tampabay.com

DEI's short list gets shorter

By BRANT JAMES
Published August 9, 2005


SPEEDWAY, Ind. - Dale Earnhardt Inc. director of motorsports Richie Gilmore would put Matt Kenseth in one of his team's Nextel Cup cars tomorrow. That isn't going to happen, tomorrow or next year, despite recent speculation. The 2003 series champion has one year left on his contract - though Roush signed Jamie McMurray away from Chip Ganassi before his deal is done next season - and Kenseth, a good friend of DEI's Dale Earnhardt Jr. , has let it be known he has unfinished business with Roush Racing.

"(Kenseth's) deal is, he looked at his teammates and saw there are teams that are running good and wants to see if he can get back and win championships," Gilmore said. "He has always been on DEI's short list. He was one of Big E's favorite drivers, and if we could ever get Matt, he would probably be our first choice for a teammate for Junior."

Kenseth finished fifth Sunday in the Allstate 400 - he has five top 10s in the past seven races - but is 15th in points, virtually eliminated from a second Chase for the Championship berth. Teammates Greg Biffle (third in points), defending series champion Kurt Busch (fifth), Mark Martin (sixth) and Carl Edwards (10th) currently qualify for the Chase. All but Martin have won races.

With Kenseth unavailable, Gilmore has trolled the garage in search of a young, marketable driver to replace Michael Waltrip in the No. 15 Chevrolet next season. Gilmore holds out hope Kenseth could drive a fourth DEI entry in 2007, but for now his choices are few. Gilmore said he hoped to have a driver secured within the next few weeks, but another option was eliminated when Casey Mears said he was "99.9 percent sure" he would return to Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates next year.

Mears, 27, in the final guaranteed year of his contract - Ganassi can invoke an option for 2006 - appeared to be a likely candidate. His crew chief, Jimmy Elledge , is married to Earnhardt's sister, Kelley , and DEI seems to value personal relationships in staffing matters. Mears' representative, Cary Agajanian , said Sunday the Ganassi deal was "done."

If Gilmore cannot replace Waltrip, DEI would field the No. 8 Chevrolet for Earnhardt and the No. 1 for defending Busch series champion Martin Truex Jr. Gilmore prefers to fill the No. 15 because NAPA would like to return for a 10th season.

SEE YA: Joe Gibbs Racing fired Jason Leffler as driver of the No. 11 Chevrolet Monday. He will be replaced by semi-retired Terry Labonte , whose brother, Bobby , drives for JGR, and Busch driver J.J. Yeley . Leffler, 29, hadn't finished better than 12th this season and failed to qualify at Charlotte.

NEW EFFORT: Former NFL wide receiver Tim Brown said he expects his new NASCAR team to begin racing in 2007 in Nextel Cup, although his organization consists of only a few managerial level employees and has no sponsor. Jack Roush , who has won consecutive Cup owner titles, has formed a "technical alliance" with Brown.

Brown is the latest minority to launch a race team - following Reggie White and Jackie Joyner-Kearse , among others - and was joined at his news conference by NASCAR executives. Like White, who died in December after allying with Joe Gibbs Racing, Brown stressed his commitment to social issues as much as racing.

"You know, it's not too cool to wear a Dale Earnhardt jacket in the 'hood," Brown said. "But what we want is to make that cool. And I think the only way to do that is to put a different face on it. I want everyone to understand we're not trying to change the face of NASCAR."

NICE JOB: JGR president J.D. Gibbs was impressed with Tampa resident Aric Almirola 's 10th-place finish in the NASCAR Truck series race Friday at Indianapolis Raceway Park, meaning the 21-year-old is likely to earn more races this season for a hopeful full-time trucks program in 2006. He could also make some Busch starts, Gibbs said.

It was just the second trucks event for Almirola, a NASCAR Weekly Series driver in Gibbs' diversity program. Gibbs does not have a truck program, so finding a partner, such as Morgan-Dollar Motorsports, which fielded his No. 47 Chevrolet Friday, is a factor as is finding a sponsor.