High-speed musical chairs

For the first time in 12 years at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Tony Stewart will not be driving the No. 20 Home Depot car when practice begins at noon Friday for the Shelby 427 NASCAR Sprint Cup race.

Teenage rookie Joey Logano will be in the orange and white car made popular by Stewart at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Stewart will be driving the red No. 14 Chevrolet emblazoned with Office Depot logos. Office Depot no longer sponsors the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford of Carl Edwards.

Mark Martin drove the popular No. 6 Ford owned by Jack Roush when he won the inaugural 1998 Las Vegas Cup race. After a part-time stint in the No. 8 U.S. Army Chevrolet last year, Martin is back in the Cup series full time in the No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet owned by Rick Hendrick.

Sunday’s 12th annual Cup race at the speedway also has a new sponsor — Shelby Automobiles — and a new distance of 427 miles to salute the size of Shelby’s legendary Ford engines.

Last year brought several significant driver changes in NASCAR. Dale Earnhardt Jr. left the team his late father Dale Earnhardt started to join Hendrick Motorsports, switching his sponsor and car number. Then Kyle Busch went from Hendrick to Gibbs, and Kasey Kahne picked up an endorsement from Budweiser, Earnhardt Jr.’s former sponsor.

But the number of moves in 2008 seems minuscule compared with the upheaval entering this season, and spectators could face quite a test locating their favorite drivers as they speed around the track this weekend.

In all, about 27 Cup drivers will have new car numbers, and seven drivers will be running full time in the Cup series for the first time, including Logano and former Formula One driver Scott Speed.

It also will be the first time at the speedway for a couple of newly merged teams. Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing have combined to form Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, which will field Chevrolets. Gillett Evernham Racing has taken over Petty Enterprises, and the organization is called Richard Petty Enterprises. Although it seems to be a Petty outfit in name only — the deal left Kyle Petty without a job with the team.

"I’m seeing things I can’t believe," said Rusty Wallace, the 1989 Cup champion who now owns two cars in the Nationwide Series and works as an ESPN race analyst. "I never thought I’d see Teresa Earnhardt with two big, beautiful buildings almost empty and her operation joining together with Chip Ganassi. Or that Petty Enterprises would move out of the big shop they just started to lease and move into that deal with Gillett. It’s crazy."

While some teams, such as Bill Davis Racing, have closed shop, others have opened for business. Two well-known names in NASCAR — driver Jeremy Mayfield and crew chief Tommy Baldwin — have started new teams.

"When I looked at the entry list for the California race, there were 47 cars, and I hadn’t heard of (some) of the drivers," Wallace said. "Here’s all this doom and gloom with the economy, and people are taking advantage of it and starting new teams."

The startups have benefited from a deep talent pool of mechanics and crewmen created after many Cup teams began laying off employees at the end of last year.

In a cost-cutting step this year, NASCAR banned testing at any track that hosts a race in its three national and two regional series. The move lessened the advantage previously held by well-funded, multi-car teams that could test whenever they wanted.

After the Shelby 427 begins Sunday, don’t be embarrassed if you can’t recognize your favorite driver’s car.

You won’t be the only one.

Contact reporter Jeff Wolf at jwolf@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0247.

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