The silly season is upon us.
It’s when people earn, for a lack of a better term, new opportunities. Whether or not the deals are secured in the best of ways remains to be seen, but let’s hope for the best, right?
Sometimes, people have to be selfish. You have to put yourself first in many situations, even when you don’t want to. That will be the case over the next few months as drivers will more than likely have to tell people they have been loyal to for years that their business agreement is coming to an end.
The decisions won’t be easy, but it’s like pulling off a band-aid. Once it’s done, there is no more pain. All that’s left is the battle wound.
Q: What silly season story that is developing is the most important in order for other pieces to fall into place? – Mike C., Kansas City.
A: Whoever Hendrick Motorsports selects to drive the No. 88 ride is going to receive either a lot of boos or plenty of cheers. But the team needs to start narrowing down its candidates.
Kyle Larson heads the list of potential replacements moving forward. He is the long-term driver Hendrick Motorsports is looking for and someone who is already proving he can win in the sport’s top division. Plus, he’s marketable enough to the point where he can be one of NASCAR’s faces to bring in new sponsors. Of course, that’s a characteristic that is extremely critical as Hendrick will likely lose a great sum of income now that the team is losing the sport’s most popular and marketable driver.
If it’s not Larson, who else? People keep saying that a return of Carl Edwards is imminent, and if that’s the case, putting him in the No. 88 car would be a wise decision. But a source extremely close to the 28-time Cup Series race winner told me recently that he is pleased with his situation and is happy spending time with his family.
Alex Bowman is still a popular choice to replace Earnhardt after his spectacular run late in 2016. But Bowman is one of the sport’s least marketable names. He still can’t come up with funding to even race in the XFINITY Series, let alone Cup, and that is going to be the difference-maker in whether he gets this ride.
It helps that he is still involved with Hendrick by serving as the team’s test driver and working on its simulator program, but the lack of on-track experience will hurt him. For such a high-quality ride, even if he gets a few sponsors to back him, when does Hendrick opt to say no because it does not line up anywhere close to the cost of sponsorship to what it has been for years?
Figure that either way, Hendrick is going to lose money on this deal, at least in the short-term. It is going to be increasingly difficult to bring multiple businesses to the table that want to slap their logos on the No. 88 car for multiple races, let alone a majority of the season. But if the team can get an established driver, like Matt Kenseth, who might very well be on his way out at Joe Gibbs Racing due to the sponsorship issues on the No. 20 car, it could give Hendrick reason to sign such a driver.
Once Hendrick picks a pilot for what will be Earnhardt’s old ride, the next major headline will be with Stewart-Haas Racing. Danica Patrick‘s contract doesn’t expire until the end of 2018, but that will not stop team owners Tony Stewart and Gene Haas from pulling the plug on NASCAR’s only female driver by buying out her contract.
Patrick’s performance is improving in 2017, with consistent runs in the top 20 and at times, while showing the pace to run in the top 10. However, her tendency to be in the wrong place at the wrong time has got to be mentally destroying her. When she has solid performances, her car somehow ends up crushed because of someone else’s mistake.
While rumors say she is going to hang up her helmet, a few solid results could convince her SHR owners to give her one more crack at the Cup Series. But it will take a whole lot of sponsorship dollars to do so.
Stewart is already joking around on Twitter about Larson’s talent on the racetrack. The sprint car driver wouldn’t be a bad fit at SHR, either. With on-track qualities similar to Stewart himself and a passion for dirt racing, the marketable Larson could head to SHR should he decide to leave Chip Ganassi Racing and not take one of Hendrick’s potential openings after the team courted him years ago.
Q: Why is Billy Johnson running the No. 43 car instead of Darrell Wallace Jr.? – Christina L., St. Louis.
A: Wallace has to feel hurt by this decision. Richard Petty Motorsports said it would put him in the No. 43 car from Pocono Raceway until whenever Aric Almirola‘s back is healed.
Well, that isn’t what happened.
Instead, what you have here is a manufacturer not showing trust in a driver they helped select for a road course race. While Wallace is not outstanding at road courses, he has put up better results than Johnson, who also hasn’t raced a stock car since 2013.
Let’s look at the numbers: In six XFINITY Series road course starts, Wallace has a top five and three top 10s. Johnson, who ran in the same Roush Fenway Racing equipment as Wallace (which was probably better at the time Johnson drove the car), has one career top-10 finish.
Now a driver for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Weathertech SportsCar Championship, Johnson is considered a Ford racer, which is one major reason why he was selected to race at Sonoma Raceway.
While the decision shouldn’t hurt Wallace too much for the future, it is one that is vexing as Ford and RPM should believe in Wallace’s talents moving forward, given he could very well be a driver they need for the future.
Johnson might be amazing in the No. 43 car. He could be awful. But one thing is clear: We won’t know what Wallace is capable of on a road course in Cup until Sunday.