Over the years, the term Silly Season has become a popular expression in the racing world. It’s the time of year where NASCAR drivers in a contract year try to figure out where they’ll land for the following season.
For fans, it’s highly anticipated. For drivers, not so much. With the current economic landscape, many drivers contracts are one-year deals, not guaranteed with longevity. Of course, some are not.
Let’s review what has happened thus far in 2020, and what’s to come.
Every year, there’s a different start date. Usually when the summer months come the first domino will fall; thus was the case in 2020. In early August, Leavine Family Racing announced it would shut down following the conclusion of the season. Soon after, Joe Gibbs Racing — LFR’s technical alliance partner — announced Christopher Bell would replace Erik Jones in the No. 20 Toyota for 2021 after running his rookie campaign with LFR.
That same week, Brad Keselowski, the hottest driver on the free agent market, signed a one-year extension with Team Penske.
Since then, a ton has happened, including a trio of new organizations entering the sport.
Justin Marks also formed a team: Trackhouse Racing Team, announcing Daniel Suarez, who moved over from Gaunt Brothers Racing, as the driver of the No. 99 Chevrolet. That team leased one of Spire Motorsports’ charters.
Meanwhile, Matt Tifft and BJ McLeod announced in October they purchased Archie St. Hilaire’s ownership interest of Circle Sport’s charter, forming Live Fast Motorsports with McLeod handling the driver duties.
In early October, Clint Bowyer announced he would retire from full-time competition at the end of 2020; his No. 14 seat will be filled by rookie Chase Briscoe, coming off a nine-win season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Hendrick Motorsports chose Alex Bowman to replace Jimmie Johnson in the famed No. 48 car. Kyle Larson who will make his much-anticipated NASCAR return with Hendrick Motorsports come February, signing onto a multi-year deal in the No. 5 car with Cliff Daniels as his crew chief.
Spire announced it was forming a second team, which Corey LaJoie will be leading the charge as the driver. The team will run a second full-time team, with multiple drivers filling out the lineup.
It seems like a distant memory that Ryan Blaney re-signed with Team Penske. Other drivers in contract years that will be staying in the same place include Ryan Preece, fielding the No. 37 for JTG Daugherty Racing; Matt DiBenedetto staying in Wood Brothers Racing’s No. 21 Ford for one more season before Austin Cindric takes over; and Michael McDowell expected to be announced to return to Front Row Motorsports’ No. 34.
In the Xfinity Series, much has changed, too. With Briscoe moving to Cup, Riley Herbst will take over the No. 98 Ford. Who takes over Herbst’s No. 18 car from 2020? Daniel Hemric, who is coming off a 21-race season with JR Motorsports. Meanwhile, Jeb Burton will get his first opportunity at full-time racing in Xfinity with Kaulig Racing, taking over for Chastain.
Speaking of Kaulig, Justin Haley re-signed with the team for a third season while AJ Allmendinger will run the full schedule at 39 years old. Kaulig’s technical partner, Richard Childress Racing, will field a full-time entry with Myatt Snider driving the No. 2 Chevrolet.
The rest of the series remains much of the same from 2020, though Our Motorsports will run a second full-time Chevrolet with multiple drivers, including Tyler Reddick at the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway.
In the Camping World Truck Series, John Hunter Nemechek has returned to the series, joining Kyle Busch Motorsports and replacing Raphael Lessard. Chandler Smith will pilot the No. 18, in place of Christian Eckes. Brett Moffitt left GMS Racing for Niece Motorsports, joining teammates Ryan Truex and Carson Hocevar. Lessard will move over to GMS on a part-time basis, while Chase Purdy joins the team for the 22-race schedule. Many of the other drivers, including 2020 playoff drivers Sheldon Creed, Zane Smith, Tyler Ankrum and Austin Hill, will return to their respective teams.
Now that we’ve recapped all of that, what are the top five silly season storylines to continue following with the 2021 season quickly approaching?
Where’s Ty Dillon Going to End Up?
In September, Germain announced it would be shutting its doors following the 2020 season. 23XI purchased the team’s charter, which left Ty Dillon without a ride once Wallace was announced as the No. 23’s driver.
Dillon, 28, is coming off four full seasons in the No. 13 Chevrolet, finishing as high as 24th in the championship standings twice. The North Carolina native scored a pair of top-five efforts (including Germain’s best career finish — third — at Talladega Superspeedway with five races to go in team history) and six top 10s in 144 races with the team.
However, Dillon’s name hasn’t popped up with many landing spots. Sure, his grandfather is RCR namesake and owner Richard Childress, so one would think if he wanted a ride it would be possible to compete with RCR in some form or fashion (he previously competed five full seasons with the organization between Trucks and Xfinity). In an interview with Frontstretch in September, the driver noted he believed his best racing has yet to come, doubling down by stating he believes wholeheartedly he’s a top-15 Cup talent in the right equipment.
With under two months remaining until the 2021 season opens up at Daytona, there’s still no sign of where Dillon will land, should he continue racing.
