With Martin Truex Jr.'s declaration Tuesday that he's leaving next season for Michael Waltrip Racing, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing faces a hiring decision critical to the future of the organization.
Truex was the final remnant of the once-potent Dale Earnhardt Inc. organization. He won the 2004 and 2005 Nationwide championships for DEI's Chance 2 Motorsports, then moved up to Sprint Cup for the past four seasons. Truex won at Dover, and made the Chase in 2007, credentials that established him as the best driver available this year.
Bass Pro Shops has been Truex's primary sponsor in both the Nationwide and Cup Series -- six seasons of building his identity as the company's spokesman and advertising image. Long term associations with drivers are major assets in the marketing world. Truex will be pitching Napa Auto Parts next season.
Earnhardt Ganassi's contract with Bass Pro Shops ends following the 2010 season, leaving it a one-season window to establish a new relationship between driver and sponsor. With the team down to two full-time Cup entries and new sponsors very difficult to find in a weak economy, they desperately need to retain Bass Pro Shops with a strong on-track performance.
So who are the drivers with the best chance of delivering for Earnhardt Ganassi?
1. Brad Keselowski. With Truex off the market, the 25-year-old Nationwide driver ascends to the head of the free agent class. He's won races the past two seasons in Nationwide for JR Motorsports, co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rick Hendrick, and has a Cup victory at Talladega this season. Hendrick would like to keep him in the family, which could mean farming him out to Stewart-Haas Racing or helping JR Motorsports move up to Cup, but finding sponsorship is a problem. EGR can offer Keselowski a full-season deal and that's what he's looking for. With Keselowski, EGR can sell the future; he's got a big upside and it shouldn't take too long for him to get there.
2. Jamie McMurray. He's in the fourth and final season of his contract with Roush Fenway Racing, which NASCAR has mandated must downsize from five to four teams for 2010. With Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and David Ragan signed for next season, McMurray has to move somewhere. Jack Roush could sign him and farm him out to Yates Racing, which uses Roush-built Fords, but McMurray may be interested in a fresh start at age 33. He's a decent 19th in the points this season, but out of Chase contention. McMurray has two wins, with Chip Ganassi in 2002 and Roush Fenway in 2007 and his best finish in the points was 11th (when the top 10 made the Chase) in 2004.
3. Travis Kvapil. He was 23rd in the points with four top 10s in 2008 with underfunded Yates Racing, which didn't test all season. Yates wanted to keep him and Kvapil drove in four races early this season before a lack of funding put him on the sidelines. Kvapil, 33, has never been in a front-line car in Sprint Cup. He finished 33rd in Penske Racing's No. 77 third entry in 2005, and 36th with Cal Wells' one-car PPI Team in 2006. He won the Camping World Truck Series in 2003 and returned to trucks to win four races 2007 with Roush Fenway. Kvapil has the potential to do more than he's shown at the Cup level.
4. David Gilliland. He's done a good job qualifying the start-up and small TRG Motorsports operation this season, making 17 straight races. Gilliland hasn't raced as well and sits 37th in the points without a top 10, but he's also had little luck with seven DNFs. He's best known for his Nationwide victory for a small team at Kentucky Speedway in 2006. It vaulted him to Robert Yates Racing for the final 14 races that year. Gilliland was 28th in the points for RYR in 2007 and 27th for the reconstituted Yates Racing in 2008. At 33, with his experience level and a competitive team and a proper budget, Gilliland's best years would be in front of him.
5. Aric Almirola. He's an Earnhardt Ganassi development driver. He started the season in the No. 8 and drove in seven races. Almirola, 25, has one top 10 in 25 Cup starts. He also has one top five in 36 truck starts and two top 10s in 28 Nationwide starts including a shared victory with Denny Hamlin at Milwaukee in 2007. Almirola qualified on pole at Milwaukee and ran well before surrendering the car to Hamlin, who arrived late from a flight from the West Coast. Almirola was officially credited with the victory. He has talent, but may need more seasoning before he's ready for Cup.
Earnhardt Ganassi would prefer to have a proven race winner and Chase contender to choose from, but none is available. But in Keselowski, there may be a slightly older and more experienced version of Joey Logano and in McMurray, Kvapil, and Gilliland, a younger version of David Reutimann. Almirola is a long shot for the job.