Lame Duck Drivers: The Annual Dilema

Every year, driver's contracts expire. It happens to all athletes. No one has a "lifetime contract" for anything. In most cases, if the driver has done well, he'll renew or extend his contract, and hardly anyone even notices. If the driver has been around for a long time, he may retire when his contract is up. Or he may decide to start his own team.

But every year, there are a few drivers who decide to leave their current team, and join another. It's their right. Afterall, once their contract is up, they're free to do what they want.

The problem is that they make the decision before their contract expires. They've already signed with a new team while still driving for their old team.

This year, there are already three drivers who are finishing the season for one team, knowing they will be driving for someone else next year. Dale Jarrett (moving from Yates Racing to Waltrip Racing), Casey Mears (moving from Ganassi to Hendrick), and Brian Vickers (moving from Hendrick to an undecided future).

Last year was an even worse situation, with some drivers having full years remaining on their contracts, and wanting to get out of that final year. (Actually, Brian Vickers is in that same situation this year, but there hasn't been much hoopla over it).

These drivers who are driving for one team, knowing they will drive for someone else the following year, are often called "Lame Duck Drivers." And the big question surrounding them is this. How hard will they work during their "lame duck" period?

If they drive as hard as they can, they're in a way, helping their future competition. They're building up owner points for a car that someone else will drive the next year. They're building momentum for a team that they will be competing against in a few months. And if they race hard against the current competition, there's a chance they could cause a wreck, or make some mistake that could cause hard feelings between themselves and future team mates.

On the other hand, if they start to "take it easy" on the track, or try to work with the guys that will be their teammates in the future, they aren't really fulfilling their contractual obligations. People may question their loyalty. People may question their integrity. If they take it too easy, some people may even question their driving ability.

So how does NASCAR fix the lame duck problem? Maybe they should take a page out of other sports rule books. In other sports, when a player is traded from one team to another, the trade is effective immediately.

If Hendrick wants to let Brian Vickers go, and replace him with Casey Mears, they should work out a trade deal with Ganassi and whatever team is interested in Vickers, and do it immediately. Of course, that would make the owner standings and the driver standings a jumbled mess.

The other option (also taken from other sports' rule books) is to make "free agents" wait until the season is over before they talk to other teams. Tell drivers that they can't negotiate a contract with other teams until their contract is actually expired. It may make some drivers nervous, wondering if they have a ride the following year, but if they're decent drivers, it shouldn't be a real concern.

In either case, it would get rid of the "Lame Duck" scenario. And it would keep more focus on the races and the driving, than on who is going where or driving for whom next season.

Published on July 3, 2006 in