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2020 NASCAR Silly Season: Making Sense Of Manic Monday

October 19, 2020 was Manic Monday for NASCAR Silly Season. In the course of 12 hours, four major driver announcements connected most of the final puzzle pieces in the 2021 Cup Series garage. Rarely do we see so much news drop in such a short period of time.

Let’s take a closer look at each move and what it means for everyone involved.

11:00 a.m.: Justin Haley Re-Ups With Kaulig Racing For 2021

Haley, contending for the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship, was rumored to a few different Cup Series teams. After all, let’s not forget, this 21-year-old is already a Cup winner. That’s something hotshot prospects like Bubba Wallace, Matt DiBenedetto, Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick can’t say.

Haley’s victory with undermanned Spire Motorsports at Daytona International Speedway last July is the biggest upset in NASCAR this century. It’s not even close; that organization hasn’t so much as sniffed a top-10 finish since. Haley was running just his third Cup race and has a grand total of five starts in the series.

The young talent could have signed with Spire and drove around in 35th for a year until the NextGen car comes in 2022. That’s when the team, expanding to two cars next season, supposedly plans to spend serious money to compete.

Haley didn’t want to take that risk. Sticking with Kaulig means another shot at a NXS title without some of this year’s top contenders. He could have an explosive 2021 similar to Chase Briscoe’s nine wins (more on him in a minute) and raise his stock for other available Cup rides.

There’s a benefit, too, to sticking with what you know rather than learning a Cup car… only to relearn it all over again with a brand new chassis the following year. There’s also a good chance now Haley will move up with Kaulig, who’s made it clear his plans include a full-time Cup Series team in 2022.

WHO LOSES OUT: A prospect in NASCAR’s lower series who could have moved up into one of the best independent NXS rides on the circuit. Kaulig’s done it the right way, going from five top-10 finishes as a single-car team in 2016 to a three-car powerhouse with five wins in 2020. Who fills Kaulig’s second car, vacated by Ross Chastain at the end of the season, will depend on if AJ Allmendinger decides to go full-time in 2021. The goal is to make the third car full-time as well.

GRADING THIS MOVE: B+. Kaulig’s a fresh face NASCAR badly needs with an aging group of top-tier Cup owners. Haley’s the promising talent that could take him there.

3:30 p.m.: Chase Briscoe to Replace Clint Bowyer at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2021

It’s surprising this news took eight days to break after Bowyer’s retirement announcement at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s ROVAL last weekend. Some were beginning to wonder if Briscoe would get the promotion after all despite those nine Xfinity wins, the most for a series regular since Sam Ard in 1983.

In the end, Ford and Stewart-Haas Racing recognized that Briscoe earned this opportunity. He’ll forever be known for calling his shot before the season, saying eight wins were needed for that Cup promotion.

“I feel like this is my make-or-break year,” Briscoe told The Athletic back in February. “If I go win eight or so races, then I feel like it shows I’m ready for Sunday. If I only win one or two races, I’m probably out the door and not racing anymore.”

Well, Briscoe went out and won nine. He did it with a single-car team and after winning just one race each of his previous two years in the series. There’s still three races left to add to that total and a potential championship to win before 2020 is over.

The reward is Tony Stewart’s old No. 14 Cup Ford, a perennial playoff contender that has a history of winning races. Briscoe’s new teammate, Kevin Harvick, has nine wins of his own at the sport’s top level and is a favorite to win the 2020 title.

There will be challenges, though. Briscoe is attempting the very thing Haley and fellow NXS rival Austin Cindric won’t do: learning a Cup car in 2021 before unlearning it in 2022 with the NextGen chassis. He doesn’t even have a single Cup start on his resume. And Bowyer, with just two top-five finishes in 2020, is arguably leaving the team in slightly worse shape than, say, Kurt Busch left the No. 41.

But the upside for Briscoe is substantial. With Harvick, at age 45, likely racing just three more seasons, could this be his heir apparent?

