Some Nascar Drivers Days are Numbered
Well, I have to say I really enjoyed my last article here on Bleacher Report, and I love the slide show program. This one is sort of on the same lines as my last one, however, these drivers are guys who I have never really understood why owners and sponsors took chances on. I do understand you have to have some success in lower divisions, but for some I have never seen the stock car potential to validate why they have a Sprint Cup ride when so many other drivers out there should've been considered with the experience and success they have in the sport. Such as Ward Burton and Sterling Marlin. Anyways, here's a few guys I've had questions about....
I have always questioned what David Stremme has done to land the ride that Ryan Newman had, although i disagree with it, i know how he got the Coors Light 40 car at Ganassi. I was a huge fan of Sterling Marlin and loved him in the Silver Bullet Dodge, and from what i hear, Sterling turned down the Jack Daniels RCR ride to stay with Ganassi in hopes of showing his loyalty and being able to finish his career in that beautiful car. However, Ganassi pretty much told him to put some numbers up, which at that time, all of Ganassi's equipment with the other drivers was poor, and in the end, Stremme because he was younger and marketable, took Marlin's seat and as a Marlin fan, i was not to happy to see after the courtesy Marlin had shown to Ganassi, to be dumped out of a ride that he had some of his best success in, it was disappointing.
Stremme's career success in his early days were on the short tracks through the Midwest series, and eventually had some success in Late Models before being picked up as a developmental driver by Ganassi. He ran the Busch series for a couple of seasons driving for Braun Racing in the TrimSpa Dodge and the Navy Dodge for FitzBradshaw, and although he had some decent finishes, he never was really a threat for wins, let alone championships. Once he replaced Sterling in the Coors car though, he continued to fall like a brick. Coors Light only stayed on the car for his rookie season in 2006 and left the following year, so to me was it worth kicking out a successful aged driver who had visited victory lanes for the sponsor and driver to take a chance on an unproven driver? I dont think so!
Well, Stremme raced for one more season finding sponsorship wherever they could, mostly Longhorn Steakhouse and Wrigley's sponsored him most of that 2007 season, but it was late in that season, when i figured Stremme's days were numbered and then they announced he was being replaced by Dario Francitti. I will say, i didnt see an improvement when announcing the driver change, as to me, even David had more experience than Francitti did, but i had figured his time had passed and that is Stremme was lucky, he would land another Nationwide ride, which he did, with Rusty Wallace Racing. When that deal was originally announced he was to only run part time in a second Wallace car and run some races in the 15 Billy Bellaw truck, the teammate to Kyle Busch's team, and although he ran a handful of those Truck races, his ride with Wallace extended to where it became a full season ride in 2008.
What suprised me was that after Wallace had signed Stremme, Stremme then signed a contract as a developmental driver with Penske Racing, and i believe that became to happen for two reasons, one being Rusty Wallace's past with Roger Penske and putting in a good word on Stremme's behalf, and the other was that Dodge probably liked Stremme in their stable, so when Ryan Newman announced he was leaving, Stremme some time later was announced to be taking over the 12 Cup ride. It was funny, however, that from what was rumored, Stremme's was not the first or even second choice for the 12 seat, that it was offered to two other drivers and they had both turned it down, the first being Truex Jr offered a long term contract, and the other being Brad Keselowski, and that has to say something when a guy would rather stay in the Nationwide series for one more season than take a Cup ride. I dont know this for sure, but since Penske cant run the Verizon logos on the car, it's hard to market a Sprint Cup driver with Verizon since the company's name isnt on the car, so maybe Stremme was a cheap solution until a sponsor can be found to put the name on the car.
As far as Stremme's future, i think this will be his last shot in Nascar. I hear that he had only a one year contract to drive that 12 car and with him not even being the first or second option to be behind the wheel of that car, i think he was just selected as a short term fix. I think Stremme will be relieved of his seat here in a few months, and that either Elliott Sadler will get an early release from RPM or Jamie McMurray will be the driver knocked out at Roush Racing and as i believe that Penske Racing will be the only Dodge team left next season, and from both their history with Dodge manufacturer, i think they both could fit in well with the Penske team, as i also think with the horsepower the Penske is showing this season, the 12 car actually a very attractive ride in some aspects. As for Stremme, he might land another Nationwide ride, but i think after two very bad performances in Cup, especially with this time around when one of his teammates has been atop the points lead, as Kurt Busch was at Richmond, then the talent starts to be questioned.
Here's another former Ganassi driver that i have never understood how he has gotten so far with performing so little in stock cars. It's easy how his name got around since he is the nephew of Rick Mears, winner of the Indy 500 four times, so as people knock on Earnhardt for using his name to move up the ranks, which i dont believe you can win 18 Sprint Cup races and 2 Busch championships on a name, i've never heard much mention of that toward Casey Mears, which i do believe that to an extent because to be where he is in only winning one Cup race on fuel mileage and one Nationwide race, it's hard to understand how he advanced as he did. I will say, i think whatever he's been doing to land these top rides, that magic or mojo is about over.
