- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- NASCAR's free-agency season wasn't supposed to get silly this year. Most, if not all, of the top Sprint Cup drivers were expected to return to their teams, forgoing the "grass is greener on the other side" philosophy.
It was going to be more of a snoozefest than a caution-free, one-leader race at a 1.5-mile track.
Then last week Matt Kenseth told Roush Fenway Racing he wasn't returning in 2013.
And it became silly.
Kenseth dropped arguably the biggest Silly Season bomb since Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced in 2007 he was leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. for Hendrick Motorsports.
Those who heard the 2003 Cup champion declare in late May that it would be hard for him to imagine driving for another organization or in another car were shocked.
"I don't think you can ever question loyalty on either side," Kenseth said of RFR at the time. "It has been a long time and has been successful for both of us."
On top of that, team owner Jack Roush said Kenseth was the "cornerstone" of his organization, and team president Steve Newmark said, "I expect him to see him retire [at RFR]."
It just goes to show you nothing in this sport is a sure thing, particularly with sponsorships still hard to come by, as they have been for Kenseth and the No. 17 team.
While the rest of Silly Season isn't expected to get crazy crazy, Kenseth's decision proves nothing is as certain as it looks.
What's in store? Let's take a look.
The deal is done. Kenseth said so. The points leader just didn't say where his new deal would take him, although the odds of him being anywhere but Joe Gibbs Racing are slim to none.
Then why hasn't JGR announced the deal? Because there are details to be worked out on sponsorship and the rest of the driver lineup.
The organization has made it clear that re-signing Joey Logano is at the top of the to-do list, which means JGR would go to a four-car team in 2013. What isn't clear is what company will sponsor Logano if a deal can be reached. It's widely believed that Logano's current sponsor, Home Depot, will move to Kenseth.
As soon as Logano's deal is done, you'll see everything else fall into place and announced.
Best bet: Driver for JGR with Home Depot as primary sponsor.
It wasn't long ago that speculation ran high that Busch was in line for a ride at JGR in either Logano's No. 20 or a fourth car. Then he had another "anger management" moment, resulting in a one-race suspension. Then Kenseth jumped into the JGR equation.
Figuring out where the 2004 Cup champion lands now is like balancing the national debt.
The number of top rides is dwindling. Don't rule out RCR, which put the No. 33 on ice after Clint Bowyer left for Michael Waltrip Racing. The No. 31 also could be open. While Jeff Burton has another year left on his deal, he's 20th in points a year after finishing 20th.
On Tuesday's "NASCAR Now," team owner Richard Childress didn't exactly give Burton a vote of confidence, saying RCR had to make that program right and that the sponsor deserved better results.
And don't forget Childress talked to Busch about his future earlier this year.
The hangup there would be primary sponsor Caterpillar, an ultraconservative company that typically shies from controversy, which typically follows Busch.
Richard Petty Motorsports also could be a player. Co-owner Richard Petty talked to Busch about driving the No. 43 this past season, but sponsors apparently weren't willing to spend money on him.
After that it's slim pickings. Furniture Row has talked of expanding to two teams, but that wouldn't be considered a top ride. Speculation continues that IndyCar's Michael Andretti could enter NASCAR, but that again would be a second- or third-tier team.
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing would love to have a driver of Busch's caliber, but not without sponsorship. None of its current sponsors likely would touch him.
The key for Busch will be sponsorship. If one is willing to invest, the line of team owners may grow.
If one doesn't, another year at Phoenix Racing could be in the cards.
Best bet: RPM, but totally a guess.
Team owner Joe Gibbs said at Michigan that his priority was re-signing his 22-year-old driver. This was before there was a hint Kenseth would be heading to JGR.
The potential terms of a new deal is the big question. Gibbs said he wanted Logano back in the No. 20 Cup car, but he didn't mention primary sponsor Home Depot.
That could mean Nationwide sponsor GameStop or Nationwide/Cup sponsor Dollar General could be a player for this year's Pocono winner. Or it could mean another sponsor must get into the picture.
There's also speculation that Logano could drive full time in Nationwide again and part time in Cup if full sponsorship isn't found. The uncertainty may be why you hear Logano could be shopping himself to see what else might be out there.
Best bet: Stays at JGR with a new/familiar sponsor.
A new deal at Michael Waltrip Racing with Napa as the primary sponsor likely is close to done. No need to break up this team, which is eighth in points with four-top 5s and nine top-10s.
Best bet: Stays at MWR with Napa as primary sponsor.
Team co-owner Tony Stewart said in May that he wanted to extend Newman's deal at Stewart-Haas Racing if sponsorship can be found. That's good news for Newman, who has a win and is tied for one of the wild-card spots.
The bad news is no sponsor has stepped up, which explains why Newman is being allowed to talk to other teams. The U.S. Army, which sponsors Newman for about a dozen races, is in jeopardy because of recent movement in Congress to prohibit military organizations from funding sponsorships in professional sports.
If sponsorship can't be found, Newman will join Busch in the "what's left?" competition.
Best bet: Stays at SHR with a new sponsor.
McMurray hasn't done much since the 2010 season, when he won the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400. He finished 27th in points in 2011 and is 19th this season. Both primary sponsors, McDonald's and Bass Pro Shops, are up for renewal.
Nevertheless, team owner Chip Ganassi likes McMurray and likely will stick with him for at least one more year, unless the sponsors balk.
Best bet: Stays at EGR with at least one of his current sponsors.
As much as Roger Penske likes Allmendinger and the potential he has shown, his loyalty is with Sam Hornish Jr.
This all could come down to sponsorship. If Penske believes Hornish is ready for a return to Cup and he doesn't have full sponsorship for him, the only option may be pairing him with Shell Pennzoil in the No. 22.
Allmendinger's numbers don't help his cause. He is 23rd in points with only one top-5.
Hornish's numbers help his cause. He is fourth in the Nationwide Series standings and a legitimate contender for the title, 31 points out of the lead with no finish worse than 13th since 20th in the opener.
Best bet: Looking for a ride.
His career was on the rise after last year's win at Darlington Raceway, but he had only three more top-10s the rest of the season and finished 26th in points. He's 26th again this season, with no top-10s in 17 races.
As much as they like Smith at Furniture Row, his future may depend on the availability of Busch, Newman or another driver.
Best bet: Stays at Furniture Row.
There's a reason RPM signed Almirola to only a one-year deal. It left the organization an out for 2013 if things didn't work out.
So far, things haven't worked out. Almirola is 22nd in points, with a pole in the Coke 600 the highlight of his season.
And remember, co-owner Richard Petty really liked Busch.
Best bet: Looking for a ride.
NASCAR free agency wasn't supposed to get silly in 2012, what with all of the top Cup drivers expected to return to their teams in '13. Then Matt Kenseth dropped a bombshell.