While this week's NASCAR Media Tour produced a lot of little pieces of news perhaps the biggest news of the week came when Mark Martin said that he would not be driving the #55 Toyota in 2014, but that he would be around. That led a lot of people to speculate on who would take over the #55 Aarons Dream Machine Toyota for 2014 and beyond.
Brian Vickers is the obvious front runner for the ride. Vickers, who ran eight races for the team in 2012, will run nine races for the team in the 2013 season. He will also run a full NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule for Joe Gibbs Racing and is one of the front runners to win the Nationwide Series championship.
Vickers is a long way from where he was this time a year ago. A year ago Vickers was out of a ride after his Red Bull Racing team shut it doors after the 2011 season. NASCAR fans wondered if they had seen the last of Brian Vickers as a premier Cup driver. Elliott Sadler was hired to run eight races for the #55 car early in 2012 only to be told not to do it by team owner Richard Childress. Sadler drove for Childress' Nationwide team and wanted him to focus on winning the championship. The only option Michael Waltrip Racing had was to hire Brian Vickers. Vickers did not disappoint. In his eight starts at MWR in 2012 he finished in the top ten five times. It was an impressive showing.
That has led to him getting a premier Nationwide ride at Joe Gibbs Racing. If Vickers could run as good as everyone thinks there is no doubt he is the front-runner to replace Martin in the #55 in 2014. If he doesn't it could mean he doesn't get the #55 car. If that's the case, there are two interesting names who could replace Mark Martin.
If you look at the free agent market entering 2014 there are two drivers who could certainly generate some interest for premier rides. The first driver is Juan Pablo Montoya.
Montoya has had a long relationship with co-owner Chip Ganassi dating back to his days in IRL. A lot of people, including myself, think that Montoya is very loyal to Ganassi and it would take a heck of deal to get him away from his #42 Target Chevrolet. However, that deal could come from Michael Waltrip Racing.
While Montoya may be loyal to Ganassi one thing is certain. Ganassi's team, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, has been struggling the last few seasons. They made some major changes prior to the 2012 season thinking that would help competition. It didn't. The team continued to struggle leaving Montoya on the outside of the Chase for the third straight year. This year the team has decided to change their engine program, using engines provided by Hendrick Motorsports.
A lot of people think Montoya is better than Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. Could Michael Waltrip Racing make a play at the Columbian? Maybe. He still has yet to win on an oval in NASCAR and has had some attitude problems in the past. Still a lot owners believe Montoya has the skill to be a Chase contender every season. He brings a diverse fan base with him, making him even more attractive to a sponsor. Montoya is definitely in play for this ride.
The other big name on the free agent market coming into 2014 is Ryan Newman. Newman is in a one year deal with Stewart-Haas Racing. It has been recently confirmed that Kevin Harvick will move to that organization in 2014. Rumors have it that Harvick will bring sponsor Budweiser and Jimmy Johns over to the organization. What does that mean for Ryan Newman?
It is quite possible that Stewart-Haas Racing could add a fourth car to the organization to make room for Harvick. However, Newman is in his final year of his deal and that leaves him out looking for a ride in 2014. Crazier things have happened.
Newman's resume is far and away the best of the three candidates. He has 16 career wins and has finished in the top ten in points six times. However, Newman has not won more than one race in a season since the 2004 season. He is the sport's best qualifier and at 36 is still in his prime for several seasons. Newman may be the best fit for the ride.
The question will be what kind of offers Newman will get. If Richard Childress Racing or Stewart-Haas Racing offer him a contract he would most likely take it. Plus, he has a new crew chief in Matt Borland for 2013, making many think he will be re-signed at Stewart-Haas Racing if sponsorship is found.
If sponsorship is not found for his #39 Chevrolet that puts Newman out on the market and a big time contender for the #55 car.
No doubt Brian Vickers is the front runner for the ride. However, if he struggles in Nationwide this season that could open up two possibilities that will be interesting to look out for for with the #55 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota coming into the 2014 season.
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