Dillon didn’t respond to Frontstretch for comment at time of print.
Leading Candidates for Front Row Motorsports’ No. 38 Car
Dating back to the 2019 season, 2021 will mark the third driver in three years at the helm of the No. 38 Ford at Front Row Motorsports. Yikes!
In the current era of NASCAR, this isn’t uncommon, especially with small race teams. But Nemechek was coming off a respectable rookie season, earning three top-10 finishes and a respectable 22.4 average finish. In fact, among all full-time drivers to ever complete a full season with FRM, the 23-year-old had the second best season to date in FRM history, only behind McDowell’s season from last year (20.9 average finish, four top 10s).
The fact is, Nemechek is betting on himself by returning to the Truck Series. With KBM, he’s expected to win right off the bat, especially with his prior experience, including six victories for family team NEMCO Motorsports.
As for the No. 38 Cup ride, a few names have been thrown out there, including Anthony Alfredo and Kaz Grala, both of whom competed part time with RCR last season in Xfinity. An announcement is expected in the coming weeks as to who fills the seat.
What About Gaunt Brothers Racing?
Gaunt Brothers Racing went full-time Cup racing for the first time in team history last season with Suarez. Boy, was it a roller coaster.
At times, Suarez would outperform the equipment he was running — an 8-year-old Michael Waltrip Racing chassis — scoring nine top-25 finishes and pacing the field for 19 laps in August at Daytona. However, the team missed out on potentially its biggest pay day of the year, failing to qualify for the Daytona 500.
A frustrated Suarez bolted from GBR to join startup Trackhouse Racing Team. With that in mind, there’s no clear picture for the No. 96 Toyota.
There’s a possibility the team reduces its schedule to a part-time basis, as it did between 2017 and 2019. Should a driver with the right funding join the team, there’s also a possibility it runs the full season, though the organization doesn’t own a charter.
No doubt, there are more questions than answers here.
Xfinity Underdogs Yet to Fill Out Driver Lineup
Some of the best racing in NASCAR is in the middle of the Xfinity pack. Turns out, many of those seats are currently vacant.
Over the last few weeks, Jesse Little and Matt Mills were announced as drivers for BJ McLeod Motorsports in 2021, but that team intends on running three full-time entries. Colby Howard was named the full-time driver of the No. 15 Chevrolet for JD Motorsports with Gary Keller after running 22 races last season. Three cars remain unfilled at JDM, assuming all return. In late October, Josh Williams announced he would return for his third full season with DGM Racing, but there’s still two cars to be filled there, assuming all return (though other DGM news has been trickling out, including the announcement of team owner Mario Gosselin driving the No. 91 at Daytona).
Meanwhile, Martins Motorsports will return for a second season with Tommy Joe Martins as the driver. MBM Motorsports team owner Carl Long tells Frontstretch Chad Finchum, Stephen Leicht and Timmy Hill will all return in some capacity. Mike Harmon Racing will look to lean on Bayley Currey and Kyle Weatherman for a second season. And oh, yeah, Rick Ware Racing is bringing two cars to the series, though it has yet to name its drivers.
Still, those three rides at JDM are on the table, as are two at SS Green Light Racing and DGM and one at BJMM, while Means Racing hasn’t indicated its plans yet after fielding Kody Vanderwal for all but the first three events of 2020. Purely by funding, some of those rides will likely have multiple drivers, but there will be many announcements made prior to Daytona.
Christian Eckes on the Outside Looking In
As for the Truck Series, Eckes seems to be the biggest name without a landing spot. In December, KBM announced Smith would takeover the No. 18 Toyota. That’s after the New York native made the postseason in his rookie season, placing eighth in points with 11 top-10 finishes (the same total Harrison Burton tallied in his rookie season).
When competing for KBM, expectations are to win. Nothing else matters, as Busch has publicly criticized his drivers in the past for not performing up to his standards. Sure, that adds additional pressure to his drivers, but the equipment is more than capable, producing Cup drivers such as Wallace, Jones, William Byron and Bell.
And even though over the past two years KBM hasn’t produced the on-track results everyone is accustomed to, Busch himself has still won 80% of the races he’s competed in, including going five-for-five in 2019.
This past week, Eckes teased a return to the ARCA Menards Series via Snapchat, where he won four races with Venturini Motorsports en route to the championship in 2019.
— r/NASCAR on Reddit (@NASCARonReddit) December 18, 2020
Regardless of what happens, it’s rare for Toyota to give up on a driver after just one Truck season, especially when the team was in contention for multiple victories. Goes to show how important it was to seek after Nemechek.
For the rest of the series, ThorSport Racing team representatives have told Frontstretch to expect the same driver lineup as 2020 with Grant Enfinger, Matt Crafton, Ben Rhodes and Johnny Sauter. Todd Gilliland and Derek Kraus are also expected to return to their respective teams, Front Row Motorsports and Bill McAnally Racing; a team rep confirmed the former to Frontstretch, while the latter was teased by Freddie Kraft, Kraus’ spotter in 2020, on the Door Bumper Clear podcast.