WHO WINS: Stewart-Haas Racing. In the course of two years, it went from no 20-something drivers to two of them, signed up for the long-term, in Briscoe and Custer. They got younger quickly with talent capable of winning.

WHO LOSES: Kyle Larson. This signing closes the door, it seems, on any potential partnership with Larson and SHR for 2021. Tony Stewart has made it clear how badly he wanted to do a deal; no one would have been more accommodating with Larson’s dirt schedule. On paper, this felt like a better fit but the timing apparently just wasn’t right.

GRADE: A-. Briscoe is the real deal. There’s a learning curve here… but it should be worth it.

3:35 p.m.: Kyle Larson Reinstated For NASCAR Competition

Larson’s reinstatement, effective January 1, 2021, is the last hurdle remaining for a return to the Cup Series. It completes a six-month rehabilitation from a racial slur uttered in public that shattered his life, caused a NASCAR suspension and got him fired at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Time will tell whether the 28-year-old has learned a lesson. Early indications are that he’s done the apology tour right, completing required NASCAR sensitivity training while penning an essay explaining his journey. The Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia, where Larson spent much of his time this summer, has sung his praises along with others, like NASCAR Diversity guru Max Siegel. The narrative and the court of popular opinion seems to have shifted toward a second chance.

But he won’t get off scot-free. Reinstatement terms included speaking engagements over the next three years where Larson will share his story and what he’s learned with up-and-coming racers. Mentorship will also continue at UYRS, Rev Racing and other diversity initiatives where this mistake could turn into a teaching moment.

Where do we go from here? Unlike other drivers Monday, no ride was paired with Larson’s announcement. But you don’t need Scooby Doo and the Mystery Machine to figure this one out. Just a single top-tier ride remains open for next season: the No. 88 of Hendrick Motorsports. Alex Bowman is moving to the No. 48, replacing the retiring Jimmie Johnson, which opens up a car that’s based largely on manufacturer support.

Will the very car company that dumped Larson, Chevrolet, take him back with open arms? Just take a look at what they said to CBS Sports’ Matthew Mayer.

“Since Kyle Larson has met the criteria set forth for his return to the series, we support NASCAR’s decision.” Feels like tensions are pretty cooled off. Money and talent will do that.

WHO WINS: Larson. I’m of the mindset that people deserve a second chance and, as I wrote in April, this best-case recovery could become a best-case scenario for him. The irony is people felt Larson was headed to HMS, the top candidate to replace Johnson before this incident blew up that deal.

I never felt HMS would be on the table after that considering its reputation for clean-cut, drama-free drivers without baggage. But I was wrong. If that deal gets done, Larson’s checkered past would make him the most aggressive hire for the organization since Tim Richmond in the mid-1980s.

WHO LOSES: SHR, for reasons described above. But let’s not forget the World of Outlaws. Another year banned from NASCAR could have given that series a superstar with pull. As memories of the issue faded, Larson could have packed stands in a post-COVID era while bringing dirt racing back to national prominence.

Now? He’s just another NASCAR driver moonlighting. There’s a difference.

GRADE: INCOMPLETE. I’ll pair that with a “S”… as in, “should have never happened in the first place.”

3:45 p.m.: Erik Jones to the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevy in 2021

Jones capped this quartet of announcements with his decision to pair up with RPM next season. He’ll replace Bubba Wallace in the No. 43 Chevrolet for 2021 after three seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing.

It’s the equivalent of switching from the Hilton over to a souped-up Motel 6. To make matters worse, Wallace didn’t leave the light on for Jones. Gone will be multi-million dollar sponsorships like DoorDash, the Cash App and more which will move to Wallace’s new digs with Toyota and Michael Jordan.

It’s a tough pill for Jones to swallow. He narrowly missed the NASCAR playoffs in 2020 and continues to have decent chemistry with his No. 20 Toyota team down the stretch (five top-10 finishes in seven races). His new No. 43 team, by comparison, has racked up five top-10 finishes over an entire season.

