Another name is off the free agency tracker board in NASCAR, as Brad Keselowski has come to an agreement to remain at Team Penske for 2021. Keselowski, was rumored to be taking over other rides in the series for next season, as it was looking bleaker and bleaker for a contract extension to come around and being able to remain with the organization past 2020.
Now, that has since been rectified as the three car team at Penske will remain put for next year. Ryan Blaney signed a contract extension this past March while Joey Logano has several years left on his current deal.
So, where does this leave us?
Hendrick Motorsports has a ride open for Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet. Johnson, will retire at seasons end and that ride is arguably one of the top ones available. Johnson, has won seven series championships and 83 races in it, so it’s highly coveted.
While there’s a rumor that HMS could just shut down a team and move Alex Bowman over to the 48, which entirely makes sense too, I just don’t see it happening in this Charter era. Unless HMS wants to operate as a three car team for a while, they need that fourth charter. Yes, sponsorship is needed on the 88 car and the 48 car is fully funded. If not for the charter system, scaling back for HMS makes the most sense in fact. But, that likely won’t happen, so who takes over the 48?
Maybe Bowman slides to the 48 and someone bringing money takes over the 88? Keselowski, said following his win at Loudon on Sunday that pay for play drivers is actually hurting the free agent market. For teams, it helps them though and I can see HMS waiting here.
“It’s certainly been much different than years previous in my career,” said Keselowski of silly season. “Nobody likes it. There’s nobody really winning, I can tell you that. You try to keep perspective.
“I still have a great job. A lot of people don’t have a job at all. I don’t think what they want to do is hear me whine about mine.
“But then again, I do recognize if my contract had fallen differently, I would probably be in a much better place with respect to when it ran out time-wise. It’s part of it.
“The landscape is very strange, not just because of the virus, but I think one of the things that really stands out that’s changed the landscape is the threshold or the bar, so to speak, you have to pass as a driver to be eligible for the Cup Series. It’s been lowered significantly since I’ve been a part of the sport.
“That’s starting to bring a wave of kind of paid drivers, so to speak, drivers that pay for their ride. That really does a lot of damage to the contract market when there’s drivers out there that are willing to pay for your ride, let alone you getting paid. They’re willing to pay to take your ride. That really changes the marketplace pretty dramatically. So that’s been part of it, too.”
Any free agent would love to land here but I sense HMS may sit this out a bit longer and see how the Toyota and Stewart-Haas Racing situations plays out. Here’s why.
Erik Jones is a free agent and currently 19th in the playoff standings. Does JGR retain him for another extension if he doesn’t make the postseason? Jones, would like to think so, but in reality, it may not be that easy.
“It’s a performance industry and we’ve been able to make the Playoffs the last two years,” said Jones. “I feel confident still that we’re going to make them this year. It’s frustrating when you’re in that spot and I don’t feel like all of what we’ve done to be in this spot is our own doing. We’ve had some bad races that things just didn’t go our way. Some of it has been our fault. I think it’s a combination of both. You feel the pressure and you want to get in the Playoffs and you want to perform for your team, for your sponsors and for everybody.
“But you hope that you can look over the course of your career and some of the things you’ve done over the last three years are going to add into that as well. I don’t think four or six races decide the fate of your career by any means and I’ve had a really good relationship with JGR for quite a few years now. I put probably the most pressure on myself. I wouldn’t say JGR ever comes to me and asks questions or questions why you’re in this spot. They see the same things we do and the same things we struggle each weekend and why we’re in this spot. People aren’t blind to that. The pressure I would say comes from me. I just want to run well, I want to content, I want to win races, I want to be in the Playoffs, I want to contend for championships. That’s the goal so that’s what we have to keep working towards.”
The thing is, you know Toyota and JGR don’t want to lose Christopher Bell either. He’s a budding star in this sport too and is on loan to Leavine Family Racing as an alliance right now. But, LFR is also on thin ice in terms of money. They may have to shut down at seasons end. If so, what happens to Bell?
JGR has Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. under contract for 2021. They’re not letting either go. So, does that make Jones the odd man out since he’s a free agent?
HMS can wait to see how this plays out.
Then there’s the case for Stewart-Haas Racing. They have three free agent Cup drivers but there’s no way they let Cole Custer go. His dad is high up with the company, so he and Kevin Harvick are shoo-ins for SHR in 2021.
Does Aric Almirola go? He’s driving the best of his career right now with nine straight top 10 finishes. Is Clint Bowyer on the chopping block?
