Will Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler and Reed Sorenson be driving Toyotas in the Sprint Cup Series next season?
The answer is dependant upon Gillett Evernham Motorsports finalizing negotiations (sources say they're ongoing in earnest) to purchase Bill Davis Racing's Cup program, which seems likely. Deep-pocketed majority owner George Gillett can make Davis an offer he can't afford to refuse.
From the moment Gillett took control from team founder Ray Evernham 13 months ago, he's been trying to add a fourth car. GEM was Dodge's original team in its return to Cup in 2000 and Gillett initially pursued another Dodge team in Petty Enterprises. After those discussions ended, Gillett made a deal with Robby Gordon in late January to buy his team. It was announced as a technical, manufacturing and marketing partnership and Gordon made a rapid switch from Ford to Dodge in time for the Daytona 500.
Gordon seemed like a perfect fit: a solid, veteran driver who would bring top-35 owner points for the fourth GEM entry. But last month GEM filed a lawsuit to void the deal, citing breach of contract. Gordon, in a statement, said: "We categorically reject the allegations that are contained in the complaint and the truth will come out if the case proceeds." Despite the lawsuit Gordon also says he's ready to go ahead with the deal.
Gillett had accomplished his original goal in adding Gordon. Even if you believe the GEM lawsuit's allegations, nothing in there seems so egregious to affect the big picture. GEM's primary reason for the lawsuit doesn't even make much sense, at least to this layman. GEM says Gordon has broken the exclusivity clause and talked to other teams about merging. Why would Gordon do that when he has a deal in place that he still wants?
GEM's change of heart is clearly tied to Toyota's success and Dodge's struggles this season. The acquisition of Davis includes the Toyota affiliation and the No. 22 driven by Dave Blaney, which is 33rd in owner points. GEM has two other cars in the top 35, Kahne and Sadler, but the No. 10 driven by Patrick Carpentier is outside of that coveted guaranteed starting spot at 38th. With three drivers in and one out, GEM would have options on strategies to start next season in an effort to get into the top 35 by the sixth race.
Toyota would welcome Kahne, Sadler and Sorenson to its driver lineup. Kahne is, of course, particularly attractive, the winner of two races this season and nine in his career at the age of 28. He's popular and has all that advertising support from Budweiser and Allstate to help spread the Toyota brand. Sadler is a veteran capable of winning races and Sorenson -- remember he's only 22 -- has great potential. Plus it would be Toyota's first four-car team, the standard for success in Cup.
GEM can see the way the wind is blowing. Dodge doesn't have a driver in the Chase. Toyota, with Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart, has three. Red Bull Racing's Brian Vickers and A.J. Allmendinger, assuming he's back with the team, have made tremendous progress this season. Vickers should be a challenger for the Chase and maybe even win a race or two. Toyota loses Tony Stewart to Chevrolet and Kahne becomes a viable replacement in the Chase. Vickers could be a fourth Chase driver, perhaps Sadler a fifth for Toyota.
GEM would be a coup for Toyota and a setback for Dodge. GEM's contract with Dodge runs through the 2010 season. GEM could challenge it in court, as it has done with Gordon, or negotiate out of the agreement. Perhaps Dodge, in financial trouble, would be willing to opt out and concentrate its funding on Penske, Ganassi and Petty. It's hard not to believe that somehow GEM would find a way to make the switch to Toyota.
Davis' Cup program faces serious obstacles in the ultra-competitive environment of multi-car teams, and it also doesn't have a major sponsor for next year. Davis has much to be proud about as a Cup owner. He has a Daytona 500 win with Ward Burton in 2002 and five wins, all with Burton, in 16 years in Cup, but he faces a long-term rebuilding project to get back to that level.
Davis has a chance to do that through his Craftsman Truck Series and Nationwide teams. He has top-flight Truck operation with drivers Johnny Benson, Mike Skinner and, next season, Brian Scott, and a tremendous prospect in 22-year-old Michael Annett, who is expected to move from the Trucks to Nationwide next season.
Or, Davis can take the money being offered by Gillett, relax and enjoy his participation in the Truck and Nationwide Series. Gillett, according to court documents, was willing to pay Gordon $23.5 million (pending an audit that could have adjusted it) for his team, shop and property in Charlotte. Gillett is undoubtedly willing to pay top dollar for Davis and a relationship with Toyota.
Kyle Busch blossomed into a superstar this season with Toyota. Gillett certainly believes that Kahne can become one, too, with the same equipment. Davis has been interested in selling and listened to several offers, but no one will outbid Gillett. It would be a surprise is GEM doesn't buy Davis.