Plenty of opportunities for drivers suddenly on loose

Plenty of opportunities for drivers suddenly on loose

Plenty of opportunities for drivers suddenly on loose
With Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch officially settled in with new teams for next year, the two biggest pieces in the free-agent carousel have finally stepped off the merry-go-round. But just because those marquee names no longer appear on the market doesn't mean that Silly Season shows any signs of slowing down. There's still several top rides available for next year, including spots with Dale Earnhardt Inc., Richard Childress Racing, and the Wood Brothers, among others.

Someone needs to step in and fill each of those cars for 2008, making this the perfect time to be a driver scrambling to find a new home. Where will NASCAR's free agents end up? Let's open up the crystal ball and try to play matchmaker, hooking drivers up with a ride that seems to make sense for them:

J.J. Yeley. Part of NASCAR's sensational sophomore class of '06, Yeley hasn't done nearly as well as counterparts Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. 64 starts into his Nextel Cup career, Yeley has just one top-5 finish to his credit -- second at Lowe's this May after a fuel mileage gamble -- and has struggled to put points on the board while driving the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevy. A driver known for wrecking race cars, Yeley's DNF's in that department have improved -- down from six to three this season -- but back-to-back accidents at Chicagoland and Indianapolis likely sealed his fate with Joe Gibbs Racing, leading to Kyle Busch's introduction as Yeley's replacement on Tuesday.

Still, the former USAC Silver Crown champ should be smiling about his future. He's still considered a wheelman with plenty of potential, and as the youngest experienced free agent left at 30-years-old, that gives Yeley a real advantage. Already, Childress, DEI, and Bill Davis Racing all have contacted his agent and expressed a strong desire for Yeley to join their programs, making the wounds of leaving one of NASCAR's top teams a little easier to handle.

In the end, the best fit for Yeley may be with an organization where he can grow outside of the spotlight. The legendary Wood Brothers team is looking for a younger driver they can build a future around, and although Yeley's been a Chevrolet man his whole career, moving from a high-powered three-car team to a smaller place where Yeley can hone his skills may be the best possible scenario for his future. The team also could likely offer a qualifying exemption for the first five races of '08, giving Yeley a sense of relief to start off next year, rather than a sense of panic with a new team.

Jeremy Mayfield. After the year Mayfield's had with Bill Davis Racing -- failing to qualify for 13 of 22 races -- it's easy to forget this veteran has two Chase appearances and five career victories to his credit. That makes the 38-year-old an appealing proposition, as he's proven through years in top-flight equipment with both Roger Penske and Ray Evernham that he can get the job done.

That type of veteran experience is exactly what DEI is looking for in the wake of being spurned by Kyle Busch. After being fairly convinced the 22-year-old was ready to fill out their roster, his "no" vote to join the four-car team leaves them back at square one, making the race to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. a wide open affair. If Mayfield can check his attitude at the door -- he's been known to be a volatile personality at times -- he is the best possible option remaining, at least statistically, to sell to potential sponsors on the No. 8. There are other drivers he'll need to contend with -- the team is still trying hard to pry Greg Biffle from his Roush Racing contract -- but don't count Mayfield out to sneak through the back door at DEI, which would offer a much-needed bright spot to the nightmare of his current season.

Joe Nemechek. After years of bouncing from ride to ride, Nemechek felt like he had found a home with Ginn Racing -- formerly MB2 Motorsports -- where the 44-year-old had spent the last three-and-a-half years of a long, fruitful Cup career. So it had to be a bitter pill when the veteran was left on the street after a buyout ... er, merger of Ginn Racing with DEI. With four wins by way of four different car owners through the years -- Rick Hendrick among those on that list -- there's no question Nemechek is both talented and versatile enough to settle into any program still available. The problem simply is his age -- there aren't many sponsors out there willing and able to add a guy with just a handful of years left in his career.

Which brings us to the No. 36 Bill Davis Racing Toyota. With a sponsor in 360 OTC that was already content to associate with 38-year-old Mayfield, it's a team where a "young gun" isn't necessary for sponsorship dollars, and a program that's accustomed to hiring veterans to fill its seats. In addition, "Front Row" Joe is known to be a good qualifier, an appealing prospect for a program that has failed to make the first four races of the current season with Mayfield. With his team's future on the line, Davis is wary to make the same mistake twice -- making Nemechek's qualifying strength an attractive option for him for '08.

Kenny Wallace. The newest face on the free-agent playing field, Walla comes to the market after making just 10 of 22 races with the single-car No. 78 team, ending a streak in which he's missed eight of his last 10 attempts. One of the few drivers for whom age is never an issue, Wallace is a sponsor's dream -- there's a reason he won the fan vote for the Nextel All-Star Challenge this season -- as his comedic nature and warm personality have made him both an on-track favorite and on-air star over at the SPEED network.

But Wallace has struggled to be more than a super sub for the sport's top racing programs. Despite filling in at DEI, Roush Racing and Robert Yates Racing over the years, Wallace has just six top-5 finishes in 337 career starts to go along with a zero in the wins column.

But the stats sheet didn't stop fellow sponsor's dream Michael Waltrip from landing with powerhouse DEI in '01, and a similar opportunity could be waiting for Wallace. Richard Childress Racing is looking for someone to jump into its new fourth car and get the program up to speed quickly, and Wallace could be their man. In-house candidate Scott Wimmer and Yeley have been targeted as younger solutions, but Childress isn't beyond asking a veteran to be a part of his team, having recently asked Kenny's older brother Rusty if he would consider unretiring from his TV analyst role for next season. Although the older Wallace turned him down, there's still another guy with that same last name available; and after driving Childress' Busch Series car this season at Gateway, Wallace has a chance to put himself in play for the best ride of his Cup career.

Sterling Marlin. At 50-years-old and in the midst of his final full season on tour, the Tennessee driver was the second veteran cast aside during the DEI-Ginn Racing merger. Claiming he's wary of the way Darrell Waltrip ended his career driving second-rate equipment, the two-time Daytona 500 winner supposedly won't accept anything less than a top-notch ride in the series. However, that hasn't stopped him from stepping into the small-time No. 78 team for Bristol, opening up an opportunity that could see Marlin drive their car for several more races next season.

Looking ahead, Marlin would surely like the same type of situation Mark Martin has with DEI -- sharing a ride with an up-and-coming youngster, allowing him to pick and choose the races he wants to run in top-notch equipment. But with just one top-10 finish in his last 62 Cup starts, that type of scenario will be difficult to come by for Marlin -- and if he wants to keep racing on the Nextel Cup level, opportunities like the No. 78 are likely the best -- and only -- fit for his future.

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