NASCAR Race Weekend Central
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Friday Faceoff: Which Cup Driver Is the Best Available Free Agent?

While there is little debate about which open NASCAR Cup Series ride is the best, which free agent driver do you think is the best long-term prospect?

Luken Glover: There are a solid list of guys, such as Erik Jones, Corey LaJoie and Bubba Wallace. While Jones is a very desirable talent, LaJoie is someone to keep an eye on. His work ethic is impressive, and he gets a lot out of his equipment. He also has a good understanding of the car and is somebody I would like to see in a top ride. He had nine wins in 43 starts between the ARCA Menards Series and ARCA Menards Series East. Twenty-six of those starts resulted in a top 10. In the right equipment, LaJoie can impress and could get his chance soon.

Zach Gillispie: Money, money, money, moneeeeeey! Wallace has the most sponsorship of anyone on the free agent market. With driver-linked sponsorship a necessity nowadays, Wallace is the hottest and most desired driver because of the money he brings to the table. Sponsor dollars will keep a driver in a car for a long time.

Frank Velat: The best long-term prospect without a NASCAR contract is Kyle Larson. No one else on the market has demonstrated a potential to be a title contender or even a regular winner. The problem is that undoubtedly there will be sponsors who won’t touch him, which in turn means he’s off limits for car owners who need the support of said sponsors. But if I were an owner with an open seat, you better believe I’m gauging the interest of my current partners to see where they stand. Someone will sign him, and they’ll be glad they did.

Christian Koelle: Jones is the best of the free agents in Cup right now. Between Kyle Busch winning a championship last season, the change from Carl Edwards to Daniel Suarez to Martin Truex Jr., the continued question of if Denny Hamlin will ever be able to capitalize and win his first championship, and all the Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief drama has really buried Jones. He’s the modern-day Joey Logano from the 2012-2013 saga and will find a ride, and Joe Gibbs will regret giving him away.

Sheldon Creed admitted to moving Todd Gilliland for the World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway win in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, knowing that Gilliland owes him one. Is a victory worth risking payback?

Adam Cheek: Sheldon Creed’s move was a bit baffling, considering that there were 40 laps left in the race and the fact that he was locked into the playoffs by virtue of two victories. That’s not to say he shouldn’t go for the win, but it feels like he’s putting his 2020 championship hopes further in danger by that move. This late in the season, it’s certainly a balance of risk and reward, and that’s something that should be weighed before making a move, but there’s something to be said for racing for a win as well. I probably sound back-and-forth on this, and that’s absolutely correct; it really depends on the situation.

Mark Kristl: This year, it seems to be acceptable. Chase Elliott and Logano both made contact battling for the Cup win at Bristol Motor Speedway. Noah Gragson moved his teammate Justin Allgaier to win at Bristol in the Xfinity Series. Kaulig Racing teammates Ross Chastain and AJ Allmendinger wrecked battling for the Xfinity win at Daytona International Speedway. Creed obviously drove aggressively by moving Todd Gilliland at Gateway, but it has become a trend this year. Is it worth payback?  No other drivers have retaliated; Gilliland may simply race Creed harder in the future.

Velat: “Play now, pay later” is probably not the best way to go about things. If a driver who rarely runs in the top five has a shot at a win, I totally understand their willingness to knock the fire out of the leader in an attempt to steal the trophy. But in this situation, it doesn’t make sense. Creed is a championship contender who already had been to victory lane this year. None of his competitors have more than two wins, so he isn’t falling behind there. Gilliland could easily sit on this card until the finale and then send Creed into the fence, undoing an entire season of accomplishments. Hardly worth it.

Glover: It depends on the situation. For example, Logano making contact with Truex at Martinsville in 2018 in Cup was a legitimate move to win. It ultimately led to Logano winning the title. In Creed’s case, a bump-and-run may have been the better option, considering there were over 30 laps left. He acknowledged he would expect payback, and it is definitely possible it will happen. Had it been with 15 laps or less left in the race, it likely would have been more understandable. The fact it cost a bubble driver the win though makes it more sour.

