Did You Notice? … NASCAR Silly Season is heating up as the 2020 Cup Series regular season winds down? Corey LaJoie announced last week he won’t be returning to the No. 32 Go FAS Racing Ford, opening up another ride in a rapidly evolving NASCAR garage area.
Let’s take a look at where each Cup team stands at this point in 2020 and who remains on the hot seat.
NASCAR Silly Season Questions
1) Who will drive the No. 48 Chevrolet in 2021?
We know this much: it won’t be Jimmie Johnson. The seven-time champ has repeatedly said he’ll be sticking to his plan to retire from full-time NASCAR racing after the season. In fact, he’s stepped up a search for sponsorship while seeking a part-time INDYCAR schedule in 2021, hoping to run all the road and street courses.
Kyle Larson is looking to return to NASCAR (more on that in a minute) but he’s just got too much baggage for HMS. Brad Keselowski re-signed with Team Penske, so he’s out. And that crazy Denny Hamlin rumor from earlier this year seems impossible with Hamlin a top title contender.
That leaves Erik Jones as the top candidate on the market. The 24-year-old has two career NASCAR wins and two playoff appearances in three-plus years on the Cup circuit. He underperformed with Joe Gibbs Racing but the former NASCAR Truck Series champ clearly has talent. Jones feels like a Joey Logano, part II with the right organization.
Here’s the problem with Jones; there’s not a ton of money paired with him. HMS was at one point rumored to potentially shut down the No. 48 due to sponsorship concerns building with the COVID-19 pandemic. Sure, that car has full-season backing from Ally but the No. 88 and Alex Bowman have put together patchwork deals to stay afloat.
Bubba Wallace can bring some money to the table and would be a bold choice considering NASCAR’s social justice push. I just wonder if HMS, who’s taken a step back in recent years, takes a chance on a guy without a top-five finish this season. Noah Gragson would be a bold choice in a different way, a NASCAR Xfinity Series prospect who’s wrecked his teammate to win a race this season at Bristol Motor Speedway. He’s won twice, sits third in the NXS point standings and is a darkhorse pick for the championship.
Less likely selections: LaJoie, whose good relationship with Johnson must trump one top-10 finish this year with an underfunded team. It’s hard to see him jump from that to a seven-time championship program. And I still think you can’t count Justin Allgaier out if he goes on a late run and steals the NXS championship. Allgaier, 34, has Cup experience, a dedicated sponsor in Brandt ($$$) and filled in for Johnson at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last month. You could move Ally to another driver (Bowman), work your patchwork deals around Allgaier then wait for a big-name driver to reset the fourth team in 2022.
It’s hard to see this ride going to anyone else listed above. Unless….
Cindric has been ablaze on the NXS circuit the past two months. In the past eight races, he’s won five times, finished no lower than third and expanded his point lead to 62 over Chase Briscoe. It’s the type of track record that makes a promotion seem inevitable.
We know the son of Team Penske President Tim Cindric isn’t going anywhere. But Penske has re-signed all its drivers for 2021 (Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney). There doesn’t seem to be a push for a fourth team car in the midst of COVID-19.
Enter Wood Brothers Racing, the de facto development team for Penske the past several years. Driver Matt DiBenedetto is on a one-year deal and fizzled a bit after a strong start. Matty D has no top-five finishes over the past eight races, posting an average finish of 16.6. It’s not terrible, just not enough with a surging Johnson closing to within nine points of the bubble.
It’s clear no Cup job may hinge more on a playoff bid. Without it, there’s an opening to make a change at the No. 21. Cindric could take that seat, pushing Matty D out and perhaps a Cinderella, late-entry candidate for the No. 48. He’s improved every season at the Cup level and seriously challenged for two major victories: the 2019 Daytona 500 (led the most laps) and the 2019 Bristol Night Race (second).
Or perhaps Matty D could be on the list for…
3) Who will be Larson’s permanent replacement at Chip Ganassi Racing in 2021?
Matt Kenseth, picked as the interim driver when Larson’s racial slur kicked him out, almost certainly won’t be back. The 48-year-old has suffered from a lack of practice time, sure. But he still has fewer top 10s than the man he replaced this year… 22 races in (two to Larson’s three).
Ross Chastain has been on the CGR short list for years. He was expected to run full-time for the team in NXS before a sponsorship scam by DC Solar robbed him of the opportunity. But Chastain’s star has faded slightly this year, winless in NXS despite impressive consistency (18 top 10s in 21 starts) with Kaulig Racing.
Does that mean Jones could get a shot? Wallace has also been openly linked with this team. And the availability of DiBenedetto would shake things up. There’s also the chance CGR would go with an older veteran to pair with Kurt Busch, giving a younger talent like Chastain one more year of seasoning.
What veteran could be on the market? Well….
4) Will Clint Bowyer remain with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2021?
Bowyer is on the verge of a playoff bid like his other SHR teammates. The difference is he doesn’t have a contract for 2021 unlike championship contender Kevin Harvick and rookie Cole Custer. Aric Almirola, after a sizzling summer (nine straight top 10s in June & July), has a strong partnership with sponsor Smithfield. It’s hard to see him leaving and driving anything other than the No. 10.
That leaves Bowyer’s seat and perhaps the Go FAS Racing car for a red-hot Briscoe. Has Bowyer done enough to pawn Briscoe off to a satellite team for a year? He’s got just two top-five finishes, the lowest total of his SHR tenure that began in 2017. A total of 182 laps led is deceiving; Bowyer’s only led in four of 25 races this year.
The 41-year-old has done well in the FOX broadcast booth and could have a future there upon retirement. It’s clear there won’t be another ride this good available on the market for him unless CGR were to somehow take a chance.
5) What will this year’s October surprise be?
Shock and awe isn’t just limited to political elections. Every fall, there’s an unexpected NASCAR firing/divorce that simply comes out of left field. Last year, it was Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s contract broken midstream by Roush Fenway Racing. Chris Buescher wound up taking over the No. 17 Ford instead for 2020.
The year before? Kasey Kahne wound up retiring rather than continue behind the wheel of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing car. In 2017, it was Danica Patrick getting replaced by Almirola. And so on, and so on….
So who are the most likely surprises this time around? It’s clear Larson could be back in the mix. Tony Stewart has made clear he wants the sprint car star back in the sport. Where, and how, is still unclear but the opening at the No. 32 next season is raising eyebrows.
You also wonder if there will be changes at two underperforming organizations: Roush Fenway Racing and JTG-Daugherty Racing. Ryan Newman suffered through near-tragedy in the Daytona 500 and has struggled upon his return. Buescher was plucked from JTG yet has a worse average finish (18.9 to 17.8) than 2019.
On the JTG side, Ryan Preece has seven DNFs and remains the only well-funded driver this season without a top-10 finish. Stenhouse has disappointed and will miss the playoffs unless there’s a Daytona miracle.
I’m also keeping an eye on William Byron and the No. 24 Chevrolet if he misses the playoffs. Crew chief Chad Knaus has seven championships but hasn’t turned it around here. A top-five finish at Dover Sunday (Aug. 23) obscured a shouting match on the radio between them the day before. Would HMS make a crew chief change?
Finally… there’s what could happen to the No. 43 if Wallace chooses to move on. Would Richard Petty Motorsports cease to exist, sell or merge with another program? NASCAR has lost so many legends the last few years. They would need to find a way to keep The King in the fold.