CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – Jamie McMurray gained his release from Chip Ganassi Racing on Monday, clearing the way for a driver swap that affects three teams.

Reigning Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch will now go to Penske Racing to replace Rusty Wallace, retiring at the end of the season. McMurray will take over Busch’s ride at Roush Racing and Ganassi is altering his plans for the 2006 season, deciding to field only three cars rather than replacing McMurray.

“The final piece of the puzzle was related to Chip Ganassi getting his plans finalized,” said Roush Racing president Geoff Smith. “It was something we were expecting, but there was always some uncertainly, which is why we were always hedging on whether the deal was immanent vs. close.”

The driver swap has consumed the NASCAR community since July, when McMurray signed a deal to drive for Roush in 2007.

He announced the contract in hopes of getting Ganassi to let him out of his current deal a year early.

Not long after, Busch announced that he signed a deal to drive for Penske in 2007 and wanted out of his contract at Roush.

Roush was willing to negotiate on Busch, but Ganassi refused to release McMurray.

It made McMurray the key to all the driver swapping, because no one could move in 2006 without his release.

Ganassi later softened his stance on letting McMurray leave, saying he would do so if he could find a viable replacement for him in the No. 42 Dodge – one of four teams he planned to field next season.

But that changed Monday when Ganassi ended his relationship with Home123, slated to sponsor his fourth car next year. He instead decided to stick with three cars, moved Casey Mears into the No. 42 and granted McMurray his release.

“We’ve been working hard to find a driver solution for (sponsor) Texaco/Havoline and we are fortunate that we could offer them Casey,” Ganassi said. “Some recent positive developments have allowed us to make this move and we couldn’t be happier with how things are shaping up for the 2006 season.”

Penske then immediately announced that Busch would be in the No. 2 Dodge as Wallace’s replacement next season.

“We are pleased that Kurt and Roush Racing were able to reach an agreement on Kurt’s release and appreciate the professionalism that it has taken to arrive at this result,” car owner Roger Penske said.

The driver swapping has been a hot topic in NASCAR, currently suffering from a thin talent pool of young drivers. It opened the door for teams to chase after drivers already under contract, signing them to deals that weren’t set to begin for at least another year.

Because NASCAR has no union and the sanctioning body treats teams and drivers as independent contractors, there are no tampering rules similar to those in other professional sports. Everyone is a free agent these days – also proven Monday when Bobby Labonte was granted his release from Joe Gibbs Racing despite being under contract for another three years.

Labonte did not announce where he is driving next season, but Ganassi was crossed off his list of options on Monday when he folded his planned fourth team.

Mark Martin, who had planned to retire at the end of this season, instead found himself caught in the crossfire of the driver swapping. McMurray was originally slated to replace him, but when Busch said he was leaving Roush, the car owner had two seats to fill.

With Roush unsure of whether McMurray would be released and unable to find a second available driver, Martin was talked into racing yet another season and blamed his postponed retirement on the lack of young talent.

“The driver situation in the garage right now is horrible for replacements,” Martin lamented. “There is no one who is ready to step into a top car. That’s why people are fighting over Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray – there’s no one available that’s ready.”

AP-ES-11-07-05 1502EST

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