1. Kurt Busch
2004 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Busch won’t return to powerhouse Stewart-Haas Racing next year. Each driver move creates two pieces to the puzzle, as the ride he vacates will need to be filled. In this case, it’s pretty likely that Cole Custer will take over the No. 41, so Busch is the bigger question mark here. Where he lands will depend largely on who else moves on. The hot rumor is that he’ll replace Jamie McMurray in the No. 1 for Chip Ganassi Racing, and that’s certainly a possibility. That team clearly needs a change, and while McMurray has survived changes before, at some point the driver has to be considered in the equation.
There’s obviously a lot of speculation involved in Silly Season, but let’s also take a hard look at some of the drivers who could be making moves and what each one brings — and doesn’t — to a potential new team.
What Busch brings to the table: Busch is a former champion driver with 29 Cup wins. While he’s been overshadowed by younger brother Kyle, 29 wins hover around Hall of Fame range, especially with a title included. There are drivers in the Hall with fewer wins. He also brings sponsor Monster Energy along with him, and a solid partial-season deal is certainly attractive to team owners.
What’s against him: Time. Busch turned 40 a couple of weeks ago, and you don’t see a lot of drivers racing deep into their 40s anymore. That doesn’t mean Busch isn’t attractive for a shorter-term deal (and a team with a youngster in the wings could do a lot worse than have Busch for a couple of years), but it is a consideration for a team seeking long-term stability.
Busch has also burned a lot of bridges, and he’s had a few legendary meltdowns on both his teams and the media. While he seems to have put most of that behind him, teams and sponsors could still view his volatility as a red flag.
What’s likely to happen: Indications are that Busch will drive the No. 1 for Chip Ganassi next year, though Richard Childress Racing has also been bandied about. Cole Custer will likely take over the No. 41 unless SHR opts for a seat-filler for a year to get him more experience.
2. Jamie McMurray
McMurray has won some big races for Chip Ganassi, including the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400, but at 42, it’s very likely he’s run out of chances with his current team. And for the No. 1 team, it is time for a change in the driver’s seat — McMurray is consistently running far behind teammate Kyle Larson, and that’s not only not good for McMurray’s team, but at a certain point, it could hold back Larson as well.
What McMurray brings to the table: While not a future Hall of Famer by any stretch, McMurray can be a solid competitor. His experience could be welcome at a team needing to build, and he’s decent at a variety of tracks.
What’s against him: McMurray could be an asset to a team, but it won’t be a top competitor. If he does leave the No. 1, his options are limited, and he’ll likely wind up with a mid-tier team. McMurray isn’t the most consistent driver in the garage either — he’s streaky. In all likelihood, the wins are behind him. He can still bring a veteran’s feedback to a smaller team, but the big ones will be looking elsewhere.
What’s likely to happen: If McMurray is released in favor of Busch (or another driver), he’s got a hard row to hoe to find another ride, and if he does, it’ll be with a smaller team looking for veteran input. Ganassi is likely to put Busch in the car if they can land him.
3. Ryan Newman
Not much has been said about Newman’s future at Richard Childress Racing, but recent performance suggests it might be time for Newman and the No. 31 team to move on. RCR is maybe a half-step behind Ganassi and Hendrick Motorsports on the Chevrolet ladder, and if they hope to move up, it might be time to put someone else in the driver’s seat. While it might be an opportunity to bring Ty Dillon into the fold, Dillon says he’s happy at Germain Racing, and he hasn’t done anything to suggest that he could move RCR forward.
In other words, RCR should look elsewhere. That could be at Kurt Busch, who the team has expressed interest in in the past, or at a more talented youngster — there are several in the NASCAR pipeline right now. As for Newman, he falls somewhere in the middle between Busch and McMurray in terms of performance (though closer to Busch with 18 wins), and could be an asset to a team, but like McMurray, it’s not likely to be a top ride at his age.
What Newman brings to the table: Newman has experience and wins under his belt. While the 2002 Rookie of the Year never quite lived up to the brilliance he showed early, he can get good finishes. He’s also a mechanical engineer, and that means he can bring knowledge and information to the conversation beyond what most drivers can. That can be good and bad as most teams already have trained engineers, but more info can never hurt, especially for a team that needs to move up the ladder.
What’s against him: The main thing is lack of recent production. He’s pulled off a couple of wins here and there, but, like McMurray, hasn’t been as consistent as he should. He’s a better prospect for a team than McMurray, but he’s also no spring chicken, and a top ride isn’t likely to pop up. If Busch doesn’t go to the No. 1 as rumored, that’s a possibility, but probably a remote one. Larson’s leading that ship, and Neman isn’t exactly known for being a team player, something the Ganassi group needs to bring both teams up to par.
