tampabay.com

Straining ties that bind

A driver can sign with a new team before a season wraps, a potentially awkward situation.

By BRANT JAMES
Published October 14, 2006


CONCORD, N.C. - Imagine this: Chris Simms announces he has signed a deal to take over at quarterback for the Panthers - in 2008 -- but vows to keep doing his best for the guys on the Bucs roster in the interim. He's sincere, but he'll take the playbook with him in his head and any new wrinkles Jon Gruden might want to add.

Awkward? Absolutely. Possible? Not with the way contracts and tampering rules dictate business in traditional team sports. But racing, underpinned by an independent contractor tradition, is atypical. Last year, Jamie McMurray and Kurt Busch signed contracts to switch teams for 2007. The resulting "lame duck" drivers and potential problems have challenged many teams.

The issue rammed itself into the forefront Sunday on the last lap at Talladega Superspeedway when Brian Vickers, who has signed to leave Hendrick Motorsports in 2007, spun second-place teammate Jimmie Johnson and race leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. into the grass to earn his first Nextel Cup victory.

All parties agree Vickers did not wreck his teammate and friend intentionally. But Vickers might have been forgiven for not feeling incredibly sorry after being barred from team meetings since it became public he would drive for the new Team Red Bull No. 83 Toyota.

Vickers insisted after the race that his move proved he was being a good teammate, pulling out to follow Johnson and give him a push past Earnhardt. But Earnhardt's counter move slowed Johnson, and Vickers could not avoid the collision.

If he was being selfish, Vickers said, "I would have left Jimmie and went with Junior. And that's not the case."

Vickers refuses to consider himself a "lame duck," at least in the sense he is cruising out the season.

"We put a stop to the lame duck pretty quick," he said. "We came out and had a top-five the first race after the announcement, and we've done our best to run as good as we can."

Vickers said he had a cordial lunch this week with team owner Rick Hendrick, whose late son, Ricky, was one of his best friends. Hendrick was happy to have Vickers stay through the season.

"You'd rather wait until the end of the year and do all these things, but people just can't wait anymore," Hendrick said.

Casey Mears, the driver of Chip Ganassi's No. 42 Dodge, is waiting patiently. After his announcement that he was to replace Vickers at Hendrick, he had to face a crew that had endured the soap opera McMurray's departure from the same car caused.

And like Vickers, he's not fond of the term "lame duck."

"It's implying that you're giving up because you're going somewhere else, which is ridiculous," said Mears. "If anything, you're trying harder so when you go to that next place you're worthy of the spot."

But drivers who have the opportunity to leave early are often glad they did.

Elliott Sadler left Robert Yates Racing to replace Jeremy Mayfield in the No. 19 Dodge at Evernham Motorsports when Mayfield was released this summer. He was able to leave early because Yates wanted to get his replacement, David Gilliland, in the No. 38 Ford.

But Sadler's former teammate, Dale Jarrett, is stuck. He is leaving Yates for Michael Waltrip Racing, but that Toyota-driving team will not be fully functional until next season.

McMurray and Busch's decisions sent the garage and the lawyers at Ganassi and Penske Racing South into a tizzy. After months of proposed buyouts and swaps, Busch was released by Roush Racing (after being suspended the final two races following an argument at a traffic stop) and replaced Rusty Wallace in the No. 2 Dodge at Penske. McMurray was subsequently set free by Ganassi to replace Busch a year early.

Mears said his season has been normal because his team is not in disarray.

"We don't have any issues. It's just an opportunity I couldn't pass up," he said. "I think the team was understanding about it, and we're just trying to do our jobs."