- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 13, 2006

It has started, and before it runs its course it might resemble a bowling alley where first one pin falls, then two, then many.

The Silly Season, the time of the year for NASCAR where garage gossip and rumors can suddenly turn into cold fact, is well under way. Drivers are changing teams for what are perceived to be better opportunities, some coming out of retirement because of the lure of big bucks or the competition.

Before the flag drops at Daytona in February, there could be a massive upheaval among drivers. Owners already are stockpiling the best talent they can buy because the competition is going to get tougher just to make the starting grid with the arrival of Toyota and six to nine new teams.

Michael Waltrip is leaving Bill Davis Racing to form his own multi-car organization racing Camrys. He has hired former champion Dale Jarrett, luring him away from floundering Robert Yates Racing, which also lost driver Elliott Sadler after earlier firing team general manager Eddie D’Hondt. Yates’ two crew chiefs also have left.

On Friday, owner Ray Evernham confirmed a long-standing rumor when he “terminated” driver Jeremy Mayfield’s contract, more or less a formality. Evernham already had hired semi-retired former champion Bill Elliott, 51, to drive seven of the 15 remaining races. Sadler is the top candidate to permanently replace Mayfield.

“It’s out of the top 35 in [owner] points now and that was really the big trigger in making the change,” Evernham said. “We just didn’t deliver as a group on what we should be doing; we needed to make some changes.” (Only the top 35 teams in owner points are guaranteed spots each week; others seeking the remaining eight positions must qualify on time. Four to five teams fail to make the weekly field now, figures that will double when Toyota enters the equation.)

Casey Mears is leaving the Chip Ganassi team and joining Rick Hendrick’s stable, taking the No. 25 ride from Brian Vickers. Vickers is expected to hitch a ride with either Yates or Waltrip or possibly Red Bull Racing, which is also starting a multi-car Toyota operation. Juan Pablo Montoya, the Formula 1 driver, will replace Mears.

The changing of personnel comes after some younger drivers promoted to Nextel Cup failed to produce. Some veterans are fighting for contracts for the same reason while up-and-comers are jumping to better financed teams. A few drivers who are 50 and older are ready to rejoin the circuit, taking the place of younger drivers until they can deliver. But the major reason for change is the addition of as many as nine new Toyota rides.

There are few secrets within the NASCAR garage, which makes avoiding the prime topic of conversation tough, especially if you’re it.

“Yeah, that’s made it tough; it’s been awful the last month,” admitted Sadler after qualifying a Yates Ford for today’s Watkins Glen road race. “Was it a good decision? I don’t know. Only time will tell. But it’s been tough, I’m not going to lie to you. I haven’t slept in a month, just tossing and turning. You always wonder if you’re doing the right thing.”

Sadler indicated he was having trouble after the Yates organization went into a transition phase. That may have started when it lost competition director Todd Parrott to Petty Enterprises at the start of this season. That development took a sudden and unexpected shift last week when Parrott said he was quitting Petty and returning to Yates, his permanent role as yet unannounced.

“Pretty much we have just come to differences of opinion on which way the sport is going,” Sadler said. “I couldn’t really make myself buy into the system and which way the company is going. So we decided to split ways.”

For Jarrett, the 1999 champion, it may have been some of the same reasoning, but he phrased it differently.

“It’s just a new challenge that I needed,” he said, indicating he still wanted to retire after two more seasons. “What was I going to do after I finished driving? This gave me the best opportunity for myself and my family. I know everybody is not going to understand … but there comes a time when you have to make that decision for yourself.”

Another veteran Ford driver, Mark Martin, is unsure of his future. He had wanted to retire at the end of last season and join the truck circuit but that was postponed when his youthful replacement wasn’t ready. He still isn’t and reportedly owner Jack Roush has dangled an $8 million guarantee to return for another season.

“I don’t know about that,” Martin said yesterday at Watkins Glen when asked if he would be back next season. “I don’t think so.”

And that would create still another opening.

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