Five races remain in this year's Chase for the Championship, but that's far from the only compelling storyline hitting NASCAR down the homestretch. Too often, the fight for the title obscures other, important changes that will shape the sport not just on the grid, but off the track in 2011. So let's examine five under-the-radar moves to watch as the season winds to a close:
1.) The future of Richard Petty Motorsports. Just five days after Kasey Kahne pulled the sick day card, leaving the track early and his No. 9 team in the lurch, both sides negotiated a release that allows the lame duck driver to head to Red Bull Racing. It's a smart move for both, as Kahne was struggling to compete with some of the worst cars in the stable, battling with mechanical issues, all while badmouthing an organization he's wanted to leave ever since they switched to Ford at the end of 2009. Remember, Kahne and Ford go together like oil and water, there's a lawsuit to prove it when the driver broke contract to move to -- you guessed it -- the old incarnation of RPM, Evernham Motorsports Dodges in 2004. Charlotte proved the last straw, brake issues frustrating the driver to the point that after a crash, he chose to leave rather than run the semi-repaired car after a team member reportedly said he wasn't "doing his part" behind the wheel. The next day, that "stomach sick" man got better in time to miraculously run a 5k, trashing his team in the process and starting a war of words with RPM VP of Competition Robbie Loomis. It's an ugly debate that led to an early firing as both men's only option to continue.
For Red Bull Racing, they were simply going through the motions with fill-in driver Reed Sorenson, doing an admirable job but never becoming part of the team's plans for 2011. So why not put Kahne in there five weeks early, getting a head start on what's only a one-year deal to try and make the postseason, win races, and get these struggling Toyotas competitive? We actually used to see these moves often in the pre-Chase era, lame duck drivers and teams not in title contention parting ways as soon as the following year's plans got settled. After all, if you're going to divorce your wife why make the announcement and then still live with her an extra six months?
But Kahne's departure also sets another ominous tone, the future of his former organization in doubt after months of debt rumors. Multiple sources tell SI.com Kahne was owed back salary at the time of his departure, one of several owed money from an organization Jack Roush will stop supporting Nov. 1 without getting a payment of his own. Already, a "warning shot" was fired by the team's equipment and chassis supplier, initially confiscating Talladega cars while leaving RPM employees sitting around waiting the last 24 hours, the surest sign yet their jobs could be in jeopardy. That equipment was getting there piecemeal Thursday morning, but that's the last race Roush is expected to support at this time. It's a bit ironic in that he's helping force the team's demise after RPM was widely credited for experimental setups and R&D work this summer which wound up benefiting the entire Ford operation.
For Petty, it's another blow in the twilight of a NASCAR driver-turned-ownership career, the latest group of investors pulling the plug on a two-year trek that began with Boston Ventures in June 2008. That group wound up giving up the ghost by the end of the year, and a tumultuous merger in 2009 with George Gillett's team led to figurehead status for Petty and continued financial woes, the team forcing then-driver Sorenson to work for free in order to keep his job the second half of the season. Sources claim the latest investment group had given multiple loan extensions over the last 12 months, no longer confident they can recoup the money from co-owner Gillett with the sale of his soccer team, Liverpool FC, in limbo.
The ramifications, of course, are significant regardless of what happens, a full four-car loss virtually guaranteeing NASCAR could have less than 30 fully-funded cars at the Cup level next season. My gut is someone, somewhere will step in to keep the sport's living legend afloat, but nothing is certain anymore in a world where money is drying up faster than water in the Sahara. One other name to keep an eye on as this disaster develops: David Ragan. With the possible release of A.J. Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose for 2011, an RPM dissolution gives Roush options to replace the struggling Ragan with better talent for next season in his UPS-sponsored No. 6.
