NASCAR

Who Will Follow Matt Kenseth's Lead and Change Teams After 2014 NASCAR Season?

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistDecember 23, 2013

Who Will Follow Matt Kenseth's Lead and Change Teams After 2014 NASCAR Season?

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    A new home has certainly worked out quite well for Matt Kenseth. Will that become the inspiration for even more drivers whose careers are stuck in neutral deciding to leave their current teams after the 2014 season?
    A new home has certainly worked out quite well for Matt Kenseth. Will that become the inspiration for even more drivers whose careers are stuck in neutral deciding to leave their current teams after the 2014 season?Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    There comes a time in most NASCAR drivers' careers that they move on to another team.

    It's rare that one driver stays with one team throughout his career. In fact, of the 13 drivers who were in this past season's Chase, only four remain with the same team they began their Cup careers with—Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards.

    Sometimes, drivers are simply let go. Ryan Newman, who was told there was no more room at the Stewart-Haas Racing inn after 2013, is a perfect example. Fortunately for Newman and his fans, he's bounced back well and will race for Richard Childress Racing in 2014.

    Some drivers change team by happenstance. Tony Stewart is a perfect example. He likely would still be with Joe Gibbs Racing had he not been offered a 50 percent equity stake in what was Haas CNC Racing—which, of course, is now Stewart-Haas Racing.

    And then there are drivers who leave by choice. They've either spent too long in one place or feel that their career needs a jolt; a change of address and scenery often pays huge dividends. Look at what happened when Matt Kenseth decided to leave Roush Fenway Racing and move to Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2013 season.

    I wouldn't be surprised that Kenseth's move certainly played a part in the thinking of guys like Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch in making the decision to leave their former teams and move on for 2014, with both, ironically enough, winding up together at SHR.

    They're both looking for the missing piece that they were unable to find at their previous places of employment, namely, the key to winning the first career Sprint Cup championship for Harvick and the second for the older Busch brother.

    With the start of the 2014 season now just two months away, we thought we'd look at five key drivers who very well may be starting their final season with their current teams.

Casey Mears

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    Where is Casey Mears' career going? The 2014 season could very well answer that question.
    Where is Casey Mears' career going? The 2014 season could very well answer that question.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    When Casey Mears signed on with Germain Racing two-thirds of the way through the 2010 season, it appeared to be a situation by which both Mears and the team would grow together.

    And for the most part, that has occurred. Mears has shown slow but steady progress, going from a 36th-place finish in 2010 to 31st in 2011, 29th in 2012 and 24th this past season. He has a full season sponsorship with Geico Insurance and even recorded his first top-10 finish in four seasons in 2013 with a ninth-place showing in the early July race at Daytona.

    But let's face it, Mears—nephew of IndyCar great Rick Mears—isn't getting any younger. He'll turn 36 in March and, while he likely could remain in the Germain Racing camp for probably as long as he wants, if he has hopes of becoming a championship-contending driver, it's likely not going to happen at his present address.

    There's the rub, however. Unless Germain Racing suddenly expands, brings in another driver or takes some giant steps forward, it's likely Mears will remain constant, at best. And for that matter, there are very few better teams that likely will have a seat for Mears when they could gave the same seat to someone a bit younger, more talented or who is a better fan draw.

    In essence, Mears' career is stuck in neutral at Germain Racing. But if he's happy with getting nowhere fast, or if you use the last four seasons as a measuring stick and show incremental gains in the standings each season, it'll only take him, say, eight more seasons to potentially crack the top 10.

Marcos Ambrose

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    Is Marcos Ambrose wondering to himself what his future holds?
    Is Marcos Ambrose wondering to himself what his future holds?Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    Australian native Marcos Ambrose is kind of in the same boat as Casey Mears; namely, neither is getting any younger.

    Ambrose turned 37 in September, and while he has an undisputed amount of talent, he's also coming off his second-worst season on the Sprint Cup level, having finished 22nd in the 2013 season (his only worse season was 26th in 2010).

    When he moved from JTG Daugherty Racing to Richard Petty Motorsports in 2011, Ambrose began to deliver on some of the expectations others had for him. He won his first career Sprint Cup race that season and had career highs in top-five and top-10 finishes, ultimately winding up 19th in the standings.

    He reached victory lane again in 2012, and while his top-five and top-10 finishes were down slightly, a good modicum of consistency allowed him to finish 18th in the final standings.

    But 2013 was nothing short of one of Ambrose's worst seasons. There were no wins or top-five finishes and a paltry six top-10 showings. Much like Mears, he likely could have a ride for life with RPM, but something tells me if he has another mundane season in 2014, where the equipment he has doesn't match the talent he possesses, Ambrose could indeed wind up with a new team in 2015.

    Who knows, he may even wind up moving on to a different racing series like IndyCar.

Jamie McMurray

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    Will Jamie McMurray remain at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing after 2014?
    Will Jamie McMurray remain at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing after 2014?Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Jamie McMurray has spent a career in the shadows, it seems. He started out in Sterling Marlin's shadow, then wound up in the shadows of drivers like Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth while at Roush Fenway Racing, and then came back to EGR where he was in Juan Pablo Montoya's shadow.

