COMMENTARY | If you were paying attention to the sports world this week, there was one name that dominated conversation: Dwight Howard.
The now-former L.A. Laker has signed to move on to the Houston Rockets, but not before changing his mind about a hundred times and thinking it over real hard. My highlight of the whole fiasco was how his Lakers teammates unfollowed him on Twitter after the news broke that he was leaving. That's pretty funny, guess it's time to take down the "Stay, Dwight" billboards, which were a bad idea to begin with.
Anyway, with that fiasco behind us, my thoughts turn to NASCAR: And who will be the NASCAR equivalent of Dwight Howard this coming offseason? Who will be on the move, and garnering the attention of the various teams looking for drivers? There's nobody on the market officially who is of Dwight Howard's star level (not unless Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson or Danica Patrick suddenly decide to switch teams - which ain't gonna happen), but there are some big names still out there unsure of their 2014 plans. Here's my take on how this offseason (or perhaps the end of the regular season if deals are announced early) might look for those on the lookout for a new ride.
Ryan Newman - Newman is probably going to be the odd man out at Stewart-Haas Racing after 2013. Kevin Harvick is coming aboard, Tony Stewart isn't going anywhere and GoDaddy's money means Danica Patrick isn't leaving regardless of what she does on track.
So Newman, whose sponsorship situation is dubious, is going to have a tough time staying. So where could he end up? Richard Childress Racing in a bit in flux, and Childress has even mentioned that he's interested in Newman's services. Another option is that if his old team Penske Racing wanted to expand, I'm sure Newman would be welcomed back. But the problem there is that a new Penske ride would probably go to Sam Hornish Jr., if the Captain's past loyalty level is any indication of the future.
Some of the other teams that might be in the free agent mix (Earnhardt Ganassi, Richard Petty Motorsports) would probably be interested in Newman too, as he's not a headliner but still runs up front on a regular basis and can win races in the right equipment.
Kurt Busch - Here's a guy who says he's comfortable in his Furniture Row Racing ride, and his recent spell of running up front is a good reason for that. But while the FRR ride is an unofficial fourth RCR car, we all know Kurt is on a climb back up the NASCAR ladder after his fall from grace, so he would love to be in an official RCR car if one opens up. If that does end up happening, his Furniture Row ride becomes available for any other drivers on the move or without a ride for 2014.
If Kurt keeps his antics under control like he has so far this year, he will probably continue his climb and end up at RCR at some point, but I bet he'll spend 2014 in the Furniture Row ride before making that leap. He's running good enough to enjoy himself a little and he'll still be a factor many weekends even if he's on a smaller team, as his recent strong runs have shown.
Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola - The two drivers for Richard Petty Motorsports have to be considered among those who could be on the move. In Almirola's case, there is both reason to stay and reason to leave. He probably wants to stay because he's running quite well this year (17th in points, and just 22 points out of 10th and a Chase spot) compared to how he did in his past rides. But then again, if he's running well enough to get an offer from a stronger team where he could do even better, it makes sense that he would potentially want to leave.
Ambrose is a bit farther back in 22nd, but has shown since his arrival in NASCAR that he's a talented driver who isn't just an road course ace. For whatever reason, though, his overall results have been lacking -- whether it's his fault, the team's fault or a combination of both.
In Ambrose's case, the team might be on the lookout for someone who could do better, or on his end he might want to go to a team that will give him better equipment than the Petty team. I don't see many options for him that are better, so he'll probably stick around, but if he's not back next year I won't consider it a shocker. Sometimes a change of scenery is what's needed to do better, and perhaps that's what both Ambrose and the RPM team both need.
Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya - The Earnhardt Ganassi team has fallen on hard times in the last couple years, but is starting to show some strength in 2013. Still, winning drivers like Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya have to want more than what they are getting when it comes to their ability to compete with the Hendrick, Roush, Gibbs teams, etc.
Luckily for Chip Ganassi, both these guys seem like really loyal types. Montoya's relationship with Ganassi goes back to the Indycar days, and McMurray seems very comfortable in his #1 ride, so I see these two staying put even if the results aren't quite what they would like them to be at this point in time.
Bobby Labonte - I mention Bobby's name partly in a non-serious way, and partly in a serious way. Sure, his best days are behind him and people are starting to ask him when he will be retiring (a question he didn't seem too happy to hear asked of him this past week).
But he's also a past champion.
He's driving the 47 car this year for JTG Daugherty Racing, but things are so bad there they brought in A.J. Allmendinger to get a new take on why the car isn't running as well as they'd like. That's not a good sign, but even if Labonte (who just ended a 704-race starting streak) ends up rideless after the year, his past success and championship could help him land another ride somewhere once the dominoes start to fall. Might not be a great ride, but something is better than nothing if wants to keep racing.
Mark Martin - I know he's only a part-time driver, but just hear me out. If there's anyone who could be lured back into full-time racing, it's Mark Martin. The guy loves to race, and if a team with a top-quality ride (like, as good as the #5 car he drove for Hendrick a few years back) decided they didn't like the current crop of available drivers and wanted to lure him out of retirement from full-time racing for a year or two, maybe there's a small chance it could happen, so he could have one more shot at getting that elusive Cup championship (he's five times a bridesmaid in that department).
Realistically, no team that good would have a spot open for 2014, and with Newman and Busch available there are some good names out there, but I had to throw this out there as a wild card option, because you never know what might happen.
Matt Myftiu lives in Michigan, has been a walking encyclopedia of NASCAR since immersing himself in the sport over 15 years ago, and has worked as a journalist for two decades. His blog on the sport, NASCAR: Beyond the Track, has been published by The Oakland Press for the past 5 years. Follow him on Twitter @MattMyftiu.
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