2.) What will happen with Dale Jr.'s crew chief? A once debatable decision as to whether to keep No. 88 crew chief Lance McGrew for next season is becoming cut and dry. Leading just three laps since the start of the season's second half, Earnhardt has just two top-15 finishes over the last 13 races while turning his radio transmissions into a NASCAR version of Real Housewives of Hendrick Motorsports. Seriously, he and McGrew argue more than the other three drivers and their crew chiefs combined, yet smile in front of the cameras, pretending it's all OK.
It's not. While the Hendrick line continues to be McGrew and Earnhardt together in 2011, garage talk has indicated a private shift is in the works. The rumor mill is all over the place with potential replacements, the hottest new name mentioned being Jimmie Johnson's current car chief, Ron Malec. Personally, I'll believe that one when I see it, his presence at the No. 48 being the lynchpin for their overall team chemistry. While the man deserves a head wrench opportunity, it's hard to see his current car winning a possible sixth straight title without him.
Another name in the mix has been Mark Martin's crew chief, Alan Gustafson (denied) as the school of thought is Hendrick will look internally for a replacement. Who will emerge from the fray is unclear, but with Earnhardt's team no better off than they were one year ago, it's certain his current crew chief's days are numbered.
3.) The future of the Nationwide Series. Last week, the top owners of NASCAR's "AAA" division were brought in for what they thought was a follow-up meeting on potential 2011 changes. Between the full-time use of their new Car of Tomorrow -- a prototype that could find its way to Sprint Cup by 2013 -- potential cost-cutting measures on the heels of a 20 percent purse reduction, and the all-important decision on whether Cup drivers can run full-time in the series, there seemed to be plenty to talk about.
And there was definitely some talking: a marketing session by main sponsor Nationwide on how well the series was going, the type of presentation where you fall asleep at work or bring your iPhone to text the whole time. Indeed, being called a "waste of time" by one prominent owner off the record, the meeting did nothing but speculate on possible tweaks instead of giving definitive decisions. That means there's no answer on whether the series will ban current full-timers Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards and Paul Menard, all of whom run in the Cup Series, from competing for a Nationwide championship next year. The indecisiveness haunts owners in the boardroom, potential sponsors unable to sign on the dotted line as they're unsure the drivers they've signed up with will be able to even compete.
What NASCAR decides here will be pivotal to the series' future along with driver development, the yearly crop of rookies all but ground to a halt by professional interlopers taking away both finishes and prime driving opportunities. There's a movement in the garage to push for a change, but Nationwide itself is so publicly outspoken with the status quo you just don't know what direction officials lean on this one anymore.
4.) Will winless drivers break through? With five races left, some of the biggest names in the sport still have a zero in the win column. Jeff Gordon is in jeopardy of his second winless season in the last three, a shocking development after scoring 81 victories from 1994-2007. Carl Edwards, the 2008 championship runner-up, still doesn't have a first-place result in the Cup Series since that Homestead season finale. Mark Martin was the bridesmaid last year, but didn't even make the Chase in 2010 while going from five victories to zero. And veteran Matt Kenseth hasn't tasted a race-winning trophy since going 2-for-2 to start the 2009 Cup season.
My best bets are on Edwards and Martin, both of whom have looked much sharper over the past month and have the past history to pull out surprise performances at Texas and Phoenix down the stretch.
5.) Will the Chase format be changed? Saturday's race was the first in the Chase not to have a ratings decline of at least 20 percent, staggering numbers, which have NASCAR rethinking the whole playoff concept for 2011. Overall fan sentiment seems to lean toward removing the format altogether, yet the sanctioning body continues to toy with turning the 10-race postseason into a series of eliminations. Eliminating the entire format, to many fans' chagrin, could prove impossible due to the TV contracts and many other sponsor relationships in play.
But regardless of which path the sport goes down, don't expect the status quo for next season. There's too much negativity and concern surrounding the current system, especially if a fifth straight title from J.J. becomes reality at Homestead this November.
Any tweaks would be the third in just the last seven years to their system. The way things are going, there better not be a fourth.