Free agency favors drivers
With more seats available for '07, top competitors have bargaining power
By Steve Ballard
Elliott Sadler picked a good year to become a free agent. So did fellow NASCAR drivers Brian Vickers and Casey Mears. Dale Jarrett, too.
For the first time in a long time, demand exceeds supply in the Nextel Cup drivers' market. With Toyota coming on board next season with seven cars and several high-profile teams dissatisfied with their current lineups, available drivers are fielding more phone calls than the switchboard at "American Idol."
Even with more than three months and 16 races, starting with Sunday's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, remaining in this season, teams are scurrying to firm up their plans for next year.
Vickers already has signed with the new Red Bull Toyota team for 2007, and Mears is set to replace him at Hendrick Motorsports. Both were in high demand despite Vickers being 0-for-97 and Mears 0-for-128 in their careers.
Team owner Chip Ganassi noted the driver shortage as a factor when announcing his decision to bring in Formula One star Juan Pablo Montoya to replace Mears.
"It's obviously a tight driver market right now," he said. "It forces people to look outside the box."
Only three of the seven Toyota seats officially have been filled.
"The availability of tier one drivers is pretty small," said Jim Aust, president of Toyota Racing Development. "It doesn't leave a lot when you're trying to go out and get somebody high on the list."
The theory put forth most often to explain the current market is that the second-level Busch Series has become more a testing ground for Nextel Cup teams than a training ground for young talent. Cup regulars have won 20 of the 22 Busch races and occupy the top five spots in the standings.
But NASCAR president Mike Helton said there are no plans to restrict Cup drivers' participation in the Busch Series.
"I don't agree (that it's a problem)," he said. "I think it might actually help the development of young guys in the Busch Series to compete against the best."
It certainly makes for quick notoriety. David Gilliland rose from relative obscurity by becoming the first non-Cup regular to win a Busch race this year and now is the leading candidate to replace Sadler at Robert Yates Racing.
Sadler was stunned to learn how many team owners had his phone number when he announced his pending departure two weeks ago.
"There are a lot more seats open than there are drivers available and that's what caught me off guard with some of the phone calls I got," said Sadler, whose career could be described as good but not great (three wins in 269 starts).
"You don't realize who is looking for drivers. There are a lot more people stirring the pot underneath than what you think."
Jarrett, 49, got a lucrative two-year offer to leave Yates and drive a Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing despite not finishing in the top 10 of the standings since 2002. His veteran appeal is hardly isolated as at least three drivers now retired -- Bill Elliott, Ricky Rudd and Ward Burton -- are getting overtures to return.
Jarrett and Elliott have added value to a new team as past series champions. That ensures them a starting spot every week. It's a strategy the first-year Hall of Fame Racing team used successfully this season in having two-time champion Terry Labonte for the first five races.
Mark Martin, whose pending departure as a full-time driver at Roush Racing opens up another quality ride, said a lengthy resume never has been more valuable.
"There's a great demand for drivers who can get it done and right now. When you look around, the litter is picked over pretty well," he said. "I certainly expect to see some retired Cup drivers back in the seat next year. It's going to be crazy."
The shortage is viewed by many as a one-year anomaly because of the Toyota factor. But not everyone is quite so sure.
Driver Jeff Burton said the influx of new teams also is overextending the supply of qualified crew chiefs, crewmen and engineers.
"So we have a situation which I think poses major problems for our sport," he said.
Current points leader Jimmie Johnson takes it one step further. Many local tracks are struggling financially, which is hitting the sport at its grassroots level.
"The part where I worry is your local Saturday night race. There's tracks shutting down all over the place," he said. "That really, I think, is going to affect us as time goes on. I just hope those guys can continue to produce some talent."
In the meantime, the talent already on hand is going to continue to cash in until supply catches up with demand. For now, that means the drivers are in the driver's seat.
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