This Mears got his start in go karts and even dabbled in Off road and USAC racing before getting his feet wet in CART and IRL. As the story goes, he was at a crossroads in his career in around 2001 or 2002 as to whether he wanted to do CART or IRL series, when he got a call from his dad, who at the time was working for Ganassi Racing. From the way he tells it, his dad said he needed to come over to Nascar as how it was growing in popularity and how the competition was much better and that is how Mears and Ganassi aligned to bring in into stock cars. In 2002, he drove the 66 car in the Busch series with sponsorship from Philip 66, and finished the season with only 2 top ten finishes. Although he didnt show much in the Busch series, Ganassi had already sold himself on Mears and the following season, in 2003, in an unwise move in my opinion, he replaced Jimmy Spencer, who had ran great that season, he was replaced by Mears in the 41 Target Dodge. He stayed with that team and car for the next three seasons and had many poor showings and behind Sterling Marlin and Jamie McMurray, he was the weakest link at the Ganassi organization.
Starting the 2006 season, a whole new change took place at Ganassi, as Marlin was replaced by David Stremme to satisfy sponsor Coors Light, and McMurray had been bought out of his ride by Jack Roush to replace Kurt Busch, so musical chairs took shape and Mears was moved up to the top team at Ganassi, McMurray's 42 Havoline Dodge, and Reed Sorenson was put in the 41 Target car as from what's rumored, Target had grown tired of Mears performance as their driver for three years and very little to show as far as finishes. However, he only ran that ride for one year, and when Brian Vickers vacated the 25 car at Hendrick, it was the very next day it was announced that Mears would be sliding over to that seat. It suprised alot of people because many thought that Mears could eventually slide into IRL with Ganassi's team when he decided to make the move and could transition at his own pace, but he made the choice to step up his Nascar career and jumped at the opportunity. I have the feeling his longtime friend Jimmie Johnson helped in him landing the Hendrick ride, but obviously that wasnt the determining factor in Hendrick signing Mears.
Mears first season at Hendrick was not a very good one. Although he won his first Cup race at Lowe's in the Coke 600, because it was a fuel mileage race, those tend to sometimes carry a question mark on a driver's talent. That year he was the only Hendrick car not to make the Chase, and it was very shocking that it was Kyle Busch and not Mears who got shifted out for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr, however, wanted his own number and different sponsor(and as a Jr fan, i thought he was a little too demanding, as i think he should've just taken Kyle's seat with only two changes, the name above the window and the seat to fit him), however, because Jr wanted these and he had alot of pull in his move to Hendrick, Casey Mears was shifted to the 5 car with no changes at crew that Kyle had proven it could contend and win races as well as a chase making car. Last season, however, Mears again was the weakest link in the Hendrick chain and by summer, even though he had one more year on his contract, it was announced he was getting the boot and Mark Martin would take over the Kellogg's 5 ride.
So, for awhile last season, Mears name was floated, but not to very good rides, such as Petty Enterprises, and i think Mears again found luck as Cheerios and RCR had put a deal together to start a fourth team, however, it would not have any owner points(although they later bought points from EGR, and didnt even need them as they would've still made every race without them) and that detail soured any interest from top drivers such as Biffle and Edwards, and even RCR looked into McMurray's contract of buying it out, however, Roush offered too much and from what i hear, Mears was selected from the leftovers available on the market. What was even worse, is due to Mears coming off the Kellogg's ride, Cheerios didnt have interest in signing the driver who had just come off driving for their competitor's car, so RCR had to play musical chairs and move Bowyer over to the Cheerios car, which i hear he got a bigger paycheck for doing, and Mears took over the Jack Daniels Chevy vacated by Bowyer.
What tells me Mears time is about out is that for one, they have already made a complete crew change, including crew chief, with Harvick's and even though he's not the worst team on the organization, he still isnt performing. The other thing is that his ride vacated at Hendrick and the one Mark Martin is driving, has the same crew that Kyle Busch and Casey Mears had, and it's picked up right where Kyle Busch has left it and if the Chase was to start today, Mark would stop atop of the points, whereas for the two seasons Mears drove at Hendrick, he was on the verge of falling out of the top 35. Again, this year, Mears has been given a championship chase making car and right now he's unlikely to make the chase with it, same story again.
This year, McMurray, who RCR went after last season, is on the free agent block and yes, Mears is signed through 2011 season, however, he had another season left on his Hendrick contract and still got the boot before it was up, which just shows that contracts to owners are about as worthless as toilet paper.
