DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The clock is ticking on the contracts of marquee drivers like Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya, all of whom are poised to hit NASCAR’s version of free agency as this season develops.
Danica Patrick doesn’t know her plans for 2012 and beyond, either.
If this was NASCAR’s mid-2000s zenith, when eight-figure sponsorships were falling from the sky and every team was aiming to become the next Hendrick Motorsports, having so many big names available would be a formula for one of the more active free agent markets in recent memory.
Instead, the economy is sagging and NASCAR’s popularity has slipped. Even if one of this year’s free agents wants to make a big splash by switching teams, there aren’t many potential open rides to take them — or big-time sponsors willing to pay the bills. Few people in the sport expect a wave of wild bidding wars and major moves as the season goes on.
“Those guys, the chance of them going somewhere else are slim to none,” Montoya said.
NASCAR free agency, otherwise known as the sport’s “silly season,” works differently than free agency in other sports. Typically, next year’s deals will be negotiated in the middle of this season, and conversations that would be considered tampering in other sports is a way of life in the drivers’ motorhome lot. Sometimes, drivers who negotiate deals with new teams end up awkwardly finishing out the season as lame ducks with their old teams.
But if anybody wanted to make a big move this year, where would they go?
“Childress has four teams, Hendrick has four teams, Gibbs will probably have four teams sooner or later,” said Biffle, who currently drives for Roush Fenway Racing. ” We have four teams, so in order for you to go somewhere, somebody has to get kicked out, so it’s not as easy as, ‘Hey, maybe I’ll go see what Hendrick has going,’ because they don’t have a spot. It’s a little more difficult. The field is getting narrower with options.”
Biffle said the market was dramatically different as recently as 2008.
“Everybody was looking at musical chairs,” he said. “I was looking at maybe doing something different. I was looking at this or that or whatever else, and Tony (Stewart) moved and guys were moving all over. I don’t see guys jumping all over the place now.”
Several drivers have been asked about their contacts in the run-up to Sunday’s Daytona 500, and most said they expect to re-sign with their current teams.
The driver who sounded most open to potential offers from other teams was Edwards.
“The thing I’m going to do is to do whatever is best for me to go win the most championships I can win,” Edwards said. “That’s what I want to do, and I would like to get it done as quickly and privately as we can so that we can go focus on racing because that’s the best thing. There’s no benefit to having a long, drawn-out, messy process.”
Edwards said Roush Fenway could certainly be the best place for him, and his teammate Biffle expects to finish a deal with the team and sponsor 3M very soon.
“I don’t have a high interest level in leaving Roush Fenway and going somewhere else right now,” Biffle said. I really, really don’t. The grass is always greener on the other side.”
Burton expects to remain at Richard Childress Racing.
“That’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that we’re going to get all that done,” Burton said. “I feel good about my future at RCR, look at it as the place where I want to spend the rest of my career.”
Mark Martin doesn’t have that option, as Kasey Kahne will take over Hendrick’s No. 5 car next season.
“I’m not talking about 2012 until I have something to talk about, you know?” Martin said. “I’m not worried about it, and will be completely content for it to come down to the last hour. I am embracing 2011.”
Then there’s Patrick, who says she doesn’t know what she’ll do next season — in NASCAR or IndyCar.
“It’s only February,” Patrick said. “We haven’t started the NASCAR season or the IndyCar season. I think it’s about getting through this year. I’m sure silly season will come, or whatever they call it in racing, towards the later part of the year. Until then, I’m just going to make the most of every weekend and that’s it.”
Meanwhile, the idea of racing in a contract year doesn’t seem like much of a distraction to Bowyer, who seemed only vaguely aware of his contract status at Richard Childress Racing when asked about it last week.
“I can be distracted pretty much a hundred percent of the time,” Bowyer joked. “I think most people call that ADD. You can call it whatever you want.”