Increased demand has changed hiring practices
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- When Jamie McMurray signed a contract to drive for Roush Racing in 2007, it put his current team in an awkward position.
McMurray is signed with Chip Ganassi Racing through next season, and the team has no intention of letting him leave before then. But in the five weeks since announcing his intent, the Ganassi team has been scrutinized and criticized for holding McMurray to his original contract.
In a shocking case of what goes around, comes around, Roush now finds himself in the same uncomfortable position: Defending Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch said Tuesday he is leaving for Penske Racing South in 2007, and he wants out of his contract next year to speed up the move.
With the tables turned on Roush, outsiders are getting a clearer picture of NASCAR's cutthroat free-agent signing process.
"What I've been telling people is, when you conduct your business from the weeds, sooner or later the weedeater will run over you," said Felix Sabates, a co-owner of McMurray's car at Ganassi.
With no union or policing organization, there is very little car owners can do to prevent the competition from trying to lure its drivers away. There is usually some sort of gentlemen's agreement that prohibits teams from talking to drivers under contract. And if the conversations do occur, it is typically with permission from the rival owner.
So when Roush swooped in and signed McMurray more than a year before his current contract expired, many NASCAR insiders viewed it as a sneaky back-room deal. McMurray and Roush have declined to discuss the specifics of their negotiations, and Ganassi has refrained from voicing his opinion.
But the practice is becoming increasingly common. With several high-profile rides opening up next season, teams are desperate to secure replacement drivers. And for the first time in years, it's a sellers market.
Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte both recently stepped down from full-time racing, and Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace have both said this season will be their last. It's created a driver shortage with just a handful of top-name talent out there.
With much of the available talent already under contract, car owners are scrambling to grab what's left.
"I think it is as tough as its ever been with drivers," said Richie Gilmore, vice president of Dale Earnhardt Inc. "Right now the market is really tough. I think you look at before, a driver would have to win Busch championships or contend for them before you were brought up.
"I think now you have to take a chance and it works out or it doesn't."
Gilmore admitted last weekend to speaking to 2003 series champion Matt Kenseth about driving one of DEI's cars. But with one year left on his contract with Roush, Kenseth declined to make an early deal that would have teamed him with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"He has always been on DEI's short list. He was one of [Dale Earnhardt's] favorite drivers, and if we could ever get Matt, he would probably be our first choice for a teammate for Junior," Gilmore said. "But he indicated to us he was going to try to work something out where he is."
With Kenseth out of the picture, it leaves DEI with just a handful of options to fill the No. 15 Chevrolet being vacated by Michael Waltrip.
Off the list is Ryan Newman, who said last weekend he had reached a new deal to remain at Penske. His contract extension comes three months after a newspaper report said Newman was spotted leaving a meeting with all five of Roush's Nextel Cup drivers, with the implication that the team was trying to woo him to join their stable.
Kasey Kahne was taken off the market when Ray Evernham announced a long-term contract extension last weekend. And Casey Mears, while denying he had been approached by Penske and DEI, said he was trying to work out a deal to stay with Ganassi.
Waltrip and Sterling Marlin are among the drivers who are looking for work, but neither fits the current casting requirements. Teams now want young, marketable drivers and are overlooking on-track success to get them.
Consider: The battle for McMurray is a fight for a driver with just one Nextel Cup victory -- and that came in 2002 when he was driving as an injury replacement for Marlin. And Mears was pursued by top teams despite having never won at any of NASCAR's levels.
Marlin, meanwhile, has two Daytona 500 titles among his 10 career victories but has seemingly been shut out of current negotiations. Same goes for Ward Burton, another former Daytona 500 winner who has sat out this entire season, unable to land a ride.
Neither of them should bother applying for the open ride at DEI. In a sign of the times, Gilmore laid out his criteria for the open seat by saying any applicant must be under 30 years old and able to get along with Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr., two of NASCAR's most eligible bachelors.
"Junior wants to be the oldest driver at DEI. That's kind of one of the things he wants," Gilmore said. "I think the main thing we're looking for is a good teammate for Junior and Martin."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press