Robert Yates Racing is going through the kind of rebuilding project that would make the Florida Marlins jealous.
RYR let both its crew chiefs go Monday as its chaotic season continues. Tommy Baldwin and Slugger Labbe were released from their contracts; Baldwin was snapped up right away by Bill Davis Racing (his former employer) to act as the teamís competition director. Labbe probably wonít be on the unemployment line for long, either. So why the dismissals? Yates isnít saying, but it probably isnít a coincidence that both of RYRís drivers on the Nextel Cup circuit, Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler, are also out the door at the end of the season.
Butch Hylton and Cully Barraclough will take over the crews for Jarrett and Sadler, respectively, for this Sundayís Allstate 400 at the Brickyard Ė thatís Indianapolis Motor Speedway, for you auto racing newcomers. The move doesnít make much difference to handicappers. Both drivers are included in the field at +3500, and neither has won a Cup race in 2006, although Sadler did get the pole for the Aaronís 499.
What is interesting is how RYR might look in 2007. All indications are that up-and-coming driver David Gilliland will take one of those open seats after his Busch team, Clay Andrews Racing, closed up shop Monday when Andrews realized he wasnít going to be able to hold onto arguably the hottest commodity on the NASCAR market. We do know for certain that Gilliland will be behind the wheel of RYRís No. 90 Citifinancial Ford for this Saturdayís Busch Series race, also in Indy at OíReilly Raceway Park.
Another young driver looking at a spot on the RYR Cup team is 19-year-old Stephen Leicht. Yates will audition Leicht in the No. 90 Ford this week and give him a chance to qualify for the Allstate 400. If Leicht does qualify, heíd be the youngest driver to do so in the eventís short 13-year history. The North Carolina native made his Cup debut in the No. 90 at Pocono last month, and has been in four Busch series races thus far. Raymond Fox will be his crew chief this week.
Yates also has Matt McCall in his driver development program. RYR drew praise earlier in the season for trying to work youngsters like Leicht and McCall into the team, but that also caused tension with Sadler, who is also racing in the Busch Series and was not pleased with having to occasionally cede the No. 90 to the youngsters. That, in addition to the firing of general manager Eddie DíHondt in May, apparently prompted his decision two weeks ago to join Jarrett and leave the team at seasonís end.
Itís going to be an uphill climb for RYR in 2007. Jarrett is taking sponsor UPS with him to Toyota next year, and although finding a replacement sponsor shouldnít be a problem, finding a veteran driver to pair with Gilliland or Leicht is going to be tough. Ward Burton, the 2002 Daytona 500 winner, is said to be itching to get back behind the wheel after leaving Gene Haas under less than ideal circumstances in 2004. But his name always seems to come up when a seat is available, and nobody has taken him on. Donít be surprised if Yates announces that both Gilliland and Leicht will drive on the Cup circuit full-time for RYR in 2007.
As for this week, Leicht will be available in the field should he qualify for the Allstate 400. Denny Hamlin remains the favorite at +550 after taking the checkered flag at the Pennsylvania 500 to complete the Pocono double dip. Defending Allstate 400 champion Tony Stewart is holding steady at +650, while two-time winner Jeff Gordon has closed from +850 to +800.
Kasey Kahne appears to be getting plenty of support this week. Heís shot up the odds list to +600; he finished second to Stewart at last yearís event, and also has the best average finish among Cup drivers at Indy with two Top-5 results in two appearances. Thatís a small sample size, but that didnít stop Hamlin from being the favorite at the Pennsylvania 500 after taking the Pocono 500 in his debut on that track.
Note that there are 14 drivers with odds of +1500 or shorter this week. Itís typical for over 20 cars to finish on the lead lap at the Brickyard, so watch for the established cars with serious horsepower to battle it out to a close finish. That makes a driver like 2003 winner Kevin Harvick (+1200) a significantly better value than the top favorites.