Tom Bowles
Friday April 17th, 2009

NASCAR's Silly Season starts earlier and earlier these days, and don't expect 2009 to be an exception to the rule. Remember, we're nearing the one-year anniversary of Tony Stewart's departure from Joe Gibbs Racing, which caused a long chain reaction of free agent dominoes falling before the 36-race regular season was even halfway complete.

So for drivers struggling mightily or in the final year of their contract, sluggish starts are far from a laughing matter. The pink slip may not actually come until after the checkered flag at Homestead, but owners often decide drivers' futures as early as the middle of Spring.

With that in mind, here are five drivers whose situations bear watching just seven races into 2009.

Busch's four-year run at Penske has never lived up to the lofty expectations. Missing the Chase twice in three seasons, Busch has twice as many DNFs as wins in the No. 2 Dodge, struggling with consistency while never quite developing the popularity and individuality he hoped for when leaving Roush. Tension between driver and owner recently went public through this YouTube clip from Martinsville.

But that's just one of several times Busch has gone ape with the Penske brain trust on the radio. Owner and driver have since made up, but any type of public discord will affect team chemistry to some degree. On Thursday, I sat in the garage while the No. 48 and No. 2 cars went through inspection. Jimmie Johnson's team was joking around like a bunch of buddies who'd known each other for years. As for the mood in Busch's camp? I've seen more cheerful funerals.

Beyond Busch's frustration lie big questions about Penske's future. With Chrysler facing possible bankruptcy, chances are high a new manufacturer is in the works for 2010, while sponsor Miller Lite's deal is also in question beyond this season. Roger Penske's health has also been up and down in recent years. At 72, the owner won't be at the track forever. You wonder how long he's willing to keep going and what type of succession plan will fall into place when he does retire.

That leaves an opening for other teams to go after Busch. Rumors late last season had Joe Gibbs Racing making a run at Kurt to team him with brother Kyle. No one is better at dealing with moody drivers than JGR, and sibling rivalry could be the perfect antidote for a brother who's been outshined in recent years.

A new fourth team at Gibbs appears to be on the horizon, as the team recently went after A.J. Allmendinger for that role. But with the 'Dinger locked up through 2010, Busch could be the next big name on the radar screen if relations between he and Penske don't consistently improve. Remember, the last two Silly Seasons have seen big names come out of the woodwork ('07: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.; '08: Tony Stewart) so it wouldn't be a total surprise if someone of Busch's caliber jumped ship.

Perhaps no one has weathered more criticism this season than Mears, who has struggled mightily while in the first year of a three-year contract. Driving for a team that finished in the top 5 in points each of the past two seasons, Mears hasn't so much as smelled the front with Richard Childress Racing, failing to lead a lap this season while qualifying no better than 25th. Not surprisingly, that's led to an average finish of just 21.6 that leaves the veteran 23rd in points, easily the worst of the team's expanded four-car fleet.

At the moment, however, the team doesn't have anyone waiting in the wings; Stephen Leicht and Childress' grandson Austin Dillon won't be Cup-ready until at least 2011. But Childress is not a guy for whom 25th-place finishes are acceptable for long. If Mears continues to struggle deep into the summer, look for Martin Truex, Jr. as a possible replacement if he refuses to re-sign with Earnhardt Ganassi.

Initially signed to drive the No. 10 car, Sorenson wound up working for the King instead when Gillett Evernham Motorsports merged with his No. 43. But like so many others who have sat in that legendary seat before him, the 23-year-old proved incapable of turning around a team that's gone winless since Martinsville in April 1999, when John Andretti won.

Since finishing 9th at Daytona, Sorenson's average finish is an abysmal 27.3 in his last six starts, dropping him to 30th in the season standings. That's not going to cut it for an organization with the resources of newly-formed RPM. Sorenson looks especially bad considering teammate A.J. Allmendinger is on the fringes of Chase contention, driving a part-time ride with a series of patchwork sponsorship deals to stay afloat. With the popular open-wheel convert now signed through 2010, it's Sorenson who will be on the outside looking in if sponsorship for a fourth car dries up. With 13 laps led since the start of 2008, it's time for the Georgian to realize his as-yet untapped potential before he's potentially looking for work.

McMurray's name has been batted around the rumor mill so constantly the last three years, you'd think he'd been fired 10 times by now. But after an amazing display of resiliency that's seen pretty much everyone but the driver on his No. 26 team get replaced, a slow start has left him out of excuses and likely out of opportunities with his current employer. Three top-15 finishes have been offset by three more of 37th or worse, leaving McMurray 27th in Sprint Cup points and already with a near-impossible hill to climb into Chase contention.

But if McMurray finds success again, chances are it won't be with Roush. NASCAR's new four-team rule forces the organization to cut from five teams to four in 2010, leaving McMurray the obvious choice for odd man out in that scenario. It's unlikely the No. 26 car will disappear altogether -- Roush will likely give the team lock, stock and barrel to "partner" Yates Racing -- but the performance has been so abysmal it's unlikely the driver will go with it. Sources tell me Roush was desperate to keep Travis Kvapil in a Ford after the No. 28 team closed down, and he's likely higher up the food chain to get a ride with Yates than anyone else.

JGR has shown incredible patience in the past with young drivers working their way up through the ranks, sometimes too much (See: Yeley, J.J.; Leffler, Jason). But with sponsor Home Depot in the final year of its contract, Logano's potential needs to be replaced by performance. A worst-case scenario in which the rookie falls out of the top 35 and fails to qualify -- not all that inconceivable -- could leave him open to being knocked back to the Nationwide Series if a veteran like Kurt Busch or Truex becomes available.

In the end, it's a shame the teenager couldn't have one more year in Nationwide to begin with, as he's sixth in the standings over there despite missing a race. But the fact remains, Cup is where's he is right now, and to stay there Logano needs to overcome the handicap of no testing time in the CoT, which has clearly hampered him and fellow rookie Scott Speed at the start of the year.

Do you have questions or comments for Tom? Email tbowles81@yahoo.com and he may answer your question in his mailbag.

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