'Silly Season' Synopsis
Eleven years ago, the NASCAR race team then known as Roush Racing made an announcement of a sponsor change on its flagship No. 6 car. Valvoline was leaving, and the Roush organization had struck a megabucks deal with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to advertise a certain little blue pill on the hood of its vehicle beginning the following season. Jack Roush and Mark Martin revealed the new paint scheme in a splashy unveiling prior to the July race at Daytona International Speedway -- a full seven months before the car would take to the race track.
That's the way it used to be done. Back when sponsor money flowed like water from a spigot, when many corporations were discovering this marketing opportunity called NASCAR for the first time, deals were made so far in advance that companies had months (or in the case of Dodge's return in 2001, years) to plan their grand entrances into North America's biggest motorsports series. Sponsorship became something of an arms race as companies topped one another with deals bigger than the previous one. The dollar amounts being exchanged were astronomical, and they all came with lots of planning and lead time and activation. Very little was done at the last minute. The latter half of each season typically featured a flurry of announcements as sponsor and driver alignments became solidified, and then everyone scattered to Bali or Aspen for the holidays before reconvening at Daytona in their new colors.
It was a process as regular and as dependable as inspection at a restrictor-plate track. Then the economy flattened. And the sponsor market contracted. And the dollar figures involved shrunk. And suddenly here we are, in the midst of a winter every bit as active as a Saturday morning at Pocono, witnessing a prolonged convulsion of personnel moves that didn't really begin to ramp up until after the 2011 season ended. That used to be the time when NASCAR's so-called silly season quieted down. Now, it's just a starting point. Announcements like Michael Waltrip Racing's at the October race in Kansas, where a new driver, new car and new sponsor were all unveiled in one grand swoop, used to be the standard. Now, in this crazy offseason, something like that seems quaint.
In its place we have a feeding frenzy, an environment in which drivers needing rides and teams needing sponsorship take what they can get, where corporate backing is at a premium, where everything takes much longer because careful, cost-conscious companies would rather sit and wait. A decade ago, the driver lineup for the following season was firmed up well before the circuit reached Atlanta for what was then the final race. Today, regular season and offseason have merged into one long, full-calendar-year process with no defined starting or ending point. Between the end of the 2011 season on Nov. 20 and Tuesday, there were a staggering 34 personnel moves across NASCAR's three national divisions -- and we're not done yet. Preseason testing looms at Daytona, and still race-winning drivers like David Ragan and Brian Vickers don't have jobs. Mike Ford, a crew chief who almost won a championship two years ago, has yet to land anywhere. There is no silly season anymore. The whole season has gone silly.
Granted, for the guys back at the shop who build race cars, this has always been the busiest time of year, as teams try to bulk up inventory and get their vehicles squared away for the first few months of the upcoming campaign. Now, they're not alone. Vacation? Forget it. One day after the 2011 season ended, Roush Fenway essentially shut down Martin's old No. 6 team. A day later, Richard Childress Racing shuffled its crew chiefs, clearing the way to hire ex-Rousher Drew Blickensderfer to work with Jeff Burton's team. That same day, Hendrick engineer Chris Heroy was named crew chief on Juan Montoya's team at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, and Rookie of the Year Andy Lally announced he was heading to Grand-Am. Five days later, crew chief Steve Addington quit at Penske. The day after that, Addington was hired to replace Darian Grubb at Stewart-Haas. The sport hadn't even gotten to Las Vegas to celebrate its 2011 season, and already the next one was taking shape.
And the really big moves hadn't even begun. In the middle of Champions Week, the ownerless and sponsor-less former Red Bull operation shut down. Four days later, Brian Pattie was hired as Clint Bowyer's new crew chief at MWR. But that move went almost unnoticed among the clang and crash of Kurt Busch's unexpected separation from Penske, which happened on the same day and wobbled a series of notable dominoes that would tumble in the ensuing weeks: A.J. Allmendinger landing in Busch's old No. 22 car, Nationwide driver Aric Almirola taking over Allmendinger's former No. 43 at Richard Petty Motorsports, Camping World Truck Series phenom Cole Whitt being snapped up to succeed Almirola in JR Motorsports' No. 7 car, and Busch himself resurfacing in James Finch's No. 51 machine.
The moves kept coming, one after the other, speeding by like a pack of cars at Talladega. Joe Gibbs Racing released Ford, and three days later hired Grubb to replace him as Denny Hamlin's crew chief. Eight days later, Greg Zipadelli left as crew chief of JGR's No. 20 to become competition director at Stewart-Haas, and the Gibbs team promoted Jason Ratcliff from the Nationwide tour. Penske hired Todd Gordon as crew chief on the No. 22. Brendan Gaughan inked a limited Nationwide slate with RCR. David Reutimann signed a Cup deal with Tommy Baldwin, and a Truck Series deal with Robby Benton. Rusty Wallace Racing suspended operations on its two Nationwide cars, and released driver Michael Annett. The avalanche was so unrelenting, there was even a news release dated Dec 25: Eddie Sharp Racing named Jerry Baxter as crew chief on Cale Gale's truck. Evidently, Christmas was the only time they'd have the NASCAR spotlight all to themselves.
To those of us who have been around this sport for a while, it's been a dizzying few months, more active from a personnel standpoint than any other offseason -- and we're using that term very loosely -- in recent memory. No question, winter crew chief changes are far from unusual, and Busch's situation is special case. But much of this is also a product of the economy, of potential sponsors taking longer and longer to make decisions with their marketing dollars, forcing teams to wait longer and longer to finalize their programs for the following seasons, forcing drivers to wait longer and longer to see what might be available to them. And given that the monetary pie shows no immediate signs of getting any larger anytime soon, this may very well be the sport's new reality. Maybe NASCAR should follow baseball's lead and just gather all its team owners together in a hotel somewhere for a week after the season ends, and get all this worked out at one time.
That's unlikely, of course, so the moves continue to come in drips and drabs. The latest one arrived Tuesday, when the always-active Turner Motorsports named Mike Shiplett as crew chief of the No. 38 Nationwide Series car to be driven by Kasey Kahne and Brad Sweet (which had been announced Jan. 3). More are certain to come. Who knows, we may have a last-minute announcement on the morning of the Daytona 500. Let's just hope they don't wait until after the drop of the green flag to make it official. But in this silliest of silly seasons, not even that would come as a surprise.