Well, i know alot of fans will harp on me for this one as this guy is still pretty young, but i really question Roush's decision in moving David Ragan up so fast and putting him in Roush's crown jewel car, the 6 car. David's father, Ken Ragan, was a Sprint Cup driver back in the lates 70's and early 80's. He never had much success, pretty much from what i hear was like a field filler of the current races we have now, and from what i've seen of him, he's a big Chevy supporter so it's a little ironic to see his son in Fords, but he also has handled Ragan's contract negotiations with Roush as well. David landed his chance with Roush when Roush had what they have termed as the Nascar Gong Show, where people came out to show if they had talent or didnt, and i believe it became a reality tv show. Right after he graduated high school, Roush was obviously impressed enough that for the 2006 season, he split the 6 Scots Roush Ford Craftsman Truck with Mark Martin that year. From what i saw, he wasnt that impressive, and earlier that year, in Mark's final year in the 6 car, originally announced Todd Kluever would replace Mark, however, Todd never really improved in the Busch races he was running and in the end, made a change and announced David Ragan would replace Mark Martin.
Now, i'll admit, i could be wrong about this guy. He's still pretty young and has impressed alot of people, but i think about the other guys who were on the free agent block such as Kevin Harvick that year, or even some of Roush's other developmental drivers such as Erik Darnell, who that same year was running a full season of trucks and has won a few Truck races, to give it to Ragan who only ran a handful that year to automatically be shoved up to Cup over Darnell, or Jon Wood, who had some success as well a few years previously driving for Roush, or Ricky Stenhouse Jr who came close to winning the ARCA championship, or even Danny O'Quinn Jr, who had some very impressive runs in the Nationwide series, all these guys showed more than what Ragan has, as Ragan finally won a Nascar race earlier this year when he lucked into the Talladega Nationwide race win.
In looking at all the drivers in the Roush organization that if Roush moves a car to the Yates team, he's the only driver i think that would go along with it, as if it were or is McMurray or even by long shot Roush was to shock everybody and want to try and move Biffle or Kenseth, i think those guys would rather want to go to another team rather than go to Yates, but i think Ragan, even though he wouldnt like it, doesnt have alot of interest from other teams where he could land a better ride. Now i dont think if Ragan was moved that the 6 UPS car would be moved, i think it'll be McMurray's car if there is, but if UPS is sold on Ragan, which as of right now they are, although they havent performed very well at all and is almost outside the top 30 in points, if UPS wanted another direction, i think Ragan could be out of the Roush organization, but i could just have a bad feeling about Ragan from what Stewart first thought of Ragan, in calling him a Dart without Feathers.
As far as Paul Menard goes, i pose one question, if not for his daddy's money, where would he be racing right now? Paul began, like Mears, in Go Kart series and did fairly well at it. I learned not long ago that he had an interest in open wheel series, which one im not sure, but instead chose to go the path of stock cars. Around 2000, he started to compete in the ARCA series and had some mild success, winning a few races and finishing well in the points. In 2003, Menard signed with Andy Petree Racing, who's organization had had some mild success, but at that time was on the downslide of dissolving, but Menard had little options and ran only some limited Cup, Busch and Truck races while still running full time in the ARCA series, which would be his last year in that division.
Starting in 2004, Menard started his first full season in the Busch series, beginnning the season with Andy Petree's team, but due to lack of performance, midseason he moved over to the DEI organization and finished the season with some high improvementts after the switch to DEI cars. In 2005, in his second year in the Busch series, he continued to improve in getting several top ten finishes and finished the season seix thin points. In 2006, after staying his third and final season in the Busch series, Menard's talent was impressive and he won at Milwaulkee, his home track, that same year and again finished sixth in the final standing that year, and at the same time, was running a limited schedule driving the 15 DEI Cup car, which he would take over full time the next season in 2007, with of course, help from sponsorship from his daddy's money.
When he took over the 15 ride, it did not have any owner points and at the beginning of that year, Menard struggled badly. He failed to qualify for six races and it wasnt until Ginn Racing was purchased by DEI that Menard became locked into every races by acquiring Sterling Marlin's owner points from when he drove for Ginn Racing. Paul stayed at DEI until the end of last season in 2008 when late in the season, Roush had conversations with John Menard Jr, Paul's dad, and persuaded him to bring his son and sponsorship from DEI to Yates Racing. Paul has continued to struggle since even joining Yates, as he has when he came into Cup with DEI, but as long as daddy is sponsoring him, i guess he'll have the seat as long as he wants it.
