CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Carl Edwards had top-secret meetings with Joe Gibbs! Clint Bowyer has all but signed a contract with Red Bull! Interested car owners are blowing up Juan Pablo Montoya's phone!
It's ``Silly Season'' in NASCAR, and the rumors are swirling through the garage as fast as the cars are circling the track. Each day brings a whisper of a new meeting between driver and car owner, or rumblings of various scenarios that will force the dominoes to fall for several top drivers.
It officially heated up Monday when The Associated Press reported that Red Bull plans to leave NASCAR at the end of the season. That took the two-car organization out of play for an A-list driver, right when talk had picked up that Bowyer was ready to make the jump from Richard Childress Racing.
Word is Bowyer was seriously considering an offer to replace Kasey Kahne, but just as he made up his mind, Red Bull officials cooled off.
Now Red Bull's departure turns the entire free agency process on its head.
It's quite possible that Red Bull general manager Jay Frye will line up an investor to purchase the team's assets, and Frye has considerable experience doing just that. It was Frye who masterminded Mark Martin's retirement reversal, creating a partial schedule for Martin that got him running up front again and renewed his passion for racing.
But sponsorship is so critical, and Frye learned that twice before: Regardless of how strong his programs were, when the money grew tight, the race team suffered. Frye might very well be able to continue next season with the bones of Red Bull intact, but no big-name driver can consider joining the team at this point.
So that sends Bowyer back to the drawing board - if he ever really had one foot out the door at RCR - and Brian Vickers, who left Hendrick Motorsports in 2007 to be Red Bull's first driver, on the market.
They'll all be watching and waiting to see what happens with Edwards, the current Sprint Cup Series points leader, who seems intent on exploring every free agency possibility. His Roush-Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle inked a new contract extension in April, but Edwards has yet to come to a new agreement, despite a 20-point lead in the standings and wins at Las Vegas and the $1 million All-Star race.
It's no secret Joe Gibbs Racing has been trying for years to add a fourth team, but the right situation has never developed. Longtime sponsor Home Depot must be frustrated by Lowe's-sponsored Jimmie Johnson's run of five-straight championships and pairing with Edwards might be enough to appease the company.
That would, of course, make Joey Logano the odd man out at JGR, which still would have to find a sponsor for the driver many believed would be NASCAR's next superstar.
Montoya most certainly has suitors, but the list of quality open rides is shrinking. There's allegedly been interest from Michael Waltrip Racing, a two-car team with room to grow and a satellite branch at JTG Daugherty Racing.
But Montoya has a strong bond with current team owner Chip Ganassi, and it would take a very strong offer to lure him away from the guy who gave him a NASCAR job when the Colombian walked away from Formula One in 2006.
There's a handful of wild cards that also must be considered: Where will Danica Patrick go when she moves full time to NASCAR as expected at the end of the IndyCar season? She could go to a full Nationwide Series ride, but any move to NASCAR would be with the intent of joining the Sprint Cup Series as her advisers might think racing at the junior varsity level is a waste of time.
And what's going to happen to Martin when Kahne takes his Hendrick Motorsports seat at the end of this season? Martin repeatedly has said he won't walk away from racing. Many expected him to work out some sort of deal with Frye and Red Bull on another partial schedule - maybe even one shared with Cole Whitt, the promising development driver now stuck in a state of uncertainty at Red Bull.
Maybe Martin could be the partner Frye needs to keep the doors open. Or perhaps there's room for Martin and/or Patrick at Stewart-Haas Racing, where team owner Tony Stewart has always said he'd like to expand to a third team. He has no desire to start a Nationwide program for Patrick, but he certainly is interested in her sponsorship money.
There's far too many what-ifs to keep track of right now, but the next few weeks will certainly be intriguing.

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