That said, Jones is motivated and he’s pairing with an organization that’s made steady improvement. Their association with Richard Childress Racing has paid dividends; RCR won at Texas Motor Speedway with Austin Dillon and came close to a second with promising rookie Tyler Reddick. Another year with the same car, paired with limited rule changes, should keep the good times rolling.

The question will simply be how much money remains and whether it’s enough to keep Jones competitive enough to be a playoff contender.

WHO WON: RPM. Jones was the best talent option that fell to them when the game of musical chairs shut Jones out of several rides he was up for: Chip Ganassi Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, among others. There’s a reason Joe Gibbs Racing plucked Jones as a top prospect four years ago. He’s got what it takes.

WHO LOST: Ty Dillon. This ride seemed a good landing spot for Childress’ grandson after his current team, Germain Racing, announced it’s folding at the end of 2020. Now, it seems Dillon is destined for a step back into the Xfinity Series unless he’s willing to run 30th or worse every week with a backmarker program.

GRADE: A for RPM. D+ for Jones. How quickly a prospect can fall these days where patience in NASCAR is not a virtue.

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About Tom Bowles

Avatar
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

22 comments

  1. Avatar

    Jones cannot be happy about having to settle for RPM. He had to make a choice, drive for a third tier team or drop down to a lower series and leave the big leagues and go back down to the triple A series.

    I saw the Larson/HMS thing coming a mile a way. Of course, the HMS part has still not been announced so maybe I am wrong. What I can’t foresee is who will step up and sponsor him.

  2. Avatar

    Great write up. Maybe Ty Dillon fills the 3rd Kaulig ride, setting up a quasi alliance between RCR and Kaulig for when they decide to move up to cup?

  3. Avatar

    Larson will become the new favorite of the Confederate-flag waving NASCAR fans. Even though I don’t believe Larson is a racist, I do believe his new-found fans overwhelmingly are. People who ignored him or found him to be over-hyped in the past will jump onto his bandwagon as if it offered salvation. A horrible decision by HMS and one with long-term negative repercussions for the sport.

    • Avatar

      Your next rational thought will be your first. As if the sport has any long-term future at this point. The Frances will squeeze every last dime out until that TV money disappears in a few years, and ride off into the sunset. As for sponsors, I’d go counter myself. I’m thinking the Thin Blue Line flag on that car every week would be a nice touch.

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      You may be right Jo but I can’t see the stereotypical confederate flag waving NASCAR fan finding a lot in common with Larson. He isn’t a good old boy from the south or had a history of acting/being what such a person would expect.
      I doubt it’s going to be that bad of a decision. My bet is he keeps a low profile, does his job and keeps his mouth shut. The only way it has long term-negative repercussions for the sport is if he does something equally as stupid again. And, unless he wins a bunch of races and wins a championship or two, much like Bowyer’s spin, it will define his career.

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      Next headline should read “Frontstretch censors it’s writers”

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      Guess we know who you will be voting for Nov. 3rd.

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      You seem to have tens of thousands of people figured out. Judgemental much? Perhaps Na$crap with give you a job selecting the”correct” fans for them.

  4. Avatar

    “Larson will become the new favorite of the Confederate-flag waving NASCAR fans. Even though I don’t believe Larson is a racist, I do believe his new-found fans overwhelmingly are.”

    I’m guessing your hypocrisy is lost on you. Smart dude a long time ago said “judge not lest ye be judged”. Might ought to try it.

  5. Avatar

    So Tom Bowles, what happened to Matt McLaughlins’s weekly “Beside The Rising Tide” column?

    It was there last night around 10PM and it was entitled “An Open Letter To Michael Jordan”. I even left a comment. I can only assume that he ran afoul of the ever changing, never clearly defined political correctness line and his story got censored and pulled. I can’t say I remember anything overtly offensive about it but what would I know, I can’t figure out where that line is anymore either. Maybe he should change the title to “AGAINST The Rising Tide”.

