Left to right: Joe Gibbs Racing president, Tony Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli celebrate their 2005 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship, Stewart’s second, in New York City.
The winds of change blow at the end of every racing season. The changes ahead for the 2006 NASCAR Nextel Cup campaign, however, are hurricane force.
Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd have retired.
Mark Martin is coming back for one more year at Roush Racing, joined by Jamie McMurray.
Kurt Busch is now in the Roger Penske camp, while Bobby Labonte has left Joe Gibbs racing to hook up with Petty Enterprises.
Terry Labonte and Tony Raines will team up for a new organization, Hall of Fame Racing; Casey Mears takes over the Havoline car for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates; and J. J. Yeley has replaced Bobby Labonte at Gibbs.
The expression “you can’t tell the players without a scorecard” certainly applies for NASCAR, circa 2006.
“Being named the new driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge is a huge honor for me, a big moment in my professional career,” says Busch, who slips into the cockpit made famous by Wallace. “I’ve got some big shoes to fill, following in the steps of Rusty, but I am thrilled to have Miller Lite’s support and the chance to excite Miller’s NASCAR fans on the racetrack.”
Busch was able to get a jumpstart with his new team after Jack Roush suspended him for the final two races of 2005 following an incident prior to the Phoenix event.
“We are pleased that Kurt and Roush Racing were able to reach an agreement on Kurt’s release and appreciate the professionalism that it has taken to arrive at this result,” Penske says. “Kurt’s joining us for 2006 will provide a smooth transition for the team and our sponsors.”
Busch had signed a multi-year agreement with Penske Racing South that was to take effect in 2007.
As for Bobby Labonte, a former champion who has struggled mightily in recent years, he hopes a change of scenery will give his career a lift.
“I’m really pleased to be part of Petty Enterprises,” Labonte says. “When I first came into this sport, my heroes were Terry Labonte and Richard Petty. To have the opportunity to drive Richard Petty’s No. 43 car is something I could not have imagined growing up. The 43 knows its way to victory lane, and we’ll get it back there. I am looking forward to working with Kyle, the King and the entire Petty team.
“I had a great run at Joe Gibbs Racing, and have the utmost respect for that organization and appreciate all they did for me. I am fortunate to be going to another high-quality organization in Petty Enterprises.”
Kyle Petty anticipates a banner year with Labonte at the wheel.
“We’re bringing some serious firepower to the 43 Dodge next year, and I’m excited about having Bobby Labonte as a teammate,” Petty says. “Bobby knows how to win races and how to win championships.”
Terry Labonte and Tony Raines will co-drive the Hall of Fame Racing No. 96 DLP-HDTV Chevrolet in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series in 2006. Part owners of the team are former NFL stars Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman.
Terry Labonte, a two-time Cup Series champion and 22-time Cup winner, will drive the car in seven races, while Raines, the 1996 champion of the American Speed Association and 1999 NASCAR Busch Series Rookie of the Year, will pilot the machine in the other 29 events.
“I’m a big Terry Labonte fan,” says Raines. “To have someone to lean on is going to help me, and it’s going to help the team.
Ganassi and Sabates are convinced Mears is the man to continue the winning tradition of the No. 42 Texaco-Havoline Dodge.
“We’ve been working hard to find a driver solution for Texaco/Havoline, and we are fortunate that we could offer them Casey,” Ganassi says. “Some recent positive developments have allowed us to make this move, and we couldn’t be happier with how things are shaping up for the 2006 season. Casey is a driver and a person that we think a lot of and have a lot of faith in.”
Mears has been with the organization since 2003, driving the No. 41 car. He has competed in 106 races and recorded two poles, three top-five finishes and 17 top-10s.
McMurray, considered one of NASCAR’s top young guns, takes over Busch’s former ride at Roush.
In 2005 McMurray had four top fives and 10 top-10 finishes.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to start a new era in my career with Crown Royal and Roush Racing,” McMurray says.
Finally, the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevy, vacated by Bobby Labonte, now belongs to Yeley, who becomes teammate of 2005 NASCAR Nextel Cup champion Tony Stewart.
Yeley becomes the third full-time driver to man the wheel of the famed machine. Before Bobby Labonte, former Cup champion Dale Jarrett drove it for three seasons.
Leveling the Field
New policies aim to keep sport growing
NASCAR announced it has taken several steps to ensure the continued growth and popularity of the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, including a program that will cap the number of cars under one ownership group.
The four-car ownership cap program starts this year, and NASCAR will work with groups that control more than four cars to establish a reasonable timeline for compliance.
The four-car limit will extend to owners and any affiliate group, which includes situations where one or more of the car owners is entitled to receive, or actually receives, any financial consideration based upon the performance of the cars entered by the other car owners, or has any revenue sharing or ownership stake in the team.
Most of NASCAR’s current car owners think the cap rule is important for the continued success and growth of the Cup Series.
“It’s a good move for the sport,” says car owner Roger Penske. “It’s important for the business model to remain pro-competitive for all owners. This decision will have a positive impact on our sport for years to come.”
NASCAR Chairman Brian France says the new steps are a continuation of NASCAR’s pro-growth, pro-competition philosophy.
“The cap, the new testing procedure and the tire leasing program are in the best interest for the future of the sport,” says France.
Other owners expressed optimism regarding the impact of the new cap rule, including Felix Sabates, J.D. Gibbs, Richard Childress, Bill Davis, Richard Petty, Cal Wells, Robert Yates and the Wood Brothers.
“I think it will be good for the sport,” says Childress. “Personally, I could never have gotten into the sport – the way it is today – like I did when I got in as a driver-car owner many years ago.”
“There needs to be a cap,” says Sabates. “I think it’s the best thing that’s happened in a long time.”
“I think you’re better off not having a handful of guys owning all the cars,” says Gibbs.
Also new for this year are a tire leasing program and a track testing policy that sets a schedule for when and where Cup tests are to be conducted. The scheduled tests will be the only opportunities teams will have to test at Nextel Cup tracks. Teams will be able to schedule tests at facilities that do not host Cup events.
There will be six test locations that include Lowe’s Motor Speedway, Daytona International Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Richmond International Raceway, Homestead-Miami Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Testing in Daytona was conducted Jan. 9-11 (odd-numbered cars) and Jan. 16-18 (even-numbered cars). The Las Vegas tests were Jan. 30-Feb. 1.