As the NASCAR playoffs are set to begin this weekend at the Darlington (SC) Raceway, that means silly season should start ramping back up again. Several dominoes have started falling. But, several more are still left with Stewart-Haas Racing holding the keys to three seats.
Despite the openings, Greg Zipadelli, Stewart-Haas Racing’s vice president of competition, said Monday that he anticipates keeping the organization’s four-driver roster intact for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season.
SHR currently fields cars for regular-season champion Kevin Harvick, Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Cole Custer, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer — all of whom qualified for the 16-driver playoff field. The contracts for Almirola and Bowyer have been reported to be up after this season. Custer’s is also rumored to be up, but I don’t see them letting him go after one year, especially for how influential his dad is with the company.
“Where we are is kind of one of those things that we kind of keep our laundry in-house, working on them,” Zipadelli said, opting not to delve into specifics about negotiations. “Yes, I do anticipate and (am) excited to hopefully have the same lineup that we do this year back. I know one is very close to done, and we’re working on the other one. I think our guys, our drivers really work well together this year and lean on each other. They’ve all helped Cole a bunch and proud of everybody for that. They’ve showed up ready to race on Sundays and that’s all we can ask.”
If that happens, what do they do with Xfinity Series driver Chase Briscoe?
Briscoe, 25, leads the Xfinity Series with six victories this season. Zipadelli said he was hopeful Briscoe would remain in the fold, and a move to the Cup Series either next year or in 2022 — with either SHR’s lineup or with an affiliated team — was among the options.
“I would say he’s right at that point, whether it’s next year or the year after,” Zipadelli said. “I don’t think it would hurt him to run another year of Xfinity. I don’t know, kind of dependent on how the schedules and what the races are whether it helps him a bunch or not, but right now, we’re trying to weigh out all those options.”
Stewart-Haas Racing has a limited technical alliance with Go Fas Racing, which currently has a vacancy for its No. 32 Ford for the 2021 season. Asked whether Briscoe could fit with Go Fas as a replacement for Corey LaJoie, Zipadelli didn’t rule such a move out.
“I think there are opportunities for all of that,” Zipadelli said. “We haven‘t really talked much about going down that road. I think we‘re just kind of waiting to see how everything pans out and then we‘ll make the decisions which we feel is best for our organization and our drivers.”
This is what Zipadelli said on Briscoe last month.
“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 a few weeks ago 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.”
Briscoe, said he is under contract with Ford for one more year in the final season of a five year contract.
“Yeah, we’re definitely in the middle of that right now,” Mark Rushbrook of Ford said on what to do with Briscoe for next year. “Chase has been outstanding from the day that we signed him through to today and we expect it to continue. He’s performed at all levels and he’s grown and developed both as a driver inside the truck, inside the car in the different series and outside of the car as well.
“So he’s done everything we’ve asked and more and done it really, really well and look forward to his future and getting him into the right Cup car and the right situation. We even had him this last weekend back in an IMSA car, a Mustang GT4 at Road America. Hopefully, that gave him a little bit of seat time to help him in the XFINITY race going back there this weekend, so we’re really high on Chase and support his continued advancement.”
Bowyer, was rumored to be the one on the outs in favor for Briscoe. Prior to the race at Kansas last month, he didn’t sound too optimistic that a return would be offered.
“No, I haven’t really talked to them much about it,” Bowyer said of his contract talks a month 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.”
Bowyer noted that he wants to return to SHR and that he’d love to retire there. Does he get one more shot?
“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,” Bowyer continued in July. “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.”
The dominoes could keep falling but SHR may fold their hand and remain status quo. If that’s so, they need to hope that they can hold onto Briscoe.