NASCAR drivers scrambling to land rides for 2014
When the music stops, everyone hopes to have a seat.
A seat behind the wheel of a stock car, that is.
NASCAR is going through its own version of musical chairs at the moment, with several big-name drivers moving to new rides or scrambling to land a spot in the 2014 Sprint Cup field.
This week, former Cup champion Kurt Busch completed his move to Stewart-Haas Racing for next season. Another big piece of the puzzle was finalized Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where 21-year-old Kyle Larson was announced as the next driver of the No. 42 car at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
Those moves left Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya on the outside looking in, at least for the moment.
"I find it interesting, just like everybody else does," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who doesn't have to worry about his status at Hendrick Motorsports. "I'm anxious to find out where certain drivers end up, what kind of competition there's going to be next year. It definitely changes the playing field when guys start moving around and you're trying to keep an eye on the competition."
The situation is especially complex for Newman, who is trying to get Stewart-Haas' No. 39 car in the 10-race playoff at the end of the season, while also weighing his options for next year.
"I would say it's more of a challenge because you have to compartmentalize, stay focused at different times on different subjects," said Newman, who is 15th in the points going into Sunday night's race at Atlanta — the next-to-last event before the Chase. "It takes away from the relaxing time in your mind, which is just as important as being focused on what you need to at any given time, be it 2013 or 2014."
Chip Ganassi raised plenty of eyebrows when he decided to put Larson in the Target-sponsored car next season, even though he's a rookie in the second-tier Nationwide series and has never competed in a Cup race.
Montoya will finish out his eighth year in the car, a tenure that has produced only two wins in 241 races and finally prompted Ganassi to make a change. The car owner is convinced that Larson is the right man for the job, despite his lack of experience.
"We believe Kyle is the future of the sport," Ganassi said. "He is a unique talent."
Larson, who is of Japanese descent, came up through NASCAR's diversity program and has a sprint car background that Ganassi thinks will suit him well in the Cup series, where the cars are bigger and more powerful than those in Nationwide.
"I'm sure there will be growing pains, but I think he's ready," Ganassi said. "Some of those growing pains will come whenever his first year in the series is. But I think this is a good opportunity. My expectations and advice to him are keep the car on the track and run laps."
Larson is eighth in the Nationwide standings running for Turner Scott Motorsports, with six top-five finishes though he is still looking for his first win. He is best known for being involved in a massive crash at the end of the season-opening race in Daytona, which he got through without injury but sent debris sailing through the fencing, injuring dozens of fans.
Ganassi hopes to get Larson into a handful of Cup races over the final 12 events, probably through an arrangement with one of the lower-level teams that doesn't have a full-time driver. Next season, the youngster is set to run in both the Cup and Nationwide series, a crash course in stock car racing that should help lessen his learning curve.
"It's going to be fun year next year," Larson said. "I'm going to learn a ton."
Newman expects Larson to do just fine in the top series.
"Kyle has definitely proven across the board he can drive absolutely anything, anywhere, anytime," Newman said. "There's a few drivers out there that can do that. When I say a few, there's 20 or 30 that are that good."
The biggest challenge, according to Newman, will be dealing with the outside expectations — especially from those who question whether Larson is being pushed too far, too soon.
"The potential pressure, if you let it get to you, is more of a challenge than sitting in the seat behind the wheel and doing your job as a driver," Newman said.
As for his own job, Newman could land at Richard Childress Racing if a sponsorship deal comes through, or perhaps take over the No. 31 car from Jeff Burton — which would leave another long-time driver scrambling for a ride.
Montoya might wind up with the Furniture Row team, where Busch revitalized his faltering career with a surprisingly strong season. IndyCar owner Michael Andretti also is trying to put together a deal that would bring Montoya back to his roots in open-wheel racing.
Until the deals are completed, there's still time to do some lobbying.
"If you look at my history in the sport the last 10 years, I've got a good resume on and off the racetrack," Newman said. "I think there are car sponsors and owners that appreciate that."
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