Brant James
Wednesday April 30th, 2008

Carl Edwards was the belle of the ball, the pick of the litter. Then Tony Stewart's flirtation with other race teams became garage knowledge and suddenly he was the back-up prom date.

But he's a phenomenal bridesmaid, at worst, arguably a better get than Stewart, a 32-race winner and two-time champion of NASCAR's top series. Edwards, 27, has already won 10 times in his first 130 starts and finished tied with teammate Greg Biffle -- another free agent -- for second in points in 2005, his first full Cup season. Stewart will turn 37 at the end of May.

Stewart is after that last monster deal -- security, money for his toys. Edwards, toiling for a Roush Fenway team with a reputation for frugality and a recent history of losing top-flight drivers -- see: Busch, Kurt and Martin, Mark -- is looking for the deal that launches him through the prime of his career.

Stewart has a strong presence with fans and sponsors. So does Edwards. And Stewart would likely paralyze himself if he tried to mimic Edwards's post-victory, off-the-door back flip.

But even past Stewart and Edwards, there's depth in the most talented and lettered free-agent class in recent memory. Though Stewart still has a year on his contract with Joe Gibbs Racing, he's likely to decide -- if not announce -- his future intentions this season. The game never ends.

"Drivers never want to let you know they're not interested in you so they don't lose a backup or their primary situations," said Roush Fenway president Geoff Smith. "Do we feel we're close to [re-signing Biffle and Edwards]? Yes, we do. Are they doing everything free agents do? Yes. But we feel confident we can get those deals worked out.''

Smith refers to the game of finding and keeping drivers "seven-dimensional chess," but it can be more like dominos. Potential openings at Gibbs, Roush or a persistently rumored availability at Hendrick Motorsports represent rides with teams that have combined to win 12 of the last 13 Sprint Cup championships.

"When drivers are done looking, they either come back and say this is the right place for them, or they elect to wait," Smith said. "In the rumor mill, you could have openings here, Gibbs and Hendrick. Who's Hendrick going to take, Casey Mears? Do you wait to see if that one is available?"

Here's a quick glance at this year's stacked free-agent class and their prospects:

One of NASCAR's most visible personalities, and a winner of a Sprint Cup-best three races this season, the 28-year-old has the combination of talent and marketability to completely fill the role of modern-day Sprint Cup driver.

Edwards, currently 10th in points, said he doesn't "want to say anything" about negotiations except that "it's always my mission to get that stuff out of the way and get it done as early as I can.''

Edwards is negotiating on behalf of himself.

"There are always little things that are negotiable in a contract,'' Edwards said. "It's a lot more than just drive a race car for this amount of money. There are appearances. I think every person is different. They're willing to maybe do more days for more money, and some guys want to spend more time at home, so they're willing to negotiate that. Really, I've been fortunate. The people I've dealt with have always been really easy to deal with."

Edwards' sponsor, Office Depot, is in an exclusive 60-day negotiating window to renew. The company is in the final year of a three-year contract. UPS, meanwhile, is reportedly interested in signing Edwards after long-time pitchman Dale Edwards retired earlier this season.

Anybody interested in the defending Daytona 500 champion? Team Penske apparently still is after the 30-year-old delivered the teams its first win in NASCAR's biggest race. Newman is watching the market, despite his admission: "I haven't even gotten a phone call. Ranking among the top of the free-agent list hasn't gotten me anywhere yet.''

Penske Racing isn't quite the same team Newman joined in 2000. His mentor and benefactor, Don Miller, was eased out of his role as team president two years ago for Tim Cindric. And although performance has spiked, Newman has been without the second father figure who so was much part of his daily routine.

"We haven't even talked about [a new contract] yet,'' said Newman, who is 11th in points. "There are some options out there. ... I'm sitting happy in my seat right now, but that doesn't mean that I can't be happy some place else.''

Making the process more interesting is that Newman, too, is his own agent.

"I went to college for four years,'' he said. "It's got to pay for something."

Peace treaties have taken less time to hash out than Biffle's new deal. Thirty-six points shy in 2005 of becoming the first to win championships in NASCAR's top three series, the 38-year-old was of interest last season to Dale Earnhardt Inc. and has to be an intriguing option for any team seeking a reliable veteran.

Biffle was offered a contract extension last year when sponsor Ameriquest left his team and Roush Fenway had to find a replacement -- sponsor and driver deals are often done concurrently -- but he opted to assess the marketplace, Smith said, and resume negotiations later.

Though his carping about performance at Roush Fenway has at times put him at odds with management, and he says negotiations are in a "holding pattern,'' Biffle seems perfectly content to return for an 11th season and beyond, adding, "I'm pretty confident that we're going to be able to get to common ground on what I want and what they want.''

Like Stewart, Biffle says he has had team ownership proposed in offers from other teams. And he was compelled to listen.

"There's a lot of things to consider when you're an athlete and you're in the position that we are in. Both Tony and I are, let's say, we're at the 60-percent point in our career,'' said Biffle, who is eighth in points. "We're not Kyle Busch, you know, 21 or 22 years old. So, at some point we need to start thinking about how long we want to be involved in this sport and what we want to do in the future.''

That is why drivers, a few personal requests notwithstanding, essentially seek the same things, Smith said.

"By and large they want to make as much money as humanly possibly while maintaining enough for the team to maintain a competitive program,'' he said. "That takes up the bulk of the discussion. All want to eliminate personal appearances if they can or can they cap them at 10 minutes, which you can't. You get into very predictable conversations about the details that follow. Then it's the money.''

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