Carl Edwards says there’s no need for a long, messy contract negotiation between him and Roush Fenway Racing over whether he will return to the team in 2012.
About five minutes later, he says he’s not in any rush to sign a new contract.
If that sounds a little contradictory, it is. He might not be in a rush to sign a new contract just yet, but the longer he goes without an extension, the more potential for talks with other teams, other sponsors and, therefore, more rumors about him leaving Roush.
“[Roush and I] haven’t really sat down and talked about it and I haven’t gone out and looked at the greater market to see what it looks like,” Edwards said. “I guess I ought to get on that pretty quick, but I really and truly am just focused on winning here.
“The funny thing about racing is when you win a bunch and everything is going really well, it all kind of works out. So I’m really trying to focus on that.”
The 2011 season features one of the largest and most star-studded free agent classes in years, with such drivers as Edwards, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Mark Martin and others looking to sign new contracts for 2012.
But the most difficult part of handicapping who might be on the move is the fact that no one knows which rides might be available for next year or which organizations could expand.
Joe Gibbs Racing, Penske Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Earnhardt Ganassi Racing all have the ability to expand if they find additional sponsorship. Kevin Harvick Inc. and JR Motorsports have toyed with the idea of going Cup racing.
But so far, the only team that knows it will have a ride open in 2012 is Red Bull Racing, which will lose Kasey Kahne to Hendrick Motorsports after this season. Aflac (Edwards) and UPS (David Ragan) are the highest profile sponsors with deals that are up after this year, and they could play a key role in who goes where.
So how will the 2012 lineup look? Here’s a look at the top available drivers, ranked by their power to influence the free agent market and the Sprint Cup landscape.
1. Carl Edwards
Edwards ranks at the top of the free agent class. He has made the Chase For The Sprint Cup in five of the last six seasons and has 18 career Cup wins, including the last two races of 2010. He’s comfortable schmoozing with CEOs and average Joes. He’s young (31) but also is settled with a family with one child and another on the way.
The big knock on Edwards is that his ultra-competitive personality means he could be involved in more “have at it, boys” moments than the average driver. But as long as that comes with wins, backflips and victory celebrations in the grandstands, no owner and no sponsor will pass him up – at least not for the right price.
That could have a big impact on where Edwards ends up. His sponsor, Aflac, is reportedly paying $26 million a year and his next sponsor likely won’t pay that much, which in turn probably will affect the salary Edwards can command.
Prediction: Edwards will talk to everyone in the garage, including Red Bull, which has the ability to afford an upper-tier salary. He will remain with Aflac, and they will stay at Roush Fenway after flirting with Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske Racing.
If Hendrick Motorsports for some reason parts ways with Dale Earnhardt Jr., it could be a player but how Edwards fits in with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne might give Hendrick a headache in trying to keep four superstars happy.
2. Clint Bowyer
Bowyer jokes that everything distracts him, so contract negotiations will just be a blip on the radar for him. And it should be pretty easy. Bowyer is the quintessential Richard Childress Racing driver, a laid-back racer who likes to have fun nearly as much as he likes to win. Bowyer was third in the Cup standings in 2007 and fifth in 2008 and had two wins on his way to a 10th-place finish in points last year. Unless General Mills wants to make a change – and there’s no indication that it does – Bowyer isn’t leaving buddies Childress and Kevin Harvick.
Prediction: He stays at RCR, although he might try to hold out for a Harley.
3. Danica Patrick
Patrick has never competed in a Cup event, but if she decides to go Cup racing she will have a slew of sponsors knocking on her door. She already has GoDaddy, and that company is in its last year at Hendrick as the sponsor for Martin. Although rumors of a possible sale of GoDaddy have subsided, if the internet domain company does get sold, Patrick would need a new sponsor.
Getting any deal done will be tedious and difficult, but not for her as she has a team of people led by IMG working in her corner. Even if she’s a project on the track, no one would turn her down if the money and sponsorship are right. She only has 13 career Nationwide races and 12 scheduled for this year.