Koelle: A win is a win, and having x amount of wins will always be better than having a lesser amount. Creed has been looked over a lot since his departure from ARCA. Much like Fernando Tatis Jr., Creed has nothing to apologize for. Gilliland has too much on his plate to go get revenge, but it was still worth it, because what if it had come down to Creed and Gilliland for the championship at Phoenix Raceway? Eliminate those you think will cause you issues further down the road, that’s how these playoffs work, right?

Gillispie: Winning may not be everything, but if you do not race to win, you might as well not even try. Although the modern playoffs have diluted the value of a regular-season win, victory should still be a driver’s number one priority (just ask Chastain). Now, if you go out and hit everything including the pace car, you probably will not make very many friends. Yet if you are still diligently pursuing victories, you are fulfilling the definition of racing. Payback, carnage and hurt feelings are inevitable no matter how you race. Creed’s move will probably not earn him a Christmas card from Gilliland, but it sure sent a message that he is motivated to capture the checkered flag. It was worth it because it not only adds points in the bucket, but it also sends the message that he is the guy to beat. Now, don’t be mistaken, it is perfectly in Gilliland’s right to pay him back, which he should do.

If you were a Cup team owner, would you hire Kyle Larson?

Kristl: Yes. Americans believe in second chances. While Larson made a heinous mistake, he appears to have grown as a person. Entering this year, he finished inside the top 10 in the championship standings four straight years. Even in his four Cup starts this year, he had three tops 10s. Larson also has won in most of the races he has entered since his departure from NASCAR. He deserves another opportunity in the Cup Series.

Koelle: No. Larson had been rumored before getting released from Chip Ganassi Racing as leaving the sport at some point and going full-time dirt racing. When you look at how he’s run in dirt, let him stay there. Dirt racing needs more superstars; Larson is just what it needs. It comes down to the fact that if my driver’s mindset isn’t 110% on earning our team a championship in NASCAR, I don’t want him.

Cheek: This is a possibility I’ve thought about for months, and I go back and forth, but I’d tend to answer yes. What Larson said was inexcusable and has no place anywhere, but several factors, including what Wallace tweeted after the incident and Larson’s apparent work with charities and organizations in its wake, leads me to believe that Larson recognizes just how horrible his comment was. That said, he has tremendous talent, and his success in the past few months (essentially single-handedly dominating dirt racing) has been unbelievable. As a Cup owner, there would definitely be a lot of scrutiny, and it would take a while to repair his image. Again, what Larson said was unforgivable and despicable, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s back in the Cup Series soon with Stewart-Haas Racing, Ganassi or another stable.

Gillispie: Larson made a terrible mistake, but mistakes are made to be learned from. Will he be viewed differently? Of course. He has atoned for his mistakes, not in a flashy fashion, but in a direct, accountable and discernible way. The kicker is if there is sponsorship to be found, Larson should be employed in a heartbeat. He is just way too talented. Not to knock Ganassi’s equipment, but it certainly didn’t have the best of the best like Gibbs or Team Penske. Watch out if he ends up at one of those places, but again, we live in a tragic era where money drives opportunity. Gibbs, Penske, SHR or whoever will not be able to hire him without some signed sponsorship. It is an absolute travesty, but that is the world we live in.

Almost every season, a driver expected to do well gets bounced from the Cup playoffs in round one. Which contender is most likely to make an early exit?

Gillispie: Two short tracks and a unique egg-shaped mile make up the first round, and that is not good for Ryan Blaney. Historically, Blaney has been one of the worst performing drivers currently in the playoffs on tracks under 1 mile in length. With only 13 playoff points in his bucket and an average finish of 17.2 at short tracks since 2017, statistics say Blaney will struggle. That’s pretty glaring considering he has been one of the most consistent drivers in 2020.

Velat: Logano. He won two of the first four races this year, but his team has been quieter than an introverted mouse since the pandemic-induced hiatus ended. Logano has just three top-five finishes in the last 15 races. It is true that such a performance may not necessarily result in a first-round exit if others have trouble. But while he may be in the top four as the playoffs begin, he won’t be there when they conclude unless things get better in a hurry.

