The Silly Season for seats in NASCAR’s premiere series in 2021 is going to be a wild one. Just look at some of the rides that are still available. We know that as we sit here now, there’s three seats at Stewart-Haas Racing available, one at Penske, one at Gibbs, one at Hendrick and one at Ganassi at the very least open for the taking. That doesn’t count RCR, Petty or the Wood Brothers with openings too.
While there’s a lot of talent among current free agent class of Cup drivers at seasons end that are going to be available, we also have two current NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers to could prove to factor into this mix as well.
We knew an opportunity would be there for the taking for new drivers to shine on the NXS level. 2020 was going to be someone else’s chance. The reason? The “Big 3” in Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer all graduated up to Cup Series rides in 2020. Combined, that trio won 34 races over the last three NXS seasons, including taking 21 of the 33 race wins last year.
With all three gone, who would take over in NXS competition?
Right now, it appears that Chase Briscoe and Noah Gragson are the ones to capitalize the most. These two drivers have combined to win half of the 10 races run this season with Briscoe earning his third win of the season on Sunday at the Homestead-Miami Speedway and Gragson taking wins already at Daytona and Bristol.
Both are in their second seasons with their respective teams too, but both also say that they don’t have contracts in place to remain with them for 2021 either.
“I haven’t had any conversations,” Briscoe said following his fifth career win in the series on Sunday about his contract status for next season. “I am ready to talk about it. I want to have a gameplan of what is going on.
“The last couple of years my stuff has always been done after the end of the season. It is a tough situation to be in. Ford has continually stuck behind me and believed in me and I am confident that they will continue to do that as long as I keep winning races.
“That is all I can do. They haven’t told me anything that is going to happen next year. If I can keep winning races hopefully I can prove my worth. That is all you can do. Do the best you can and keep trying to win races.”
Gragson, said following a second place finish in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago now that he too didn’t have a deal in place for 2021 either.
So, what ends up happening to them?
Briscoe, scored two wins, 11 top five finishes and 16 top 10’s in 23 Truck Series starts. He’s had five wins, 19 top five finishes and 38 top 10’s in 60 career NXS starts. He’s under contract with Ford, but there’s only two Ford seats available in NXS. Plus, does it serve him good to come back for a third season on that level? He’s proving he’s ready for a Cup seat. But, where does he land in a crowded room of free agents in NASCAR’s top level?
Same for Gragson. He has two wins, 18 top five finishes and 33 top 10’s in 46 NXS starts. He also has two wins, 12 top five finishes and 30 top 10’s in 47 Truck starts. Would it serve him best to come back to a third season at JR Motorsports?
SHR has three rides on the Cup level open. Cole Custer, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola are all operating on one-year deals right now. I don’t see Custer going anywhere, so that leaves two seats. Does Briscoe stay at SHR and just move up? We know Kyle Larson could get a second chance in NASCAR with SHR. There’s a hot rumor going around that Tony Stewart would bring Larson on. It’s a perfect fit too. Larson and Stewart have similar backgrounds and would allow Larson to still race on dirt in his spare time.
That would leave essentially Larson, Bowyer, Almirola and Briscoe in the mix for two seats. But, what if Brad Keselowski isn’t back with Penske? Could Briscoe end up there? We know Keselowski would be a good fit at SHR too. So would Matt DiBenedetto who’s the current Wood Brothers driver. Austin Cindric, another second year NXS driver, could move up to replace Keselowski in the No. 2 Ford. Corey LaJoie is a free agent driver with a Ford team right now too.
That’s a lot of Ford talent sitting there for four rides. That doesn’t even count if Erik Jones is let go from Joe Gibbs Racing and could fit in this mix too.
See why Briscoe is a bit worried?
Greg Zipadelli is the competition director at SHR and served as Briscoe’s crew chief on Sunday. He got a first hand look at Briscoe and says that he likes what Briscoe brings to the team and gives him a voice of confidence though for a future with the team.
“He is a good guy and I believe he has really good car control just watching him,” said Zipadelli, competition director at SHR. “He is able to tell you about his car and then he goes out and for the most part he really takes care of his stuff. When you look at the races and how many he has started compared to the guys around him, I think he performs on a very high level at a lot of different race tracks which is exciting.”
What about Gragson then? Moving up to replace Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 Chevrolet at HMS would be a natural move since HMS and JRM have an alliance. But, is Gragson ready for a seat like that?
Does he end up at Ganassi? Does he slide back over to Toyota or even a Ford seat?
The musical chairs is going to be a crucial one this offseason because it’s going to shape the future of this sport.