Did Kurt Busch jump or was he pushed? In the end, it doesn't really matter; Busch is out at Penske, and that suddenly gives NASCAR that rarest of gems: an open seat in a Chase-level organization. (Albeit one without a crew chief, of course.) The question now from Penske's perspective is, who's in line for the seat? It's not going to go away, of course; business connections between Penske and Pennzoil will keep the car on the track. But since we assume there won't be ghost-riding, let's consider some candidates:
David Ragan: The Thrilla from Unadilla is getting the most early buzz as a replacement driver. He had one victory earlier this year, and was a bad restart away from possibly winning the Daytona 500.
Brian Vickers: Out of a job thanks to Red Bull's departure from the sport, Vickers brings undeniable talent but also, as recent weeks demonstrated, a few personality issues of his own.
David Reutimann: On the far edge of a NASCAR career, he may not be the best long-term fit for the team.
Sam Hornish Jr.: He and Penske have a history, but that could work to his disadvantage, as he didn't exactly tear up the Sprint Cup circuit while driving for Penske. Reportedly not in the running.
Elliott Sadler: A solid choice for a return to Cup given his success in the Nationwide series last year. He's a proven commodity and knows how to take care of a sponsor.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Coming off a Nationwide-championship season, Stenhouse faces sponsorship difficulties. He'd have to leave the Roush umbrella, but Penske lured Brad Keselowski out from Hendrick Motorsports a couple years back, so it could be done.
Justin Allgaier: Also still under contract, but also a former Penske employee, a victim of the Sprint/Verizon sponsorship brawl. Another potential young talent that could be groomed alongside Keselowski.
These are your most likely candidates. (Aside: How do you think Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin are feeling right now? Not that they could have anticipated this, but still ... wouldn't a Penske seat, all things being equal, seem a more likely Chase contender than a Michael Waltrip Racing one?)
Got any early favorites? Make your best guess below.
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- Kurt Busch