Roush Fenway Racing must trim stable of drivers from five to four

CONCORD, N.C. -- There was an empty chair when the driver stable at Roush Fenway Racing was introduced on Thursday at the final stop of the 2008 NASCAR media tour.

Jamie McMurray was serving jury duty at the Iredell County Courthouse.

By 2010, possibly a year earlier, there will be no need for five chairs. Team owner Jack Roush has until then to reduce his organization to four teams under the cap rule mandated by NASCAR a couple of years ago.

The plan is to send one driver to Yates Racing, which has moved its operation to Roush's Concord campus as part of a partnership announced last season.

That means McMurray, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle or David Ragan has to go.

Biffle and Edwards are in a contract year, and team president Geoff Smith is moving forward with the "expectations both will be back." Since drivers typically sign for more than one year and they are tied to sponsors, it doesn't make sense that they'd be leaving.

Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, is the senior member at Roush. Although the contract with his primary sponsor, DeWalt, is up in 2009, he doesn't expect to go anywhere.

That leaves Ragan and McMurray. Ragan's sponsorship deal with AAA is up after this season. If he is teamed with another sponsor it is doubtful that sponsor would sign a one-year deal that would allow him to move to another team the following season.

And since Roush doesn't want to reduce its fleet to four before 2010, although that is an option, Ragan could be safe.

McMurray's sponsor, Crown Royal, has a long-term deal with Roush but it's not necessarily locked into Murray.

"We need to find out amongst the sponsors and drivers are you willing to be the driver to go or not?" Smith said. "This is the year to have it resolved, because '09 is the last year we can operate as five. We need to have our plan in place."

The partnership with Yates, which NASCAR president Mike Helton said Monday was being monitored by the governing body to make sure it stays within the rules, was the first step. Roush wants that company, which has yet to find sponsors for its two cars, to be stable enough to buy one of its teams.

If it's not, Roush will look at the other Ford companies -- Wood Brothers and Robby Gordon Racing.

"It's no secret one of the reasons I want the Wood Brothers to be strong and [Yates Racing] to be strong is so I have a place to put one of my teams," Roush said.

It also is important for the survival of Ford, which has only one top team in Roush.

"We need this business model to work so we can do business with a number of teams," Smith said. "Long term, it's as important that they be successful as it is for Roush Fenway. We need this mass of Ford teams in order to help sustain that position in the garage."

As for being monitored by NASCAR to make sure it plays within the rules, Smith said the relationship between Hendrick Motorsports and Haas Racing also should be scrutinized.

"We lost the sale of a sponsor to Hendrick-Haas on the strength of what the sponsor called the Hendrick-Haas technology alliance, which they felt was stronger than the Roush Fenway-Yates alliance," he said.

Mystery letter?
Roush continues to say it was his fault that his organization fell behind on the Car of Tomorrow. He continues to say he should have found a way to go underground and get Goodyear tires to test like the teams at HMS and JGR.

But what he's really saying is it was NASCAR's fault for letting that happen.

Roush said NASCAR officials told him in April they had a letter prepared to send out to all teams that would curtail what he considered illegal testing. He said he didn't test because he believed those teams would be dealt with firmly.

"I thought it was going to go real bad for the people that were there," said Roush, noting the letter never went out. "I was wrong. I misread NASCAR. They wound up going with the flow and what the teams wanted to do. If I had been at the front I don't think it would have worked out that way."

NASCAR officials deny there was such a letter.

Roush eventually formed a test team last season and by the season's end had closed the gap on HMS and JGR.

Dan Davis, the director of Ford Racing Technology, said Ford now has the data to help improve the car that is being fully implemented this season.

"Sometimes you need to get a little bit behind and get a little bit embarrassed to get your [plan] together," Davis said. "I feel like that's kind of where we're at. It's together. Look out this year."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.