Free agent market a strong one for next season in NASCAR, how it could shape the future of this sport too

Silly Season is getting started earlier and earlier each year. In fact, some would say it’s already begun. Denny Hamlin just signed a new contract to remain with Joe Gibbs Racing on a multi-year deal to keep him in the seat of the No. 11 Toyota.

But, when scanning through the list of prospective free agents still, you’d see that NASCAR is very much in a transition year for 2021.

A new car comes out next season. The schedule was overhauled which features a total of seven road courses now too. Plus, there’s been plenty of driver movement lately as well with more obviously coming between now and this time next year.

This free agent class though will shape the future of this sport. See, you have a wide range of veterans that have contracts that are up past this season. Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola and Ryan Newman all don’t have rides for 2022. Do they come back?

They could follow recent drivers like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards out the door and into retirement. With the trend of NASCAR seats getting younger and younger, is there any room for these drivers anymore?

In the case for Busch, Truex and Newman, all are over the age of 40 right now. Truex, will be 41 in June. Busch, will be 43 in August while Newman just turned 43 this past December.

Keselowski is about to be 37 while Almirola will be 37 next month.

Is there a value for a race team for these veterans anymore?

TALLADEGA, AL – APRIL 28: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 Mountain Dew/Little Caesar’s Chevrolet, and Aric Almirola, driver of the #10 Smithfield Ford, lead Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, and Alex Bowman, driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 28, 2019 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Then, factor in a class that also features Austin Dillon, Alex Bowman, Matt DiBenedetto, Chris Buescher, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ryan Preece, would it be wise to go with someone from this list?

What about snagging an Xfinity Series driver like Noah Gragson, Daniel Hemric, Ty Dillon, Harrison Burton, Justin Haley, Brandon Jones or someone like them. Or even Brett Moffitt too.

This day and age is all about getting younger and younger and that’s for a good reason. They’re just as fast but will also come cheaper. With that said, that’s also a two fold proposition though according to Keselowski. While them taking far less money hurts a veterans market value, the fact that they’re still not winning races also helps put the favor back in the hands of a veteran too.

“I think there’s been obviously a fair amount of not just talk on the media side but actual movement within the sport of the car owners transitioning to younger and, quite frankly, less compensated drivers and I think in some ways that’s been really good for me and in some ways that’s been really bad for me,” said Keselowski. “It’s obviously bad because it lowers the market. But, it’s also been good because, quite frankly, they’re not winning and if you want to win races it’s pretty clear there are only about six drivers that can consistently win multiple races in Cup, and it’s nice to be on that list. 

“I think I’ve won multiple races the last five or six seasons, so I feel good about going out there and my ability to do that again in 2021. I think if I focus on performing the way the market is right now, and there only being a very select few amount of drivers that can consistently win multiple races, I feel like it’ll take care of itself.”

He’s right in the sense that while the Young Guns path is coming, it’s not taken over yet. Drivers into their 30’s are still dominating in NASCAR’s premiere series at this point.

Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Truex Jr., Keselowski and Hamlin have dominated seasons lately. But, you can see it coming with the young drivers on the horizon of taking this sport over.

Joey Logano won the championship in 2018 as a 28 year old. Chase Elliott did the same last year as a 24 year old. Logano, is only 30 now and Elliott just turned 25 this past offseason. They’re here now.

You factor in Ryan Blaney who’s 26 with Logano and Penske has their future solidified. Austin Cindric is moving up next season to the Wood Brothers and he’s only 22. He’ll eventually be over at Penske. That’s their future.

Is Keselowski just a stop gap between this move?

Hendrick Motorsports seems set now with all four drivers 28 years of age or younger. Bowman, is only 27 and he’s been a playoff contender in each of the last few years. He’s starting to come in on his own and I would think they’d give him an extension at some point this year.

Stewart-Haas Racing is also starting to change over. Bowyer is out now. Almirola is 36 and while he’s having solid seasons, he’s not a championship threat either. Cole Custer (23 years old) and Chase Briscoe (26 years old) are their future and already up to Cup. Is there a market for Almirola to come back either or do they keep the trend of going younger and cheaper?

See, if Keselowski and/or Almirola want to come back again to their respective teams, they’d have to do so likely on one year contract deals. The price tag each year keeps going down when it should in all reality be going up.

Imagine doing your job to the fullest and performing every task that you’re asked to do by your boss. When it’s time to review your year and get a bonus for the next year, imagine your boss asking you to take less money.

Wouldn’t you feel jaded?

Money now isn’t like it used to be a decade ago in NASCAR. Keselowski most certainly had to have taken a large paycut between now and say 2013. Is that fair?

If he wants to drive for a top team, that’s the business model right now. So, he has to suck it up and keep moving. That’s what he’s meaning by this as these teams will just take someone younger and cheaper to replace you with.

JGR is also in an interesting predicament. Hamlin just re-signed and is 40. Kyle Busch will be 36 in May. Christopher Bell is new to the Cup side. Do they bring back Truex but miss out on a future Toyota driver? They can’t keep losing future stars to other manufacturers.

They’re not getting rid of Hamlin, Bell or Busch any time soon. Is Truex a stop gap for Burton coming up?

Then you have someone like Kurt Busch. He’s tested that 2022 car. He’d like to come back to see that car out, but is the market there for him to come back to Ganassi? With how things are looking at other teams, would they sign a veteran like Busch or go younger too?

That’s why this season and how it plays out is going to be interesting to this future. It affects driver contracts moving forward and with the quality of rides available, it could shape the future on that front too.

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