You know times are tough when a Daytona winner like David Ragan can't land a sponsor (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
However the NASCAR market at the moment is filled with several drivers looking for rides – Brian Vickers, for example – and with hundreds of crewmen looking for jobs.
And a visit to a dozen Sprint Cup haulers here Friday in the NASCAR garage was a downer pretty much all the way around, with too many trucks filled with disgruntled and fearful crewmen, wondering just what's coming next.
Two big points here:
-- Major team owners Richard Childress and Roush both appear now virtually forced to cut back from four Cup teams to just three for the 2012 season.
-- And there is no word yet from Team Red Bull on what might happen to those two teams when the sponsorship ends in seven weeks.
Roush concedes that, while he is still looking for a sponsor to keep Ragan in his current ride, there are still no great prospects. And Roush says he's told Ragan to start looking for a new deal, because without major sponsorship Roush says he won't be able to run four full-time Cup teams in 2012.
Speculation is that Ragan could be penciled in for a ride with Kevin Buckler, the sports car racer turned NASCAR team owner, and a Ford man.
But Ragan himself says he's focused more on finishing this season as strongly as he can.
"Right now I am not focused on 2012 just yet," Ragan says. "I think it's important for us to finish this season strong. And the stronger we can finish 2011, that will only help our chances of finding a sponsor and a package to go racing next year.
"Everyone at Roush Fenway is working hard at selling sponsors for us and for Matt. They have to sell some sponsorships for us to go racing next year.
"Jack has always done a good job of selling our race cars. Even though it's come to the last minute, we have confidence we'll be out on the track racing (next season). And hopefully we can find a partner we can announce, sooner rather than later.
"We still have a little time before it would hurt. Sometime in November is when you start building cars for the next season, and we really haven't gotten there yet.
"So far, I have not been a party to any discussions of 'worst-case-scenario' what's going to happen?
"The bottom line is every Cup operation would love to run four teams. But you can't run four teams on a two-team budget.
"That's why operations like Joe Gibbs haven't expanded to four teams. And it's been hard for operations like Richard Childress' and Jack's and some others – except for Rick Hendrick – to keep going with four teams.
"All we can do – me and (crew chief) Drew Blickensderfer – is to keep running as strong as we can and get some good, positive TV time and things to talk about….and then it's up to our sales team management to go sell some sponsors. The sooner they can get a few positive things announced for me and Matt, that would give us all a breath of fresh air."
Happier times: Jack Roush (C) in Daytona's victory lane in July, with David Ragan (R) and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
On the positive side Friday, Michael Waltrip announced signing Clint Bowyer and sponsor 5-Hour Energy.
However while Waltrip may be a NASCAR pitchman extraordinaire, as a Sprint Cup team owner, well, he hasn't had that much success.
Only two wins, in fact, since the first full season, 2007.
Now, however, Waltrip has made two big moves in the past few weeks, picking up veteran competition director Scott Miller and now proven playoff contender Bowyer.
Waltrip's announcement Friday that Bowyer would be driving for his Toyota team next season, with sponsorship by 5-Hour Energy, wasn't a well-kept secret.
But Waltrip wouldn't reveal Bowyer's new crew chief. However sources close to the team suggest it could be veteran crew chief Brian Pattie, who has been running Juan Pablo Montoya's team for car owner Chip Ganassi. Ganassi replaced Pattie with James Pohlman in July.
The big question: will these latest moves pay off?
Neither of Waltrip's two current drivers, Martin Truex Jr. or David Reutimann, made the playoffs this season. Truex is 20th in the standings, with a season-best finish of second at Bristol, though an average finish of 18.26; Reutimann is currently 28th in the standings, with a season-best finish of second at Kentucky, though an average finish of 22.862.
Bowyer himself, 13th in the standings, barely missing the playoffs, finished second at Texas and Talladega, and his last tour win was last fall at Talladega.
Clint Bowyer is all smiles. In the annual NASCAR game of musical chairs, he's just got a big ride, with Michael Waltrip (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"Our goal this year was to make the chase, but we just didn't get the job done," Waltrip concedes. "We did have a change-of-direction with the team in February, leaning more heavily on Andy Graves and Toyota to build our cars more competitively. Now we believe we are structured right. And Scott Miller will be a key part of our operation in 2012."
The Scott Miller angle may be key here. Miller was a major player in last year's turnaround at Childress', after a down season or two. Now Miller will try to work his magic at Waltrip's.
"Scott is a good friend of mine, and when I learned Michael was hiring him, that really tripped my trigger," Bowyer said. "Scott was influential in everything that has happened at Richard's. He's a great guy and a good leader."
When Waltrip hired Truex last year, things were expected to pick up. The high point was teammate Reutimann's win at Chicago.
Now Waltrip is announcing another new addition: Bowyer, after 210 Sprint Cup races with Chevy team owner Richard Childress, is indeed moving to the Waltrip/Toyota camp.
"This has been a very long summer, but I think for everyone involved, the best decision was made to be at Michael Waltrip Racing," Bowyer, a four-race winner during his six years with Childress, said.
Sponsor 5-Hour Energy, the 'energy-shot' beverage, is putting up a reported $13 million or so to back the operation. Precise figures were not announced.
Bowyer said the sponsor first came to him about three months with the deal, which Bowyer said he pitched to Childress. However Childress didn't seem all that interested, for whatever reason. So Bowyer began shopping, first trying the Jack Roush-Richard Petty operation.
Some six weeks ago Bowyer and Waltrip began talks, which were just finalized within the past week, and the press release was glowing, with references to "our young organization… a growing team…a watershed moment."
Bowyer, during the months of negotiations, reiterated his hope of staying with Childress. "But when they couldn't put together a deal with 5-Hour, I said 'Well, we'll just go someplace else.'"
Here Friday, however, Bowyer said that part of his career would soon be behind him: "It's time to move on.
"It's all about the future. The future is bright, and I'm looking forward.
"I see a young, aggressive team (in Waltrip's)…in a down market. And I see an energetic sponsor. Both are pushing forward. And I see this as an opportunity to catch up.
"Michael has done a great job marketing with the sponsors, and in keeping sponsors, better than anyone in the garage.
"I see this as a wonderful opportunity to prove myself to everybody. Richard's operation has had a lot of success, won a lot of championships…and you're just another guy there. If we can put these guys in the chase (next season), it will be great.
"Everyone knows we've got room to improve. And I look forward to the opportunity to make it happen."
Michael Waltrip (R): Can he make this whole thing work? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)