The team doesn’t want to lose Xfinity Series driver Chase Briscoe. But, Briscoe also notes that he nor SHR have had much conversations about next year. Neither has Bowyer.
“No, I haven’t really talked to them much about it,” Bowyer said of his contract talks a few weeks ago. “I’ve been talking to partners and things like that and just trying to do everything that I can do to make sure that all the things are lined up for next year for them. I mean, that’s what I can do … we’ve got to, I’ve got to do a better job inside the race car, we got to do a better job of getting this 14 car back up front where it belongs. Doesn’t matter what you do outside the car if you’re not taken care of what is in the car, you shouldn’t be in any of them. Stewart-Haas is a wonderful organization. I want to be there. I want to retire there and and I love the opportunity and the people behind it. I believe all the pieces of the puzzle are there. The manufacturer in Ford, I mean, we’re sitting here representing Ford today and you couldn’t ask for a better manufacturer that’s invested in the sport the way they are. I just again, it’s a perfect fit for me. We started off really, really well.”
Briscoe, said he felt like this was a make or break year for him. This is year No. 2 with SHR in the Xfinity Series and he felt like eight wins would do the trick. He’s almost there as he’s already won five times.
Greg Zippadelli, has a big role with SHR and says that he’d advocate for Briscoe to return to the team for the future.
“Oh, without a doubt,” he said if he’d be an advocate for Briscoe to remain with the team past this season. “I think he is still young and has a lot to learn but I am very, very impressed with how quick he is learning how to race these stock cars. I hope he is a part of Stewart-Haas for a long period of time. He is a good kid and we would love to see him on the other side with us.
“I think the potential is obviously there. You know how it is in this sport. When things are good you have to jump on it and take advantage of it. A couple weeks from now you could lose a little bit and someone else picks up and wins a couple races. You can’t get too confident and certainly can’t get cocky or you will get run over. The people we have been beating every week are working just as hard or harder to catch what Chase is doing and this team is doing. I am very proud of him. He is a good little driver, man. A lot of fun to be around.”
Briscoe though, said that his focus is still on a championship this season and the rest hopefully will take care of itself.
“No, not yet truthfully,” Briscoe said on his 2021 plans. “I’m just trying to still focus on everything this year and how we’ve run these last couple weeks. We need to be running better and that’s been our main focus. Typically, we have our debriefs on Tuesdays and they last 45 minutes. Our debrief today lasted two hours just trying to figure out how to get better. So, that’s our main focus right now.
“I’m not even worried about next year. I’m trying to focus on winning this regular season championship first and then also winning the actual championship. So, we’re putting all of our eggs in those baskets and just trying to do the best that we can. Obviously, if we’re winning races week in and week out, then those Cup talks are gonna take care of themselves and you’re gonna be more valuable to more teams, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
SHR could even look at Jones too if he becomes available. They need to get younger, there’s no doubt. If Jones comes available and there’s an opportunity to bring Briscoe up, I think they do.
That leaves Chip Ganassi Racing. Kurt Busch will be back for what sounds like will be his final year of his contract in 2021. What about the 42 ride? Team Manager Tony Lunders spoke prior to Indy that all options are on the table, including a possibility of Matt Kenseth returning too.
“We wanted to get some races with Matt (Kenseth) under us, kind of build that effort there and see where it took us,” Lunders said. “If Matt decided at some point that he’s enjoying what’s going on and we’re having some success, maybe there’s something more there. But I think the team is more focused on now, being mid-season, and what we need to do to get that car into the playoffs.
“We’re back in the points a little bit and we need to win a race. So, I think our focus is how do we build that group now to try to get towards the playoffs, win a race, and we’ll let the next year stuff take care of itself as the year goes on. Hopefully, the success is there. Certainly, there are others that know that seat is open and would contact us. And that’s all good, but I think our main focus now is just to get the performance and let the rest take care of itself.”
Ross Chastain makes the most sense to finally take over that car, but rumors are Bubba Wallace could land there too. We know Wallace has an offer to stay at Richard Petty Motorsports with a driver/part ownership role. Does he take it? He says he has several offers as RPM, Ganassi and even SHR or HMS make sense for him.
Matt DiBenedetto, Corey LaJoie and Austin Dillon are notable free agents too but there’s no way Dillon leaves RCR.
Austin Cindric was in the running for the Keselowski seat but now that the ride is taken, does he end up with the Wood Brothers or does Penske expand to four cars? If he goes to the Wood Brothers, where does DiBenedetto land?
HMS and SHR would be nice futures for him.
There’s still plenty of time left for silly season to just get wilder.