NASCAR season kicks off…

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“Programs… get your programs here; you can’t tell the players without a program…”

Never was this phrase more true in NASCAR than in 2006. Free agent fever has hit Stock Car racing with a vengeance, and drivers changing teams as quickly as they run the superspeedways.

Here’s a short list of the big changes:

2005 was the farewell tour for Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin; amazingly, one of them actually retired. While Mark Martin returns in the number six car (with a new sponsor… apparently Viagra’s support drooped) Roger Penske has replaced the retiring Wallace with the acerbic but fast Kurt Busch. How Busch will fare in the legendary number two car remains to be seen, but so far he’s doing his best to be a solid citizen and has made himself more accessible and approachable. Jamie McMurray replaces Busch behind the wheel of the Crown Royal sponsored Roush Ford and will now carry the number 26. Casey Mears leaves the Target Dodge and takes over in the #42 car formerly occupied by McMurray for Chip Ganassi. Ken Shrader leaves sponsor Schwanns to join the legendary Wood Brothers and pilot the #21 Air Force Ford. Scott Wimmer has left Bill Davis and makes his ’06 cup run in the #4 Morgan-McClure Motorsports Chevrolet.

After his numerous on-track scuffles with team owner Kyle Petty’s #45 car, it’s no surprise that Jeff Green has left the #43 car to join Haas CNC Racing and take the wheel of the #66 Chevy. Bobby Labonte leaves Joe Gibbs Racing to take control of the #43 car, which opens the door for rookie hot-shoe J.J. Yealy to get a full year with his own Nextel cup car and team in Labonte’s former ride, the Interstate Battery #18 car.

A number of others have moved up from the Busch series to stretch their wings in the big dance. Perennial Busch champion Martin Truex brings his number 1 car into the Cup series for DEI as Michael Waltrip leaves the Earnhart fold and brings sponsor NAPA to the first Nextel Cup team sponsored by Waltrip-Jasper Racing. Although Michael will be running a Dodge this season, it is expected that this team will offer one of the first entries from Toyota in 2007.

Other notable rookies this year include Clint Bowyer driving the #07 Jack Daniels Chevy for Richard Childress Racing, Denny Hamlin in the #11 FedEx Chevy for Joe Gibbs, David Stremme will drive the #40 Dodge for Chip Ganassi, and Reed Sorenson will take the wheel of Ganassi’s Target sponsored Dodge vacated by Casey Mears.

Former CART champion Paul Tracy will add to his resume’ by making his stock car debut in the Busch series this year, and is expected to compete for the ’07 Nextel Cup.

As for ’06… Jimmy Johnson’s win in the Lowe’s Chevy at Daytona coupled with the Roush trifecta of Matt Kenseth’s DeWalt car and Carl Edwards’ Office Depot sponsored Ford surrounding Johnson’s second at Cal Speedway last Sunday indicate the Roush and Hendrick are again the teams to beat in ’06, but it looks to be a very competitive and exciting year ahead.

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