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Silliness hits top gear

Ryan Newman says he didn't really understand why NASCAR's summer rite was called "Silly Season" until he became embroiled in one. But the 30-year-old Sprint Cup driver became just more fodder for the annual speculation festival about drivers' futures when he first complained about his lot at Penske Racing then said last week that he will not return for a 10th season.

Indicators and so-called clues suggested he could join Tony Stewart's new race team. But there are potentially quicker rewards at Richard Childress Racing. Ganassi has a dormant third car, if he could bring a sponsor. And what if Dale Earnhardt Inc. needs a driver? But that only happens if … Mind-numbing.

"In a roundabout way, it is kind of silly, the way you have to deal with, let's just say, the politics of the situation and try to sort things out," Newman said in a national conference call. "Obviously, it takes away from your main goal: the driving and focusing. I can still get in the car and focus, but it takes away from the extracurricular things that can make a difference in performance. It takes a lot more effort than I really thought it did."

Playing dominoes is one thing. Being one is a whole other issue. Stewart and Mark Martin have to this point been the first to fall into place and figure to trigger a cascade of inter-related moves.

In place

Tony Stewart: His 50 percent equity acquisition of Haas CNC Racing — now Stewart Haas Racing — should settle his future long-term. He'll drive for the team, hoping his skill and those leased Hendrick Motorsports engines can eventually earn it some respectability. His star power and charisma should help secure a solid second driver, and he already has sponsors to pay for it all.

Mark Martin: The 49-year-old four-time Sprint Cup runnerup was coaxed out of semi-retirement for one last run at a title for Hendrick Motorsports, which has won consecutive championships and 29 races the past two seasons. Of course, the No. 5 Chevrolet he's taking over has won once in that span, but there had been major personnel changes behind its current driver, Casey Mears. Martin's long semi-retirement was bogging down the commencement of 24-year-old Tampa product Aric Almirola's full-time Cup career, but now he's gone. Last season, the No. 8 Chevrolet at Dale Earnhardt Inc. was driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Now it's Almirola's, though a much different commodity these days as the team continues to seek consistency and secure a full-time sponsor for 2009.

In play

Ryan Newman: The nine-year veteran said he will not return to Penske Racing, the only NASCAR team for which he has driven. Joining Stewart seems sensible on several levels — he's an Indiana boy like Stewart, and his old friend Matt Borland is director of competition at Haas — but those things don't necessarily matter. Although miffed Penske did not offer Borland a new position within the company after replacing him as crew chief late in the 2006 season, Newman admitted their personal relationship had been affected by their work. They'd accrued 12 wins and 37 poles together. Newman has one win and five poles since.

Options: Stewart Haas Racing; Richard Childress Racing

Richard Childress Racing's No. 33 Chevrolet: RCR, which put all three of its drivers — Clint Bowyer (third place in the final driver standings), Jeff Burton (eighth) and Kevin Harvick (10th) — in the Chase for the Championship last year and is set to do so again (if Bowyer can gain one spot to 12th), will launch a fourth Cup car in 2009. Childress went hunting with Newman last fall, and he usually hits what he sets his crosshairs upon. Was he hunting Newman out of season?

Options: Newman, Martin Truex

Martin Truex: DEI officials insist they have an option on his contract for 2009, but the 28-year-old has chafed at that assertion. A one-race Cup winner but two-time Nationwide champion who's 17th in the driver standings after a hurtful 150-point penalty, Truex has been beset by many of the types of problems that made Earnhardt's last season at DEI miserable. And he wasn't happy about that Daytona infraction that likely put him out of Chase contention. And even if DEI has iron-clad legal paper, unhappy unions have a way of breaking themselves up.

Options: RCR, Stewart Haas, Penske

Penske Racing: Newman's out, opening a moderately successful ride with an extremely successful organization that for some reason cannot replicate its open-wheel success for Roger Penske. Former series champion Kurt Busch and three-time Indy Racing League titlist Sam Hornish await as teammates.

Options: Team test driver David Stremme; Truex; Mears

Chip Ganassi Racing: What will become of the No. 40 Dodge, the third car most Sprint Cup teams consider crucial for a viable program? Does sponsorship materialize if a successful driver is put in the car? How sweet would it be for Ganassi to lure Newman from his open-wheel rival? But Ganassi has said shutting down the No. 40 (and firing 71 employees) was "not about Dario" Franchitti, so such a move would not look good.

Options: Franchitti, Newman, Truex

Dario Franchitti: He could return; he could retire. The 2007 Indianapolis 500 winner and IRL champion has a lot of thinking to do after making a gutsy career move that has, for the moment, failed.

Options: Ganassi, IRL, American Le Mans Series

Casey Mears: The least-successful fourth wheel in Hendrick Motorsports' well-oiled machine, he will be cut loose and replaced with Martin, who wants to make a last run for a championship. The implication: Mears, 30, couldn't possibly have done so in the No. 5 Chevrolet.

Options: Penske, RCR.

Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 20 Chevrolet: Stewart is gone after 10 years, 32 wins, two championships and chapters worth of high drama. Crew chief Greg Zipadelli remains to provide stability, but who will fill those sizeable driving shoes?

Options: Joey Logano, Truex, Newman

Joey Logano: He's 18 years old, made five starts in the Nationwide series — with a win and three top-five finishes — and is considered the next great one after becoming the youngest to win a race in one of NASCAR's top three series. He was actually considered the next great well before that when Martin said that at 15 Logano was ready to compete in Sprint Cup.

Options: No. 20 Chevrolet, JGR, full Nationwide season

Silliness hits top gear 07/25/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 26, 2008 12:15am]

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