Moving Day

Back in our Charlotte offices now, getting over the jet lag from Champ Car’s successful season finale at Mexico City. It was a terrific close to what’s been a very strong second season for Champ Car’s new ownership and management, a season not without challenges but one that’s seen significant growth and the development of a well-thought-out plan to take the series on a steep growth curve in the future.

While there are a couple of Champ Car teams with plans firm for 2006, there are many more with questions to be resolved in the next few weeks. We’ll dissect Champ Car’s winter silly season in a future column. Today, I’m thinking about the sea change in NASCAR’s Nextel Cup ranks that’s coming for the new season.

I recall predicting earlier that Roush, Penske, and Ganassi would work something out that would allow Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray to swap seats before the next Daytona 500. No, I’m not going to start giving out Mega Millions picks, nor am I planning to take on another career as a Vegas handicapper. But having been around the sport for a good while, I’ve observed that one of the worst things a car owner can do is keep a driver who’s determined to leave for another team.

Doesn’t mean money or other considerations shouldn’t change hands to facilitate such an arrangement. All three car owners are very good businessmen and all three have considerable investments in the drivers involved. And a contract is (or should be, but all too often in racing isn’t) a contract. Congratulations to all involved on their being able to arrive at what must be an equitable solution. But the wisdom of letting Busch and McMurray settle in with their new teams is inarguable. The woods are full of teams severely damaged by drivers who had to stay on in a situation where clearly no one was getting ahead. This agreement should keep that from happening in this case.

And while I would have loved to see Ricky Rudd move back into the Havoline car, it’s good that Casey Mears will continue to have a Cup ride. There have been rumblings all season that Mears might be in some jeopardy with the Ganassi/Sabates team, and this ends that talk for now. It’ll be up to the young Mears to keep the job with on-track performance, as it should be.

As for Rudd, I join his thousands of fans in saluting the Virginia veteran on what appears to be his retirement. I’ve read Rick’s statement, and I’m encouraged by the notion that he could return for at least a partial season next year. He’s calling his move away from racing next year a ‘break”, not a final departure. Ricky is one of the most sincere, genuine people in racing and he surely deserves plenty of quality time with his wife and son. He’s survived some dark days in the sport and I suspect is far from over the passing of his father earlier this season. He’ll leave, for now at least, near the top, not having overstayed his welcome at all. He’s surely capable of winning again though that may have to wait awhile and be done in a different race car. I’m hoping that after a few months hiatus Ricky will return with a top-flight team and earn a few more victories before leaving the Cup stage.

Maybe the most surprising move of all is the departure of Bobby Labonte from Joe Gibbs Racing. Hard to explain this one, though poor performance since early in ’04 would seem the obvious explanation. It was never clear why the team released Michael McSwain as crew chief more than a year ago, when he and Bobby were near the top of the points race though Steve Addington has steadied the 18 car’s ship.

It’s hard to understand why Bobby would leave Gibbs for the struggling Petty squad, or for that matter Bill Davis’ team, though a seat in the 22 car might be preferable. If indeed the Davis bunch will move to Toyota shortly, acquiring the services of a past Cup champ would make more sense. We’ll have to wait a bit to see how this all plays out.

Best news of all is, Silly Season in most series is just getting underway. And that will give us plenty to chew on until the ’06 campaign gets underway. See you later this week on SPEED with the Hooters Pro Cup Championship Series.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2005

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