Meanwhile, while our Bryan Davis Keith has Kurt Busch covered, one quick note on his future: it will be defined by the lack of new ownership in this sport.
With 30-plus teams under the umbrella of a handful of owners, Busch’s clashes with not just Penske but Roush (who makes up all of Ford) eliminate plenty of opportunities. Hendrick? Not a chance with that personality. Childress? The man just fought his younger brother. And trust me, Tony Stewart would rather take on that deadweight, parading her through a week’s worth of festivities in Vegas and shower her with love instead of coming within a continent of hiring Busch.
So out of the megateams, who does that leave? Bryan’s suggestion of Joe Gibbs Racing. Simple process of elimination … and now, for that franchise Busch becomes like the poison apple in the Garden of Eden. Will they pick it?
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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