The Setting: Silly Season
It has been two weeks since the NASCAR Cup Series last graced the track at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 18. The two-week break has allowed many drivers, teams and organizations to catch their breath as the grind to the playoffs returns Aug. 8 at Watkins Glen. Only four races remain until the playoffs and if you’re a fan of a bubble driver, good luck to your stress level.
For fans of the underdogs, there are a couple of different scenarios unfolding this time of the year. On the plus side, there is still an opportunity for someone to pull off an upset at one of the road courses, especially drivers like Daniel Suarez or Ryan Preece.
The big wild card is the regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway the end of the month. Remember what happened last time the series was on the Daytona oval? Michael McDowell led the underdog charge and pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the century. When desperate times call for desperate measures, don’t count an underdog out as someone could join McDowell in this year’s playoffs.
But for underdogs not lucky enough to advance, free agency, better known as Silly Season, begins to enter the equation. Driver movement for 2022 has already started to take shape in recent weeks and will only get crazier as we head into the next couple of months. Several underdogs and small teams have big decisions to make, with a few of them carrying valuable stock.
In this column, I am going to examine the top underdog free agents and what their future could look like based on how the rest of 2021 plays out.
NASCAR Silly Season Overview: Select Underdogs
Jones remains the top free agent remaining with the highest potential ceiling for his career. The former Joe Gibbs Racing driver, however, once again finds his name in the Silly Season pool for the third straight year. At least the pressure isn’t as rampant this time after switching to the No. 43 of Richard Petty Motorsports for 2021.
On paper, it certainly has not been the year that Jones and RPM have wanted. The Byron, Mich. native has recorded just two top 10s and only finished on the lead lap in nine of 22 races. Jones has tallied four top-15 showings while his predecessor in this car, Bubba Wallace, had nine by this point a year ago. However, his 12 top 20s are equal to Wallace’s finishes inside the top 20 during the first 22 races. Plus, Wallace had more funding than Jones with several Fortune 500 companies on board.
It has not been a lost year, though for RPM as it transitioned to a new driver and workflow. The No. 43 was in contention to win at Talladega Superspeedway, leading the field with 13 laps remaining. Unfortunately, Jones was caught up in a crash and fell from contention. The former Southern 500 winner also had a top-15 run going at Darlington Raceway before cutting a tire in stage two.
When Lady Luck shines his way, the fifth-year driver has still shown his talent in mid-pack equipment. We’re talking about someone who won the 2015 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship and won nine races in 74 Xfinity Series starts between 2015-2017. Jones’ two Cup wins came in the 2018 Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona and the 2019 Southern 500, two extremely tough races to win.
At only 25 years of age, his best years remain ahead of him. The young driver has often been compared to Joey Logano, also cut from JGR following 2012 only to go on and become a Cup champion.
Jones told Frontstretch back in June that he was “focused on RPM right now” and alluded to a return. “We’re definitely working through things right now to get things set for next year. Certainly in a great direction right now and, like I said, it’s been a great year I think so far for us, just building and working together, and I am excited for next year with the new car to see what it’s going to bring.”
With the Next Gen car debuting in 2022, it certainly appears to offer a clean slate for every team, and that is something RPM could use. While Jones certainly deserves a top-tier ride, in my opinion, the low-pressure situation at RPM with the Next Gen car could be the best available Silly Season option for Jones.
Overshadowed by the inconsistencies and unfortunate luck of Ryan Preece is his pure ability to just flat out drive a race car. There have been flashes of potential in his current ride at JTG Daugherty Racing, but Preece’s No. 37 seems to be the secondary car at the two-car organization. Unchartered for this year, simulator time at the shop has been limited, and after two straight top 10s to start the year, Preece has faded from postseason contention.
Still, it does not seem to affect the smiling, quiet driver from New England. While he has been stuck midpack throughout his two-and-a-half seasons at JTG Daugherty, there are bright spots. He is tied this year with career bests in top 10s (three), laps led (12) and average finish (22.1). Not eye-popping stats, by any means, but they are solid for a guy who has faced so much uncertainty in his career.
Just like Jones, it is easy to forget how good Preece has been. When he got his first big break with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2017, he turned in a win, four top fives, and four top 10s in four starts in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. The next season, he appeared in 15 races with a win and 10 top-10 results.
Flashing forward to this year, Preece has continued to prove his value in lower series. In his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Nashville Superspeedway, Preece won in thrilling fashion. A couple of weeks later, he won an exciting NASCAR Whelen Modified Series race at his home track of New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Some of the moves Preece made to win, including a last-lap pass, put his name back on the Silly Season tracker.
WHAT A FINISH!