    And now, with JPM having moved back to IndyCar racing in 2014, you would think McMurray would be relishing his spot as EGR's No. 1 driver.

    Unfortunately, he's back in the shadows again as young phenom Kyle Larson, who has taken over the No. 42 Target Chevrolet from Montoya, promises to gain the lion's share of attention this season—at least early on.

    McMurray was so poised for a breakout season in 2010, winning the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and Bank of America 500, not to mention nine top-five and 12 top-10 finishes. Unfortunately, most of that performance went for naught when he failed to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup despite that kind of unparalleled success.

    In theory, McMurray is No. 1 at EGR, at least going into the 2014 season. But in practice, it's almost guaranteed that media will be hovering around Larson while looking away from McMurray—unless he has another season like 2010.

    Team owner Chip Ganassi made it clear in 2013 that he's tired of his teams being also-rans. That's part of the reason why Montoya is no longer in NASCAR. Unless McMurray picks things up in a big way, he too may be looking for a new home for 2015—and not by choice, unless he starts looking for another job now.

Greg Biffle

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    Greg Biffle hasn't had much to smile about lately.
    Greg Biffle hasn't had much to smile about lately.Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Up until 2013, Greg Biffle held a rather unique distinction of being the only driver in the Sprint Cup Series to have previously won both a Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series championship in his career, with the hope that he'd also become the first to eventually add a Sprint Cup crown to that legacy.

    Not anymore. Biffle, who turns 44 on Monday (Dec. 23), is now the first of two drivers to hold that distinction, as Austin Dillon joined Biffle in such a unique class of two. And if Biffle holds out any hope of still achieving that fabled trifecta—certainly, before Dillon might do so—it likely will be somewhere else other than Roush Fenway Racing after the 2014 season.

    Biffle seems to have hit a stagnancy the last few years at RFR. While he is a credible driver, his season finishes typically do not match the talent level he has. He definitely should have won a Cup crown by now, but for whatever reason, continues to fall back further and further.

    After finishing second in 2005 and third in 2008, Biffle has finished seventh, sixth, 16th, fifth and ninth (this past season) in successive seasons. He's almost like a hamster on a treadmill, where he's spinning his wheels constantly but just isn't picking up the kind of ground or making forward progress like he should.

    Biffle was very close with former teammate Matt Kenseth. And if Kenseth could find the intestinal fortitude to pick up and leave RFR, Biffle can, too. The key is what other major team will be willing to pick him up if he indeed decides to leave the Roush Fenway camp. He'd be a good fit as a fourth driver at Joe Gibbs Racing (if they ever do form the long-talked-about fourth team), not to mention be reunited and likely have his career reinvigorated at JGR.

    Biffle would also be a good fit at Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing and potentially one or two other teams. But if he has another season in 2014 like he's had over much of the last 11 seasons at RFR, it's not a matter of if but more so when he'll finally have his fill, say enough is enough and move on to a new team.

Carl Edwards

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    Will Carl Edwards' career be pointing in another direction soon?
    Will Carl Edwards' career be pointing in another direction soon?Harry How/Getty Images

    Much like teammate Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards is extremely loyal to team owner Jack Roush. After all, had it not been for Roush plucking Edwards out of racing's minor leagues and an off-track career of being a part-time deputy sheriff and substitute schoolteacher, Edwards would likely still be playing roundy-round at his local dirt track on weekends.

    And that's much of the same problem former teammate Matt Kenseth faced.

    He, too, was extremely loyal to Roush for giving him the big break of his career. But after more than a decade, it just wasn't working for Kenseth anymore, and he decided it was time to move on, jumping to Joe Gibbs Racing. He even threw a bit of salt into the wound of leaving RFR by going to a team that runs cars Roush absolutely despises, namely, Toyotas.

    Edwards is at a crossroads of his career. With Kenseth gone, he is almost the de facto No. 1 driver at RFR. But consistency both from within, as well as from Ford motors and RFR chassis, has Edwards in a spiral of sorts.

    After just missing winning the championship in 2011, Edwards failed to win a race or even make the Chase in 2012. He bounced back to make the Chase in 2013, even winning two races, but his hopes for a strong finish in the Chase ended up with a dismal last-place finish (13th).

    Edwards will turn 35 in August. He's still in the prime of his Cup racing career, but honestly, we just don't see him going much further with RFR. If Edwards has another so-so season in 2014, it's more than even money that he'll follow the lead of Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and others and go somewhere that he has a much better chance of winning that elusive championship.

    A perfect place for Edwards would be Hendrick Motorsports, but that would likely only happen if a vacancy occurs, such as Jeff Gordon retiring—which isn't likely for probably at least another couple more seasons. Would Edwards stay at RFR for that long until a spot opens up? That's a 50-50 bet, at best.

    For right now, Edwards is in the same boat as Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Neither has a Sprint Cup championship—and unless Edwards goes elsewhere like Earnhardt ultimately did, he likely never will, either.


    Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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