    • Avatar

      Noted it that as well

    • Avatar

      B=If it happens in Philadelphia yeah, It’s probably bad or if it happens during a sporting event in Philadelphia it’s probably outright ugly and humiliating.
      Was surprised to get an email from Tom (who is in charge of this site) yesterday evening asking me if I had a problem with my column not run until Wednesday. He said there was going to be a bunch of silly season related columns today and he didn’t want mine to get overlooked in the tsumai. Yes. you saw what you saw because you have the title correct and I appreciate your taking the time to read it before it was removed. To repeat I am not being censored, edited, terminated or anything. The column should reappear tonight around the same Matt time, same Matt channel. All is well. Thanks for keeping us honest. I look forward to any comments you choose to make after you read it.

      • Avatar

        Thanks for clearing that up Matt. I did not see anything in the article that I thought was over the line but, as I said, I don’t trust my instincts of where the line is anymore. It was there and then it wasn’t. I couldn’t fathom any other reason why it would be removed. Once again, I should no better. Every time something like that happens I think the worst and every time there is a logical answer.
        I apologize to Tom. Again.

        • Avatar

          Hey Bill,

          Yes, I did not see this comment until now but I promise you all this was totally innocent. I made the decision to delay Matt by a day, just with the content this week and all the news from Monday I thought more people would pay attention to his column Wednesday. I thought it was well done and might get buried instead by what other people were interested in today; always good to switch it up every once in awhile.

          No censorship or anything of the sort. We had two editors switch their nights and word did not make it down to the editor until the column was already live and sent to Jayski. We rescheduled it for Wednesday to follow the original plan, it was only up for a little while but wow, I guess a lot of people found it in such a short time!

          Appreciate you keeping us honest! Look for it tomorrow if you want to read it again.

          -Tom B.

  6. Avatar

    Thanks Bill – was wondering myself but did not happen to see it last night… So, same question for Tom from me… what happened to Matt’s column Tom? (although I have heard bad things happen in Philadelphia)

  7. Avatar

    Justin Haley has good driving talent. Kaulig Racing has been very competitive in Xfinity even without having a direct association with a major Cup team. I’m glad they are sticking together in ’21 and hope they come to Cup in ’22 as a package deal. Chevy’s Cup organizations have been on the decline in recent years and could use some fresh blood to get it moving back up to where it should be.

    Erik Jones was unwittingly used by Reverend Joe as a prod to push fading, expensive veteran, Matt Kenseth out at JGR a few years ago. This year Christopher Bell has been used to dislodge Jones. I guess that’s how business is done at Joe’s Garage? Now Jones is having to take over a ride at RPM where barely finishing in the Top-15 “is like a win”, which is a major downgrade.

    I hope Ford and SHR are patient with Chase Briscoe. I’m pretty sure Chase will be wadding up a few SHR Ford’s next year trying to learn the ropes in Cup. However, Chase is talented, but more importantly, he’s hungry.

    Lastly, Kyle Larson is just too talented a driver to be blacklisted by NASCAR. If Tony Stewart and The Brothers Busch were allowed to commit even worse misdeeds and still be welcomed back, then Kyle Larson should be allowed to return too. I’m certain that Rick Hendrick is using his considerable influence to convince Chevy and whatever sponsors they are pursuing for the #88 (or will it be the #5, or even the unlucky, #25?) to buy into the team and Larson.

  8. Avatar

    Larson was always going to Hendrick from the day he left CGR. Easy call. As for Hendrick Racing’s clean cut reputation, remember he’s a ruthless convicted felon who did real jail time.

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      Just to keep things accurate Hendrick was found guilty on bribery and extortion charges but he was sentenced to a year of home confinement and 3 years probation not prison time. In that era demand fore some model Accuras outpaced supply. Hendrick paid off a zone manager to get more of those cars for his dealerships. It wasnt ethical.but it was common oractice back then