Prediction: Patrick decides to do what she’s done the last two years – a full season of IndyCar racing and a partial NASCAR schedule. She has the option to do that on the IndyCar side. She will want to see what the new IndyCar 2012 chassis is like and she will not feel comfortable enough yet to go to NASCAR full time. Also, with the change to a revised Cup car in 2013, a 2013 entry into Cup racing makes more sense.
4. Mark Martin
Martin likely will return to a part-time schedule beginning in 2012. Although he has 40 career victories and can still get it done at age 52, Martin does not have full-time sponsorship this year. One of the reasons might be the uncertainty of where he will race next year, and any potential sponsor will have to look at a two-year deal at most.
Prediction: Martin drives for buddy Jay Frye at Red Bull, where he will split time with another driver. If Danica Patrick wants to try Cup, maybe she can split time with him there. One thing about Red Bull: It will pay premium money if it finds a driver it really wants.
5. Juan Pablo Montoya
Montoya had a slow transition from Formula One to Sprint Cup, but the 2000 Indianapolis 500 winner seems happy in the Cup garage. He has two victories (both on road courses) and has made the Chase For The Sprint Cup once. Target likes him, Chip Ganassi loves him and, despite Jamie McMurray’s success last year, Montoya is the top dog at Earnhardt Ganassi.
Prediction: He’s not leaving. Montoya will re-sign with Ganassi.
6. Greg Biffle
Biffle has 16 career victories, a second-place finish in the standings in 2005 and finishes of third, seventh and sixth in the last three Chases. He already has said he’s close to signing a deal to keep him and sponsor 3M at Roush Fenway. He says he doesn’t want to look, and there’s nowhere to go.
Prediction: Biffle signs a deal with Roush Fenway that could take the 41-year-old to his retirement.
7. Ryan Newman
Newman is maybe the biggest enigma of the free agent class. He has 14 victories but only two in the last five years. He has made the Chase For The Sprint Cup in only one of those seasons, and it was season in which he didn’t win. While known for his career poles – 46 - he also has 48 DNFs. He has indicated that he believes his contract is good through 2012, so all this talk might be moot, but the belief in the garage is that if Newman or team owner Tony Stewart think there needs to be a change, one will be made.
Prediction: Neither Newman nor Stewart will see the need for a change, and none will be made.
8. Brian Vickers
Vickers is coming off a season in which he competed in only 11 races before blood clots sidelined him. Now after several procedures, including heart surgery, Vickers is back behind the wheel of his Red Bull car. Entering his fifth season with Red Bull, it is hard to imagine that Red Bull would go into 2012 with two new drivers as Kasey Kahne will leave to go to Hendrick.
Prediction: Vickers will drive for Red Bull in 2012, although it could be just a 1-year deal.
9. Jeff Burton
The problems with lists such as this one is that it seems inconceivable that Burton would leave Richard Childress Racing. The veteran is a great leader and made the Chase in four of the last five years. He said he is close to signing the extension everyone expects him to sign.
Prediction: Burton will be back at RCR next season.
10. David Ragan
Ragan is the driver on the hottest seat in the garage. The 25-year-old driver has answered all the questions about his job status with maturity and there are plenty of people rooting for Ragan to return to the form he showed in 2008 when he placed 13th in the standings. Another finish in the 20s, and it would be hard for Roush Fenway to renew UPS or find a sponsor to replace UPS for Ragan.
Ragan can’t go anywhere if Roush Fenway finds a Cup sponsor for him, but it’s hard to believe he’d be a priority if he doesn’t show much progress this season.
Prediction: Ragan won’t be back at Roush Fenway next year. But don’t be surprised if a mid-level team signs him. After all, people see what Jamie McMurray did after leaving Roush Fenway, offering proof that sometimes a change in scenery is best for everyone.