What’s likely to happen: Should Newman move on, he’s got better prospects than McMurray, but not a lot better. He could wind up with a mid-tier organization (there have been stranger happenings than a seat swap with Ty Dillon at Germain), and will probably get picked up somewhere if he’s willing to drive for a team that’s not competitive, but it’s also a real possibility that he might not be in the top series next year. RCR has options. Beyond Ty Dillon, they have Daniel Hemric — though he’s rumored to be headed to JTG Daugherty. Kurt Busch is also a possibility, but look for a younger driver unless the team can get a proven winner like Busch. There’s no real point in a lateral move.
4. Trevor Bayne
Bayne’s contract is reportedly through next year. But being removed from his car for a chunk of this season doesn’t bode well for Bayne, a driver who started with a bang — winning the Daytona 500 early in his career — but never panning out beyond that. His NASCAR XFINITY Series results haven’t been much better, making Bayne a bit of a hard sell on the open market.
That said, Matt Kenseth hasn’t run much better than Bayne in the No. 6, and Roush Fenway is hardly in the position it was several years back when it was one of the biggest forces in the sport, taking titles with Kenseth and Kurt Busch. If the team opts for a veteran, the obvious choice is to run Kenseth a full season next year if he agrees. RFR isn’t a team known for a ton of info sharing, so perhaps Newman might be a choice to fill that role should Kenseth pass, but no driver is going to be a magic bullet.
What Bayne brings to the table: He’s a Daytona 500 champion. In the past, that’s been good for at least a mid-to-low-tier ride for as long as a driver wants it (see Derrike Cope if you want proof). But that’s if Bayne is willing to drive for one of those teams. He might have a better shot at being competitive in an XFINITY ride, but top rides there aren’t easy to come by either, so a mid-tier NXS team might be his only option, if there is one.
What’s against him: Kind of everything else. Bayne hasn’t come close to a repeat win, even on a plate track, and teams don’t sign drivers on one win alone anymore unless they also bring sponsorship. Unlike Busch, McMurray or Newman, Bayne doesn’t have much to stand on in the way of past successes or big-team experience.
What’s likely to happen: Seeing Bayne in the No. 6 next year is a long shot, unless it’s a part-time deal like he ended up with this year, sharing the car with a veteran. RFR doesn’t really have a development driver ready, so keeping Kenseth if they can for at least 2019 makes a good bit of sense. Another option: former NXS champ Chris Buescher, who could also be out of a ride and was once an RFR darling.
5. AJ Allmendinger / Chris Buescher
Both Allmendinger and teammate Chris Buescher have been named among those on the hot seat at JTG Daugherty Racing. This one’s tough because it’s really hard to gauge whether it’s driver(s) or equipment holding the organization back. They’re in a technical alliance with RCR but it hasn’t seemed to improve the team in recent years (though RCR’s other satellite, the No. 13 of Germain Racing, isn’t any better and they’re getting better stuff).
Buescher was once considered to be the next up-and-coming racer for Roush Fenway Racing, but they didn’t have backing to put him in a third car. That could change if Bayne is let go. Allmendinger was once the road-course king, but he hasn’t been a threat this year. Again, hard to call it on him or the equipment, but either way, they aren’t winning.
What Allmendinger and Buescher bring to the table: My vote’s for the cars being the bigger issue at the road courses —Allmendinger had damage so early at Watkins Glen International, it was impossible to know if he might have been a contender. He’s improved over the years on ovals and has turned into a solid restrictor-plate racer as well. Buescher is an NXS champion, and he’s still young. The team he won that title with could be looking for a driver. It’s hard to say where his talent tops out because the JTG Daugherty cars aren’t competitive enough to really answer the question.
What’s against them: Lack of performance in a mid-tier ride. JTG Daugherty is far from bottom of the barrel, but neither driver has scored enough top 15 finishes to turn heads this year. Both are personable and likable, but that’s not enough.
What’s likely to happen: Buescher’s best bet is a return to RFR, while Allmendinger’s future is less clear. He’s not particularly young and not enough of a threat at most tracks to attract a big team. A part-time role might be where he fits in for someone, running plate tracks and road courses for a team on a limited schedule or that uses a rotation of drivers. JTG Daugherty will likely get a sweeter deal for running the drivers of RCR’s choice like the No. 13 does, and rumors of Hemric and Ryan Preece are circulating. That’s not a bad move, though it seems a little like Allmendinger and Buescher are getting the shaft in the deal.
What’s likely to happen: It’s not a bad deal for JTG Daugherty to try someone new behind the wheel(s). New blood might be what the team needs, and if there’s no difference or a drop off, at least the team knows where the issues are. If Trevor Bayne is released at RFR and the team and/or Matt Kenseth don’t make a deal, Buescher could possibly end up in the No. 6. Allmendinger’s future is cloudy at best — a smaller team could pick him up if he chose to take a lesser deal, or he could land in another series altogether.