Tom Bowles
Thursday July 1st, 2010

With the NBA's free agent frenzy dominating the headlines, it seems a good time to revisit NASCAR's own Silly Season. This year has been quieter than most, with many top drivers choosing to stay with their current teams rather than risk a move during a rocky economic time for the sport.

But as the series hits the halfway point this weekend, plenty of questions still remain concerning 2011 -- most of them on the sponsorship front. Let's take a look, team-by-team, at the big issues left unresolved and where they stand:

Drivers Under Contract For '11: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne (with another team)

Outlook: The Hendrick organization appears stable behind the wheel, with all drivers signed through at least 2012 and Kahne hired as Martin's eventual replacement. The question mark is sponsorship for Gordon. His DuPont contract expires after this season, and virtually the only thing we know is the company won't be on the car for all 36 races next year. Who's pairing up with the team is anybody's guess: I hear everything from Mobil 1, to Wal-Mart, to even Pepsi depending on the day and the person.

Chances are at least two of those sponsors will head Hendrick's way, as where Kahne lands will need funding to remain competitive for the year he's in the driver's seat. There's also the issue of Martin's future; he'll remain in the No. 5 car, but might have possible ownership opportunities come his way with the Kahne deal. That was supposed to be finished this month, but getting the financials on the No. 24 squared away appears to be a higher priority. Once that's resolved, expect the rest to fall into place rather quickly.

Drivers Under Contract For '11: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin?

Outlook: Easily the most stable of all organizations heading into the summer. Hamlin's the only one whose deal is in question, but even with no public extension announced, trust me, he's not going anywhere. Gibbs has dabbled with the idea of starting a fourth team, but won't do it unless the right driver/sponsor combination comes along. With all big free agents off the market and none of their up-and-coming talent ready, Gibbs is happy to remain successful with what it already has -- Busch and Hamlin could be Hendrick's biggest threats to end Johnson's champ

Outlook: Harvick's contract proved the biggest hurdle for this three-car team to overcome. Now, the No. 29 just needs a sponsor. Budweiser is the No. 1 candidate, but nothing's been signed as the beer company mulls the future of the brand. Remember, 26-year-old Brad Keselowski is taking over the Miller Lite reins next year. Is Harvick, 35 in December, too old to market to an 18-34 demographic?

With that said, at this point it'd be a shock to see Budweiser go anywhere else. Whether Harvick or 31-year-old Clint Bowyer gets the nod, switching the Cheerios sponsorship to the No. 29, this team is in position to remain intact with funding to stay competitive for 2011.

Drivers Under Contract For '11: Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, David Ragan

Outlook: The plot's been thickening here as of late. During a winless season in Cup, Roush has repeatedly stood behind his Big Three (Edwards, Biffle and Kenseth), blaming their problems on some simulation engineering issues in the shop. But if a year's worth of struggles continue, expect a major internal overhaul in the offseason. Bob Osborne and Greg Erwin, crew chiefs for Edwards and Biffle, could get reassigned as GM Robbie Reiser returns atop Kenseth's pit box. With the possible dissolution of Richard Petty Motorsports (we'll get to that in a minute), RPM GM Robbie Loomis could take Reiser's place, reorganizing a team in dire need of a personnel shakeup.

And then there's the issue of Ragan. Roush Fenway has repeatedly claimed he's back in the No. 6 car for 2011, finishing out his contract despite an ugly track record: three top-10 finishes in the last year-and-a-half. Sources claim sponsor UPS is unhappy, but there's conflicting reports as to how much, really, they can do about it. Multiple sources have told me their contract is near-impossible to wriggle out of, but there's some ugly limitations for Roush, too. One source told me he's prevented from making a driver change, forcing him to keep Ragan in the seat amidst fears the delivery company will trigger an option-out clause without a big-name free agent to replace him.

Drivers Under Contract For '11: Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Sam Hornish, Jr.

Outlook: Penske's first two teams are set next year, Shell/Pennzoil backing Busch while Miller Lite moves over to a younger, supposedly hipper Keselowski. Now, the questions surround unsponsored and continually struggling Sam Hornish Jr. Having clearly regressed this season, the IndyCar convert has yet to score a top-10 finish or secure a new primary sponsor with Mobil 1 headed out the door. Both driver and owner say they're publicly resisting temptation to throw up the white flag, sending Hornish back into an open-wheel series where he's both an Indy 500 and overall series champ. But you've got to think it's only a matter of time before they cave ... right? Especially with Nationwide driver Justin Allgaier waiting in the wings -- he's got a win under his belt in that series this year -- it's becoming impossible to justify keeping Hornish in the seat.

