DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - These days, it's tough to be a NASCAR fan, and that has nothing to do with escalating fuel costs or Kyle Busch winning so often.
Just try keeping up with driver merchandise as many switch teams and force fans to either buy new souvenirs or look outdated.
This surge in driver changes makes veterans who remain with the same team at least a decade a rare breed. Longevity seems to be defined by six years with one team in today's world, where drivers seek bigger paychecks and owners are quick to hire younger drivers.
Three years ago, five Cup drivers had been with their current team for at least 10 full seasons and a sixth driver was in his 12th year, running a partial schedule.
Saturday night's Sprint Cup race at Daytona International Speedway featured two drivers - Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart - who have been with the same team for at least 10 seasons, and Stewart appears to be headed elsewhere after this year. Kyle Petty, who has been with Petty Enterprises 12 years, worked as a commentator for TNT's broadcast.
"Sometimes, guys feel they need to change or they need a fresh start," car owner Rick Hendrick said. "I think that's part of it, and now you've got a bunch of agents involved with drivers and sponsors getting
involved because they're spending a lot of money and they get impatient and they want a certain type of person."
It's a combustible combination, one that former champion Dale Jarrett says has created a form of free agency. Two of the top three drivers in the points this season are with new teams: Busch, the points leader, who moved to Gibbs after losing his ride with Hendrick Motorsports, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who left his father's race team for Hendrick.
Friday, Mark Martin announced he will leave DEI for Hendrick Motorsports next year. Others who could be in different rides next season include Ryan Newman, this year's Daytona 500 winner; Martin Truex Jr., and Casey Mears, whose departure creates the spot for Martin.
The Martin deal is unique because it's an older driver replacing a younger one, but Martin is among the winningest active drivers and can serve as a mentor when he shares his ride in 2010 with another driver. The move also fits with what some older drivers are doing.
"You see guys make moves after a while trying to position themselves for what they probably think is the latter part of their career," says Jarrett, an ESPN broadcaster.
For every veteran who goes winless, there's a 20-something driver who can do that at a cheaper salary and with greater upside potential.
"If you're going to make room for somebody, then somebody has got to go and that's just how that works," Jeff Burton says of the recent changes. "It works in our business; it works in any business, especially if you're in sports. So investing in the youth... that's probably been the biggest factor."
After Rusty Wallace retired in 2005, Penske Racing hired Kurt Busch, who is 22 years younger than Wallace. Martin left car owner Jack Roush's team after the 2006 season and was replaced by David Ragan, who is 26 years younger. Bobby Labonte left Joe Gibbs Racing for Petty Enterprises after the 2006 season and was replaced by J.J. Yeley, who is 12 years younger.
Those drivers are just part of the sport's youth movement since 2005. Brian Vickers, Kyle Busch, Reed Sorenson and Ragan all had full-time rides by at least age 21.
It's not surprising that 18-year-old Joey Logano could replace Stewart, a two-time champ, should Stewart leave Gibbs' team after this year to be a driver/owner for his own team. Car owner Joe Gibbs recently said that his team likely would put Logano in a Cup car later this year for a few races.
Labonte, who drove for Gibbs from 1995-2005, says the movement is simple to explain.
"Everybody is trying to find a home and be happy with it," he says. "Some guys that are not successful are going to look somewhere else. If they're successful they stay." - hamptonroads.com
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