Glover: Alex Bowman could be the one to have an early exit. After the first four races, and even the next few after the restart, Bowman stuck out as a possible Championship 4 candidate. His dominant Auto Club Speedway win made that thought seem like a strong possibility. Since June, however, he has arguably been the slowest Hendrick Motorsports car. With only four top 10s in the last 13 races, there is a cause for concern. He earned back-to-back top 10s to finish the regular season but will now face his toughest round. He ran well at both Darlington Raceway events in May, with a runner-up in the first one, but Bristol and Richmond Raceway are 15th and 22nd for him in terms track average finish. If he can make it through the Round of 16, he may turn it around, but a first-round exit wouldn’t be too surprising.

Cheek: William Byron. He had a solid season and scored his first win last week at Daytona, but he rode the cutline all season, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him with an early exit. Plus, anything can happen during the playoffs, and some bad luck could simply fall his way and doom his hopes for the Round of 12.

Kristl: Kyle Busch has endured bad luck combined with poor races. The reigning Cup champion has his least amount of lead-lap finishes since his injury-plagued 2015 season. His laps led this year has significantly decreased. His average finishing position is his worst since 2014. Busch’s struggles will continue, causing him to be eliminated from the playoffs.

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About Frank Velat

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Frank Velat has been an avid follower of NASCAR and other motorsports for over 20 years. He brings a blend of passionate fan and objective author to his work. Frank offers unique perspectives that everyone can relate to, remembering the sport's past all the while embracing its future. Follow along with @FrankVelat on Twitter.

8 comments

  1. Avatar

    I hope that those who judge Larson for his single word gaff are as pure as you expect him to have been. The man said one word…a word heard hourly in music, said on stage at comedy clubs, has been uttered by many, many others and in no way was said in contempt. I mean seriously, he has been run out of town on a rail for saying a single word. What’s next…blame him for the riots?
    If no sponsor wants to put money behind him, that’s their choice. If Nascar wants to ban him for life because of a word, look at your ratings and look at how dirt vision and floracing numbers have changed since Ky’sle return to dirt. I’m sorry he hurt people, honestly I am sorry for that. It offends in ways I can’t fully understand, but when said in hostility.

    • Avatar

      It’s still just a word.
      Is there any word that anyone could utter that would be judged as harshly?
      Why is that?

      • Avatar

        Yeah. Somewhere along the way society has judged words harder than actions. Look up Ray Lewis, Donte Stallworth, Leonard Little and Dany Heatley to name a few who were involved in incidents resulting in someone’s death. Heck, look in the NASCAR garage. Anyone remember Kyle Busch rolling through a neighborhood at 128 MPH? I dare say a tad more dangerous than a word. He and anyone on that road at the time were lucky.

  2. Avatar

    Yes let Larson stay away from NASCAR since its went WOKE ITS sinking anyway.Its not a coincidence that ratings are at an all time low.Oh and thank goodness Jeremy Clements slipped up and said what he said a few years ago and not in the present time

  3. Avatar

    I bet Stewart has told Larson to focus on running dirt in 2021 and then prepare to replace Clint Bowyer in 2022, who will probably retire after next season. SHR’s sponsors, especially Mobil, will want Larson to demonstrate good behavior over a longer period of time beyond just 7 or 8 months after his video gaming incident. But if he keeps his nose clean the rest of this year and in 2021, Larson will be welcomed back.

    Jones is the best available free agent driver on the market. If it comes down to talent, over money, Ganassi should be able to see that and sign Jones. Wallace is just “The Flavor of the Month”. I expect to see him back in the RPM car next year.

    I wonder if LaJoie already has the soon-to-be-open ride at JTG-D locked up? Ryan Preece has wrecked far too many cars in his 2 years with the team to keep his job. LaJoie, on the other hand, is a solid, journeyman driver who takes care of his cars.

  4. Avatar

    If Rick Hendrick was willing to take a chance, Larson would be taking over the 48 car.

  5. Avatar

    Larson should get a second chance athletes from other sports, get second and third chances.

  6. Avatar

    The Larsen deal has been beat to death. Time to move on. In fact I’d be willing to bet that the majority of race fans could care less about it. From all that I have seen and read more fans were more annoyed by the Bubba Wallace situation. Of course it is not PC to mention that the fans are more disgusted with the BLM deal. Sponsors will eventually realize that Kyle will sell more product then the other guys on the free agent list. Besides his stats prove he is far better then the rest of them. I can tell you this. Pennsylvania Speedweeks 410 sprint car races set attendance records this year and Kyle Larsen was the reason.