Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, Juan Pablo Montoya, Mark Martin: That's a great list of possible free agents for teams to sign for 2012.
The problem? They've now all been taken, either moving to new teams or staying put for 2012 and beyond.
This just leaves us with the scraps, mid-pack drivers with varying degrees of pro's and con's to fight it out for what scraps are out there for them as far as teams go.
3 drivers in particular are out there who've all won at the Cup level and one owns a national touring series championship. But whether due to lack of performance, sponsorship issues, a combination of both or even factors otherwise, their futures not only for 2012 but in NASCAR altogether are in doubt.
This situation is the saddest of the 3, in that Reutimann had a contract with Michael Waltrip Racing through 2013 along with sponsor Aaron's. But an awful 2011 (just 3 top 10's, a 22.5 average finish and 28th in the standings) had Aaron's wanting a change, and that change came in Mark Martin replacing Reutimann in the #00 car starting next season on a part time basis (25 races).
Since 2004 Reutimann had virtually only driven for a Waltrip, starting with Darrell Waltrip in the Truck Series (1 win, 38 top 10's in 75 starts from 2004-06) and then for MWR in Nationwide (1 win, 13 top 5's, 31 top 10's in 85 starts from 2006-08) and then had run Cup full time since 2007. Pretty much all of MWR's Cup success has been thanks to David Reutimann, with MWR's only 2 wins to date, 12 of their 16 top 5's and 26 of their 51 top 10's with finishes of 16th (2009) and 18th (2010) in the standings.
Reutimann is probably the best driver out of the 3, having done wonders with MWR's mid-pack equipment. Age is his greatest enemy, as he's already 42 years old and that could keep him from getting any race-winning rides again down the road. At best Reutimann could be the next Joe Nemechek, a journeyman driver who's capable of pulling off a win with any half-decent team. But it doesn't look like there's even any half-decent teams looking for drivers for next season, so he could end up anywhere from Cup to Trucks.
Vickers' 2012 plans blew up the minute that Red Bull Racing announced that they'd be pulling out of team ownership, leaving the team that won't be RBR anymore in jeopardy of shutting down after 2011. Even then, Vickers' was already a free agent and his 2011 season (3 top 5's, 7 top 10's but a lowly 25th in the standings) would indicate he might've lost his ride in the #83 anyways.
The most accomplished of the 3 drivers, Vickers was the youngest Nationwide champion in series history at age 20 when he won it in 2003 for HMS (3 wins, his only ones to date in the series). He moved up to Cup in 2004, but was stuck as the '4th team' driver at HMS throughout his tenure there; just 10 top 5's in 108 starts from 2004-06, his only win coming at Talladega in 2006 when he wrecked leaders Dale Earnhardt Jr. and teammate Jimmie Johnson on the last lap. He moved to Red Bull Racing in 2007, struggled through the team's first two seasons but then broke out in 2009 when he won at Michigan and made the Chase to finish 12th in the standings. The last two thirds of 2010 were wiped out for Vickers due to blood clots and a hole in his heart, but while Vickers is perfectly healthy now his aspirations for a future Cup ride aren't.
The biggest knock against Vickers, and something that might force him to pull a Sorenson/Sadler and go back to Nationwide, is that he's been racing like a loon for the last month. He was a wrecking ball at Martinsville, aggravating Matt Kenseth of all people enough to put him in the wall, then he dumped the #36 and #42 at Texas in an avoidable wreck, and capped it off by retaliating against Kenseth for the Martinsville incident at Phoenix. The term 'damaged goods' is starting to apply to Vickers now, and unfortunately he doesn't have half the talent Kyle Busch does so he can't get away with it. A trip down to Nationwide for 2012 seems like his best bet at this point to try and build his reputation back to a respectable level. The good news is he's only 28 years old yet already has 250 Cup starts under his belt and has shown flashes of top-level competitiveness here and there, so he can still rebound to eventually get back to a decent Cup ride. Just not likely for next season.
Why Ragan is out of a full time ride for 2012 right now is easy to explain: Since he moved up to Cup in 2007, Roush has 30 wins, 169 top 5's, 316 top 10's, 8252 laps led and a 16.3 average finish. Of that, David Ragan owns 1 win (this year in the Daytona night race), 12 top 5's, 30 top 10's, 95 laps led and a 21.0 average finish. The results, or lack thereof, speaks for themselves. UPS, who's been the full sponsor of Ragan and the #6 Roush car since 2009, is moving over to be an associate on the #99 which means the #6 probably won't be running full time next season. With Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne waiting in the wings at Roush to race whatever races the #6 runs, it leaves Ragan the odd man out.
Ragan was a part of the Roush Gong Show in 2005, and eventually that translated into a part time Truck ride with Roush in 2006 (1 top 5, 8 top 10's in 19 starts) and was then moved up into a full time Cup and Nationwide ride with Roush in 2007. Ragan won ROTY honors in Nationwide but it took him until 2009 in his last NNS season running for Roush that he finally got to victory lane, winning at Talladega and then Bristol. Ragan's best season in Cup to date was in 2008, collecting 14 top 10's and finishing 13th in the standings, but finished 23rd in points as a rookie in 2007, 27th in 2009, 24th in 2010 and is 22nd with one race to go in 2011.
Ragan is a sponsors dream, as long as you ignore the on-track results; he's young, good looking, well spoken and a nice guy who can represent any company well. And he's only 25 years old, so there's still the potential for him to be a late-bloomer. This'll likely keep him full time in Cup for 2012, with the #71 TRG car the ride he's most rumored to be going to. But if he could barely contend for wins at Roush Racing then it's hard to imagine how he'll be able to win races with anyone else, let alone struggling back-marker single-car teams.
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