AJ has been a driver who i would have never guessed or seen coming to Nascar and that is why i still wonder if he has much of a future in the sport. AJ, like Mears and Menard, came into racing through go karts. He then pursued the Champ car ranks and had built up quite a resume over there and his last season in the Champ car series, claimed five wins, until Team Red Bull came calling and lured him into stock cars. AJ made a handful of debuts in the Craftsman Truck series driving for Bill Davis Racing and had some pretty impressive finishes for an open wheel guy, especially when he finished in the top 10 in the Talladega truck race late in 2006. It was during the offseason that Red Bull announced that AJ would take the 84 Cup car and would be teamed with Brian Vickers who would drive the 83 and be his teammate.
AJ had a very horrible first season at Red Bull in 2007. With it being a new team, he and Vickers did not have owner points to fall back on and he only made a handful of races that year, mainly in the ones where the new Car of Tomorrow was being introduced into the sport and end up finishing the 2007 season 40th in points and had failed to make the 2007 Daytona 500 among many other races, but in his defense, Vickers failed to make several races that year as well. The start of 2008 was the same as 2007 as well. AJ end up again missing the Daytona 500 that year and even though it was still a fresh team, Vickers started performing much better and AJ was still struggling just as bad as the season before. After missing several races at the beginning of the season, AJ was pulled out and Mike Skinner was put in place, but just temporarily to help see what the team needed to better perform.
By mid 2008, AJ's performance had started to drastically improve since putting Skinner in the car temporarily, however, he was put in a box because Red Bull had started grooming another open wheel driver, Scott Speed, up the ranks of Nascar and end up nearly winning the ARCA championship of the 2008 season, which he lost in the season finale. AJ's contract was coming up to be expired at the end of 2008 and according to sources, AJ was offered a one year extension, however, he refused as he wanted a more secure future and not have to go through the silly season mess again the next season, and without being able to find sponsor for a third entry, AJ was let go in place of Scott Speed to take over his ride for the 2009 season. AJ was actually let go with about 10 races left in the season and finished the season driving one race for Mikey Waltrip Racing and finishing the rest in the 10 RPM car which he had the best finishes over both Sadler and Kahne.
It was rumored during the offseason that Elliott Sadler, who had just gotten a contract extension earlier in the 2008 season, was going to be bought out of his contract and his ride given to AJ due to his performance at the end of the year, however, Sadler refused as all competitive rides were already taken and Best Buy and Stanley Tools see Sadler as such a good asset as a spokesman, they threaten to walk if Sadler was let go, thus Sadler kept his job. At the beginning of the year, AJ was signed on just to run the first 8 races due to lack of sponsorship and without owner points, but because he performed so well, he got an extension as sponsorships were to patch his season that he eventually got a two year contract with RPM which keeps him with the organization through the 2010 season.
Ever since getting his contract extension, though, he has continued to slip in the points and is now the weakest driver in the RPM organization. Rumors were flying at Michigan that RPM had layed off a few employees due to lack of support from Dodge, and that they may have to cut back to three teams, and it was rumored that Reed Sorenson would be the driver out if they have to go that route. That is until there was another rumor that AJ was apparently looking at other options for next season, which was odd since he and his agent had worked so hard to get a contract extension with RPM as to why he would be seeking other organizations. I dont know if he's willing to take a gamble if Gibbs were to start a fourth team as they were rumored to have interest in AJ right before RPM locked him up to his contract. Obviously, even a Gibbs car with no owner points is better than what he's driving now, but just because you have great equipment like that doesn't mean he'll succeed, even Gibbs has had failures such as JJ Yeley. AJ has been impressive at times, but with his luck of getting bad rides and failing to make races, his future in the sport dont look to good.
In the End
There are other drivers i have questions about as far as talent but they either have time, history of past success that's long faded, or organizations that enjoy having them in their organization and dont want them anywhere else. Prime example of that is Brian Vickers and Red Bull. I think Brian Vickers was highly profiled simply because he drove for Hendrick Motorsports, and granted Red Bull was a new team that continues to grow, but even at his days at Hendrick besides his Busch series success, as Paul Menard had, he never performed well driving in the Cup series even in his three seasons driving the 25 Hendrick car. Other guys that i personally like and wished they performed better are Reed Sorenson and Sam Hornish Jr. Hornish i've felt is a talented guy that i thought could have some success, he just had such a step learning curve from open wheel straight into the Cup series with a new team, and Sorenson has had poor equipment at Ganassi and is still the third man in line when it comes to RPM equipment, as i think if he was in Hendrick, Gibbs, or Roush equipment, Reed would be living up to the hype he had when he came into the sport back in 2006. Scott Speed could fall into this category as well, he's struggling bad, but he also is young and still has some time to show if he has what it takes to stay in the Cup series. Even guys like Elliott Sadler and Jamie McMurray, both who i think would get decent Cup rides if they were to lose their jobs, but their success has been long gone for some time and need to start performing better not only to get decent rides, but to stay in them to get them to where they want to retire from the sport by choice and not by being forced out. To me, some drivers have it, and some don't and some I have mentioned just have had too much time and shown nothing for it.