Drivers Under Contract For '11: Martin Truex Jr., David Reutimann, Marcos Ambrose (JTG)

Outlook: A hallmark of stability heading into next season, MWR can build on momentum started by Truex and his whiz of a crew chief Pat Tryson. Teammate David Reutimann just signed a long-term extension, leaving all drivers and sponsors in place heading to 2011 and beyond. It's an impressive move by this growing program, being able to keep a core group intact despite never putting a driver in the Chase during their four-year existence.

Drivers Under Contract For '11: None

Drivers Under Contract Now: A.J. Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler, Paul Menard

Outlook: This team is the giant question mark. As of now, there is nothing secure at RPM for 2011, every sponsor and driver in position to bolt after the season. Menard's the only one with guaranteed sponsorship, but since it's also his dad who runs that company they could easily leave in some sort of package deal.

Kahne has already left for greener pastures (Hendrick), and the team's already tried to divorce itself from an underachieving Sadler -- wriggling out of his contract in 2009 before the threat of a lawsuit brought them back together. That pending divorce is imminent, leaving 'Dinger the lone key to their future. The best-case scenario here is he re-signs for 2011, a recent surge up the standings enough to keep Best Buy around to sponsor the No. 43. If Menard's convinced the team can still make it, you'll see a two-car Cup operation here for 2011. The problem is, debt rumors run wild behind the scenes, worries mounting too much red ink could drown them in an offseason filled with mass departures.

Drivers Under Contract For '11: Brian Vickers

Drivers Under Contract Now: Vickers, Scott Speed

Outlook: The owner is also the sponsor, leaving driver contracts the only thing to worry about here. You'd think Vickers is safe, although his health remains a concern after getting sidelined with blood clots for the rest of 2010. On the other side, Speed's cooled off after a hot start, with only one top-15 finish since the beginning of April. Bobby Labonte could possibly slide into his seat, but one thing to keep in mind is Speed's close relationship with owner Dietrich Mateschitz in Austria. GM Jay Frye has already learned from experience how that can foul up the best-laid plans, leading to Allmendinger's release in '08 when he wanted to expand to three cars. So even if Speed tanks the rest of the season -- which, considering Vickers' absence, is possible -- chances are that love connection's enough to buy him another year behind the wheel.

Drivers Under Contract For '11: Juan Pablo Montoya

Drivers Under Contract Now: Montoya, Jamie McMurray

Outlook: Montoya is a bonified lock, and McMurray should be as well after winning the Daytona 500 to start off what was a one-year deal. The worry revolves around sponsors for McMurray; if Bass Pro Shops leaves, would McDonald's step up and become a full-time primary sponsor again? All indications are that they would, keeping the year's most-improved team intact.

Drivers Under Contract For '11: Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman

Outlook: Both drivers are happy with their current rides -- they just need more money. Old Spice is leaving Stewart's car at the end of this season, and Newman has just half his races sponsored by both Tornados and the U.S. Army. Sources say the biggest holdup in putting Kahne on a third team for SHR next season is those sponsorship issues, the team worried about simply funding both cars they already have. Burger King is rumored to possibly step up to the plate for Stewart, although I've heard Bass Pro Shops, Citifinancial and even Stanley tools tossed around as well.

Single-Car Teams: Front Row Motorsports (Nos. 34, 37, 38), Furniture Row Racing (No. 78 -- Regan Smith), Germain Racing (No. 13 -- Max Papis), Latitude 43 Motorsports (No. 26), Phoenix Racing (No. 09), NEMCO Motorsports (No. 87), PRISM Motorsports (Nos. 55, 66), Robby Gordon Motorsports (No. 7 -- Robby Gordon), Tommy Baldwin Racing (No. 36 -- Casey Mears), TRG Motorsports (No. 71), Whitney Motorsports (No. 46 -- J.J. Yeley)

Drivers: Bobby Labonte, Scott Riggs

Outlook: This group of teams presents NASCAR's biggest dilemma of all: not enough cash to go around. Even as the economy starts recovering, none of these underfunded outlets have gained the sponsorship necessary to remain competitive. Some, like Gordon's No. 7, have put forth the occasional top-10 effort, but will likely be start-and-parking races this season simply to keep their "locked-in" spot on the grid. Others, like Phoenix, hope a partnership with a bigger team (Hendrick and Kahne) can keep them alive for 2011 and beyond.

The bottom line they're all suffering from is the cost of doing business -- it's enough to keep them at the mercy of the big teams, if they're not getting lapped by them. Until that bottom line gets lowered by the series' elite, we're going to see the little guys have no choice but to park their cars early or close up shop altogether -- leaving less than 35 fully-funded teams at this point ready to tackle a 43-car grid in 2011.

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