Saturday, April 26, 2008
Some big names will be available after '08, but they'll be asking for big dollars
By Terry Blount
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Tony Stewart, who isn't a free agent at the end of the year, is getting all the attention about his future. But five big names in Sprint Cup are up for grabs to the highest bidder.
Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman and Bobby Labonte all have contracts that expire at the end of 2008.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the biggest free agent in NASCAR history one year ago. But in terms of volume,
2008 may be the top free-agent season ever.
"Being near the top of the free-agent list hasn't gotten me anywhere yet," Newman said. "I haven't even gotten a phone call."
Give it time, Ryan. They're coming.
Free agency in NASCAR is based on the domino effect.
One driver move can change where another driver goes, and his move opens up a ride for the next guy.
For example, if Stewart got out of his contract early and left Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of this season, drivers would line up at the doors of JGR headquarters to take over the No. 20 Toyota.
"We all go through contract periods where we want out of it to do something else,'' Biffle said. "It's part of the sport, I guess. It may open up a ride in the 20 car, but I don't think it affects what I'm doing. I'm negotiating with Roush Fenway for an extension."
The terms of that extension get better every time Biffle finishes near the front of the pack this season. If he manages to win a race or two, scratch out the first number because the price shoots up considerably.
Contract negotiations in Cup are much different from the NFL or Major League Baseball. Cup has less than 50 spots available and only a few drivers are qualified to take them.
NASCAR also doesn't have tampering rules. Any team owner can talk to any driver any time. It leads to increased speculation when a driver is seen talking to another team owner, even if it's just to say, "How's it going?"
It's a slippery slope to try to guess what the free agents will do, but we'll boldly head down that path and look at the options for the big five after 2008:
A year ago everyone assumed Biffle would move to the No. 8 Chevy at Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2009, but that appears unlikely now.
Biffle wasn't happy last year with how his No. 16 Ford team was performing at Roush Fenway, but the team has shown dramatic improvement this season. Biffle ranks 10th in the standings and has five top-10s in eight races.
Not many guys leave a top-10 ride unless, as in Stewart's case, ownership is part of the deal.
"I've had offers of ownership from more than one team in the garage, and it's definitely an intriguing offer," said Biffle, who is 38. "Both Tony and I are, let's say, at the 60 percent point in our career.
"We're not Kyle Busch at 22 years old. We need to think how long we want to be involved in this sport and what we want to do in the future."
• Odds of staying at Roush Fenway -- 75 percent.
If Jack Roush lets this guy get away, he should accuse someone of stealing him and demand an investigation.
With the possible exception of Kyle Busch, no driver in Cup has a brighter future than Edwards. Winning championships is almost a given at this point.
Along with being an exceptional driver, he ranks in the top 10 percent on the intelligence quotient in the sport. Sponsors love him, women adore him and any team owner would love to sign him.
But Edwards, 28, knows he has one of the best rides in
Cup. He's the golden boy now at RFR.
"It's always my mission to get [contact negotiations] out of the way and done as early as I can," Edwards said. "That's how I've always tried to do it. We're working on it."
• Odds of staying at Roush Fenway -- 95 percent.
Martin Truex Jr.
The last thing Dale Earnhardt Inc. officials want is to lose its second top driver in two seasons, but keeping Truex may prove difficult.
The rumor that won't go away is Truex moving to Hendrick Motorsports to replace Casey Mears in the No.
Dale Jr. and Truex are close friends. It's no secret that Earnhardt would love to have Truex as a teammate again.
Mears still can save his spot at Hendrick if he has a strong summer, but he ranks 25th in the standings entering Sunday's race, and is the only Hendrick driver lower than 13th.
Truex, 27, made the Chase last year for the first time. He leads the DEI boys at 14th this season, but probably feels he could do better with one of the top organizations that will attempt to sign him.
• Odds of staying at DEI -- 25 percent.
Winning the Daytona 500 in your contract year doesn't hurt, but he needs to follow it up somewhere and prove it wasn't a fluke.
Newman won eight races in 2003, but was winless for more than two seasons before the Daytona victory in February. At age 30, Newman didn't forget how to drive, but Penske Racing fell a little behind the other top teams in Cup.
That's a point a top agent would make, but Newman is selling himself to potential suitors.
"I'm my agent," he said. "I went to college [Purdue] for four years. It's got to pay for something."
• Odds of staying at Penske Racing -- 60 percent.
The old man among the free agents has one last chance to cash in.
Labonte turns 44 on May 8. He says he's happy at Petty Enterprises. Petty officials say they believe he will stay.
But General Mills is ending its sponsorship of the No. 43 Dodge Labonte drives and going to the new fourth car at Richard Childress Racing. Logic would tell you Labonte would slide over to RCR and end his career in the No. 33 Chevy.
Childress has plenty of options, including Scott Wimmer, an RCR driver who is racing well in the Nationwide Series. But Labonte helps a new team because he has the past champion's provisional, guaranteeing the car a spot in races next season.
The other free agents might shy away from the new RCR ride because they would need to qualify on speed at
each of the first five events.
• Odds of staying at Petty Enterprises -- 30 percent.
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.