Tom Bowles
Thursday January 14th, 2010

The Sprint Cup Series ended that last decade in a slump off the track as well as on it. Last year became the weakest Silly Season for NASCAR in years, with the economy and falling ratings forcing most drivers and owners to stand pat with what they had. But mediocrity can only last for so long until someone pulls the trigger. Some have already hinted that change is imminent, with Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne looking to leave their deals at the end of 2010.

But there are plenty of drivers who won't be able to take matters into their own hands with owners who need a change before their sponsors jump ship and sail away. Here's a short list of those who must start strong to avoid the dreaded pink slip in the middle of the coming season:

After a full season without a top 5 finish, Ragan went from hero to zero in a hurry after nearly making the Chase in 2008. Watching him drop from 13th to 27th in points wasn't what new sponsor UPS was looking for, especially when former driver David Reutimann won the Coke 600 at Charlotte and came within 150 points of making the Chase. Ragan's slump cost crew chief Jimmy Fennig his job, leaving Donnie Wingo tasked with lifting the 24-year-old back to prominence. Ragan will need an almost instant fix, as owner Jack Roush has top talent in Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Colin Braun in the wings and gunning for a chance to replace him.

It's a minor miracle that Sadler's still employed driving the No. 19. Let's not forget that this time last year owner George Gillett ripped up his contract and kicked him out until Sadler threatened a lawsuit to force his return. Those arranged marriages rarely have a happy ending, so it's no surprise the season fizzled despite a near-shocking upset in the Daytona 500 (that 5th place finish was Sadler's lone top 5). And if things aren't already bad enough, an offseason merger with his former team, Yates Racing, brings with it the bad blood from when he jumped ship from that ride mid-2006. Sources say Yates team members were asking for Sadler's release in favor of Jamie McMurray the second the merger went through. That's not exactly throwing out the welcome mat...

Speaking of McMurray, his second stint with Chip Ganassi is more like a yearlong audition for the future. Bass Pro Shops is in the last year of their sponsorship deal and "settling" on McMurray for the No. 1 car when there are no other options available. Not the type to hunt and fish on the weekends, his "metro" style doesn't come with the outdoorsy image they want, and sources claim the company's already in talks with Ryan Newman and Stewart-Haas Racing for 2011. That leaves this veteran racing against time, needing to prove his worth with a Chase bid before his future funding runs out.

There's always one big name to throw in the fire, and the 2009 Nationwide Series champ makes the list. Yes, Busch is now signed at Joe Gibbs Racing through 2011. But after a 13th-place points finish left him on the outside of the Chase looking in, this year could leave him at a crossroads. Teammates Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano ended last year with all the Cup momentum, while Busch has distractions in the form of a new Truck team and having to adjust to new crew chief Dave Rogers. In a year where 20 to 22 drivers will compete for 12 Chase slots, focus is paramount. Yet Busch is still focused on running the Nationwide and Truck schedules. (Sources say he's begging J.D. Gibbs to run full-time and defend his Nationwide title). That may aid his push for 200 victories in NASCAR's top three series, but if Busch finishes say, 15th or worse on the Cup side of things, he may get a reality check on where his priorities should be.

Entering his third season in the No. 77 Dodge, the former IRL champ remains a stock car chump struggling to adjust to the Cup Series. While seven top 10s were a huge '09 improvement, half-a-dozen wrecks led to DNFs that kept him mired 28th in points. With new teammate Brad Keselowski expected to up the performance of the No. 12 car and Kurt Busch returning, Hornish sits low man on the totem pole with a three-car team capable of challenging Hendrick for the championship. Roger Penske and Hornish have a great relationship, but you wonder how much longer the owner will tolerate wrecked race cars and a troubling inconsistency that's plagued this open-wheel experiment from the start.

Speed's rookie Cup season for Team Red Bull was catastrophic ... at best. Just one top 5 finish drowned among eight DNFs as the F-1 driver finished with a grade of F. Things got so bad that his No. 82 team lost their guaranteed spot in the field, leading to an embarrassing three DNQs and a year of working on simply qualifying instead of race day setups. Speed has a cushy relationship with maverick owner Dietrich Mateschitz, giving him a longer leash than most. But any type of sophomore slump won't look good when teammate Brian Vickers spends all year contending for the Chase.

-- Where will road racing ace Boris Said wind up in 2010? We don't know yet, but one place he won't be is newly-formed Latitude 43 Motorsports. Sources called me Wednesday to deny a report that Said was linked to the new team that bought the owner points of the former No. 26 car to earn a spot in the field for the first five races of 2010. However, longtime crew chief Frankie Stoddard will make the move, ending a partnership between the two that's lasted since they worked for MB2 Motorsports in 2005. Expect an announcement on Said's future within the next three weeks.

-- With the No. 26 points off the market, that leaves three spots on the Cup grid unaccounted for heading to Daytona. NASCAR guarantees the top 35 owners an automatic spot in the field for the first five races, but the No. 07, No. 44, and No. 96 are all not expected to show up this season. Will other teams step up and buy their rights to earn a spot? Left anxiously waiting during this mess are three cars: the No. 82 of Team Red Bull (Speed), the No. 71 of TRG Motorsports (Bobby Labonte), and the No. 09 of Phoenix Racing (Aric Almirola), who would all lock in themselves if nothing gets sold. Sound a little complicated? That's because it is. Isn't the definition of qualifying who has the fastest speed, not who has the most money in the boardroom?

-- Left without a ride for Daytona, Casey Mears' streak of 252 consecutive starts is in jeopardy. He's just one of a dozen drivers (Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Sadler, Jeff Gordon, Harvick, Jeff Burton, Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Bobby Labonte, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. are the others) to be in every Cup race since the start of the 2003 season.

Don't forget, Tom Bowles answers your questions every Tuesday with his SI Mailbag! Email him at tbowles81@yahoo.com or Tweet him at NASCARBowles with a question or comment, and who knows ... you just might see your name in print!

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