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Monday, December 6, 2010

As top drivers celebrate in Vegas, Scott Speed and Colin Braun lose their rides

The focus this week was on Jimmie Johnson and his fellow Chasers being honored in Vegas.

But not everyone had such a great year. In NASCAR, it’s all about what you’ve done lately. And if you haven’t done much, chances are that seat you are in will be refitted for someone else before the following season.

This is true despite any long-term connection you might have to you team, such as the relationship Scott Speed has had with Red Bull since he drove in Formula 1. They brought him to America, put him in the Truck series, moved him up to Cup (too early in my view), and the results have been lacking – and that’s being kind.

The nail in the coffin was the announcement that Kasey Kahne was headed to Red Bull for 2011 only, as he awaits the #5 seat at Hendrick in 2012.
Brian Vickers is coming back, too, and there was no plan by Red Bull to run 3 cars … you do the math.

I like Scott Speed and think he’s great for the sport, just because he’s different (If you don’t believe me, just look at his and Amanda Speed’s Twitter accounts).

Unfortunately, though, personality isn’t good enough to keep a ride. The Red Bull team – which has seen an amazing boom on the Formula 1 side in 2010, taking the title in dramatic fashion with Sebastian Vettel -- has been his home since he was 22 years old, but those ties mean little when you finish the year 30th in points, with just two top 10s. Now 27 years old, he is still young, but he doesn’t have a ride.
"We have exercised our rights to end the relationship at the end of 2010," the team said. "We wish Scott the best of luck in his career."

For whatever reason, Scott Speed never made a big impression in NASCAR, never put down a string of solid runs. He had one brief period where he showed promise, but the usual failures soon returned. I’m pretty confident that if he wants to keep up this NASCAR thing, he can find a ride, even if it’s in Nationwide or Trucks. That may in fact be the best medicine for Speed. He can do the Elliott Sadler plan for 2011, and run for a lower series title, win some races and get confidence back, and prep for a return to Cup later in a competitive car.

I wish Speed luck in his quest; as the sport needs drivers with personality; and it’s lacking them.

Braun out at Roush
Another driver on the hunt for work is young Colin Braun, who never quite fit in at Roush, had a string of really bad runs, some of his own fault and others just bad luck, and eventually got booted in favor of young superstar Trevor Bayne.

I have talked to Colin and he appears to be a really good guy. And from what I’ve seen on track, I know he is one of the young drivers with great potential.

But it’s been clear for a while that Braun … who won a Truck race at Michigan Speedway with Roush … wasn’t in the long-term plans at the Roush team. Once Bayne was signed by Roush, I knew his days were numbered.

There is a precedent for ex-Roush drivers to do well elsewhere … most notably, a teenage Kyle Busch got his first Truck starts driving for Roush while his brother Kurt was a Cup driver at Roush, and he’s done pretty well since.

Just like Speed’s departure, it’s all about results and lack thereof, and Braun seemed to have about the same amount of luck Jeff Burton had in Cup this year – not much. Seems like he was always getting caught up in a wreck, though to be fair that only happens when you’re driving mid-pack. The best way to avoid trouble is to be in front of it. That wasn’t the case for Braun, who had just 5 top-10s in 24 starts in 2010. With those numbers, he probably expected to be let go.

Recognized as a road racing talent and having shown flashes of oval capability, I hope to see Braun land a ride somewhere for 2011. While I don’t know where that will be, I’m willing to bet he’s gotten a few calls already. He’s shown he can win, now someone has to give him a car or truck that can do it, get a good driver-crew chief relationship going, and the next go-round for Braun could be a whole lot better.

Roush Nationwide lineup
With Braun out of the picture, Roush is still full-force in the Nationwide series. He plans to have Carl Edwards run full-time, even if he can’t win the points title, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne also should run full-time, if the funding can be found.

"Right now, we're still lacking sponsorship for two of our, hopefully, three programs next year," Roush said. "I am committed to start the year with Ricky and Trevor, assuming that we are going to be able to find the support, generate the interest in their future to make it a financially solvent program for both of them going forward. "And if it's not, I'm prepared to make an investment myself. So we'll see how far we get."

Martin dabbling again?
Mark Martin is (for now, until Kyle Busch passes him) the all-time wins leader in the Nationwide series. And rumor has it he will return to running some races there and in the Truck series in 2011, for Turner Motorsports. Martin has 48 career Nationwide wins, 5 more than Busch, and 7 career Truck series wins.

Keselowski gets new crew chief
In a smart move by the Roger Penske organization, Paul Wolfe -- who just took home the Nationwide title as the crew chief for Brad Keselowski, will join the Rochester Hills native as crew chief on the Cup side.

This is just common sense, as Keselowski did not make too many strides this season in Cup, and needs someone who he has established a strong relationship with to get him further along in his Cup career. Wolfe may be the guy who can help Brad truly progress as he begins 2011 driving the iconic #2 Miller Lite Dodge. Together, in 2010, they won 6 races, 5 poles and a record 26 top-5s.

Most amazingly, the team completed all but one lap of competition in 2010, a stat that will be hard to duplicate considered the amount of wrecks you see in the Nationwide series.

Layoffs at Roush
Due to a couple factors -- providing fewer cars to a leaner Richard Petty Motorsports, and the smaller Nationwide program in 2011, Roush Fenway Racing will lay off as many as 60 employees, according to published reports. It’s simple math – fewer cars equals fewer employees – but that doesn’t make the people getting laid off feel any better.

NASCAR is no different than the rest of the business world in this way, and I wish the laid off workers luck finding a job – either in the industry or doing something else if necessary. Other teams that have laid off employee's recently include RPM and Penske Racing, which still hasn’t found funding for Sam Hornish Jr’s ride.

Speaking of Penske, there’s a chance he will field a car for Sam Hornish Jr. in the Indy 500 in 2011. With no real plan for Hornish other than fielding him in the Daytona 500, there’s a good chance he’ll be free that day, so why not run him at Indy? It might set him down a path that would lead to him returning to that series, unless the sponsorship dollars for the #77 team being sought by Penske come to be a a reality.

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