At any given time, there seems to be at least one high-profile NASCAR driver who is cast in the role of the vagabond, a guy with a destination in mind but no clearly-delineated plan for how to get there.
They're not exactly hunkered down next to the railroad tracks eating beans from a can -- this is the Sprint Cup Series, after all -- but it still isn't the most ideal situation for a driver to be in.
Our itinerant driver of the moment is Kasey Kahne.
Earlier this season, Kahne announced he would be leaving Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM) at the end of 2010 for a job with Hendrick Motorsports.
A driver, however, obviously needs a car in order to be successful, and Hendrick can't provide that for Kahne in 2011. He will be taking over Mark Martin's car in 2010, but Martin will pilot that No. 5 next year, per his contract. So Kahne recently inked a one-year deal to drive for the Red Bull team in 2011.
This made Kahne a lame duck not once, but twice. Since a duck only has two legs, this is problematic.
To make matters worse, when his brakes failed during the race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on October 16, Kahne, complaining of some gastro-intestinal issues, left the car in the garage and didn't return; JJ Yeley finished the race in his stead. Kahne said he went to lie down, but an unnamed RPM employee suggested he might be “laying down,” instead.
As the story unfolded and more details were revealed, Kahne did get some level of vindication regarding what was first perceived as rather petulant behavior. As with almost any situation, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about. But just four days later, he was packing up his troubles in that old kit bag and moving on once again, in the wake of an announcement that RPM had released him from his contract. He will run the remainder of the 2010 season in the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota.
While his skill behind the wheel has never been in question -- he won six races in 2006, remember -- it does seem that while Kahne has had little trouble finding a team, he has never truly found a home. Fans are worried that all this back-and-forth will have an adverse effect on their driver's future.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. For living proof, look no further than a driver who had a much better night at Charlotte than Kahne did. In fact, he won the race.
Jamie McMurray's first moment in the true NASCAR spotlight came when Chip Ganassi Racing (CGR) put him in the 2002 Cup race at Talladega -- a scary start for any driver -- filling in for an injured Sterling Marlin. One week later, McMurray won the fall race at Charlotte in only his second Cup Series start. He stayed with Ganassi through the 2005 season.
In a spooky Halloween-week coincidence reminiscent of the "six degrees of Kevin Bacon" theory, Mark Martin was smack in the middle of this deal, too. McMurray signed a deal with Roush Racing to drive the No 6 car -- Martin's car -- in 2006. But when Martin unexpectedly announced plans to come back from semi-retirement and compete full-time that year, McMurray was shuffled off to Kurt Busch's recently-vacated ride.
In 2009, NASCAR limited teams to a maximum of four cars per race, and McMurray was told he was free to leave. Martin Truex Jr. was vacating the No. 1 Ganassi car for a seat at Michael Waltrip Racing, so McMurray returned to his old stomping grounds, now known as Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
How did that work out for him? Not too badly. This season, he has won NASCAR's two biggest races, the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400, and tacked on another win at Charlotte. Those “in the know” are already adding him to their lists for next year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field.
I'm “in the guess,” but I know this much -- headed into Martinsville, McMurray has won three more races than eight of the 12 drivers in this year's Chase, and has earned more in winnings than any Cup Series driver other than Jimmie Johnson.
Some people think winning the Daytona 500 should automatically qualify a driver for the Chase. I disagree. NASCAR has always rewarded consistency, and the Chase is just a continuation of that philosophy. But I do think it's interesting that neither of the two drivers we are talking about most right now made the Top 12 in 2010.
Jamie McMurray, who frankly turned out to be a lot more talented that some people thought, navigated his way through uncertainty and executed a highly successful landing. Kasey Kahne, whose talent nobody questions, will no doubt do the same.
So Kahne fans have little need to fret. To borrow a line from J.R.R. Tolkien, not all those who wander are lost.
They just haven't made it home ... yet.