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) July 17, 2021
Lower series might be where Preece is headed as the Berlin, Conn. driver faces an uphill battle in retaining a Cup ride. Bimbo Bakeries, which owns Entenmann’s, extended its partnership through 2022 with the organization. That could provide an option for JTG Daugherty Racing to retain Preece, though its main priority seems to lean on re-signing Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Cup options beyond that are limited unless he wants to downgrade to an underfunded team.
A better option might be to return to the Xfinity Series. It would be risky for Preece at 30 years old but it would no doubt give him an opportunity to show his worth full-time. The No. 98 for Stewart-Haas Racing could be an option, for example, if it elects to cut Riley Herbst. Or perhaps the Trucks could work out with David Gilliland Racing, the team Preece won for back in June?
No matter what, Preece has a lot of racing left in him and a whole lot of talent ready to display at the sport’s highest levels.
Once again, McDowell is in the Silly Season mix despite being a Daytona 500 winner. The length of his contract is not known, but it has typically been a year-to-year deal with Front Row Motorsports.
The difference this time is the 2021 season the veteran has put together. It all started at the beginning of the season on NASCAR’s biggest stage. On the last lap of February’s Daytona 500, McDowell gave Brad Keselowski a push as leader Joey Logano attempted to block. Keselowski lost control, igniting a crash that wiped out the Team Penske teammates.
When NASCAR reviewed the timing of the yellow, it was McDowell’s No. 34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford out in front. It was the first win of his career and no doubt a monumental moment in racing.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) February 15, 2021
The Phoenix, Ariz. native hasn’t stopped there, however. Many have called him a fluke and postseason field filler. But while he may exit the playoffs in the first round, McDowell has not gone down without a fight. Nearly every statistical category is a career high for him this year. He sits 19th in points with two top fives, five top 10s and an 18.2 average finish, easily a career best. While he may not be inside the top 16 in points, 19th is easily ahead of his career-high of 23rd.
McDowell told Jayski in May that he wants to return to Front Row Motorsports.
“I’m planning to be at Front Row as long as they’ll have me,” he said. “I enjoy what we’re doing. It’s fun to be a part of something and build something. I have a tremendous amount of freedom at Front Row to be a part of those things … a lot more of the inner workings.”
No deal with FRM has been publicized but it would be shocking if McDowell went anywhere else. He has lofted FRM to new heights and has steadily been a cornerstone in improving the organization. With the Next Gen car and an alliance with Roush-Fenway Racing and new co-owner Keselowski, a lot more improvement could be in the future for both driver and team.
Everything seems to be in place for McDowell to stay.
On the flip side of the Silly Season coin is McDowell’s teammate, Cup Series rookie Anthony Alfredo. It has been a downward year for the No. 38 program at FRM just one year after earning three top 10s and a 22.4 average finish with John Hunter Nemechek. By comparison, Alfredo has not recorded a top 10 and has an average finish of 27.1. While Nemechek finished the year 27th in points, recording five DNFs, Alfredo sits in 30th and has already racked up four DNFs.
A lot of bad luck has hindered Alfredo, though. His last race at New Hampshire involved him making contact with Wallace, causing a spin into the inside wall and ruining his day. Even in a rare moment where things have gone right, Lady Luck has intervened. At Sonoma Raceway, strategy nearly netted Alfredo his first top-10 finish, but he was turned and finished 31st with a damaged race car.
High expectations may have been too lofty for Alfredo, however, lofting him into the Silly Season mix. Between the Truck and Xfinity series, he only had 32 NASCAR starts under his belt entering this year. Of course, there are 36 races in a Cup season alone. Alfredo felt FRM was the best option, though as many rides had been taken for 2021 and Richard Childress Racing did not run a second part-time car this season in Xfinity.
Looking ahead, the best option for Alfredo in this Silly Season appears to be to take the same route as his predecessor Nemechek: drop to a lower series. Nemechek already has five wins in a Kyle Busch Motorsports truck and could easily win the championship there in 2021. It would be enticing for Alfredo to look and see that he could do the same thing. He is only 22 years of age, giving him a lot of leverage to gain a top ride.
Nemechek will very likely move up in the ranks, providing a possible opening at KBM after this year. Alfredo nabbing that might be a longshot but teams such as GMS Racing, ThorSport Racing and DGM Racing could have open seats available as well. If he were to drop down two levels, a winning ride would likely be the main and only goal in mind.
As for an Xfinity team, it is not out of the question either for the Ridgefield, Conn. driver. His last run in the series came at Texas Motor Speedway, where he finished an impressive third. A reunion at RCR could also be possible if sponsorship is available while Kaulig Racing will likely have a seat or two open in their organization.
Finally, staying in the Ford camp, landing at a place like SHR would be a great Silly Season scenario for Alfredo as well. It has not been a strong Cup rookie year for “Fast Pasta” but all is not lost for a driver who may need further development.
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