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By Jordan Bianchi Jul 31, 2020 * (Re-Print) Published by The Athletic

When the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season began, one of the predominant story lines was expected to be an active silly season involving several prominent drivers and high-profile organizations. Yet given the bigger issues that have ensnared the spotlight, free agency has taken a backseat since NASCAR returned in mid-May from a 10-week hiatus induced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Silly season is now starting ramp up again as the calendar turns to August, with drivers and teams beginning to sort through what they’re going to do for 2021. But several unknowns have complicated matters, changing the landscape considerably from where it was in the spring. The biggest hurdle facing the industry is one that is often the hardest to clear: money. Specifically, a potential lack thereof.

The downturn in the economy has left teams facing potential budget crunches as many sponsors need to scale back their financial commitments or reallocate marketing dollars outside of motorsports. And with teams having to adapt to this reality, they are seeking ways to decrease expenditures, creating a suppressed marketplace where star drivers, who otherwise may have been expecting a big payday, are facing the prospect of settling for cut-rate deals if they want to sign with a competitive team.

Such uncertainty has left teams and drivers in a tenuous position, trying to plan for the future yet not knowing enough of the particulars to adequately do so. One resolution might see teams lean on one-year contracts, according to multiple industry sources that spoke to The Athletic. Such deals would be seen as a way to bridge to 2022 with the hope of finding clarity in how much teams can allocate toward driver contracts and the state of the economy, therefore giving them a clearer picture of their financial stability.

With the understanding that there is more unknown than definitively known about silly season right now, here is a primer on where things currently stand for several of the key players:

Brad Keselowski

Unquestionably the biggest name on the market, Keselowski is a difference-maker no matter which team he’s on. That he will be only 37 and entering his prime years only enhances his value.

What team will sign Keselowski is an oft-asked question that doesn’t have a definitive answer. At one time he was considered one of the favorites to replace the retiring Jimmie Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports, but the steam on him reuniting with the organization where he debuted in Cup over a decade ago (2008) has diminished considerably amid concerns if he’s the right fit for the organization. Signing with Hendrick is now considered unlikely.

If Keselowski wants to give himself the best chance to win a second championship, then re-upping with Penske is the best bet, a move that makes sense for both sides.

“It’s a work in progress,” Keselowski said of his contract negotiations on July 24. “The good thing is there’s progress. But nothing is done until it’s done. I feel very hopeful.”

Things get interesting, however, if a return to Penske doesn’t come to fruition; there aren’t many teams that have the resources to match his ability. Chip Ganassi Racing is one option that has been floated, though this would require a sizeable financial commitment from CGR and Keselowski would need to be willing to join a team that isn’t at the level of the one he’s currently with.

Erik Jones

The talent Erik Jones possesses is obvious; it’s why he’s regarded as a future superstar by many within the garage. But now in his fourth full-time season, the 24-year-old has yet to reach that level and there is increasing pressure for him to fulfill the expectation that comes with being a driver for Joe Gibbs Racing. Plagued by inconsistency, Jones is currently below the provisional playoff cutoff, trailing William Byron by 12 points with seven regular-season races remaining.

“It’s a performance industry and we’ve been able to make the playoffs the last two years,” Jones said. “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.”

The position Jones finds himself is not dissimilar to the one he was in a year ago at this time, when he had an expiring contract. At that time, JGR and Toyota wanted to re-sign him but also had to sort through whether it had room on its roster, needing to also accommodate promising prospect Christopher Bell. That dilemma was resolved when Bell was farmed out to Leavine Family Racing and Jones signed a one-year extension.

This go-round, Jones’ future with JGR again involves Bell. LFR is evaluating its options for 2021 and based on what team owner Bob Leavine decides, JGR and Toyota again could need to find a spot for Bell. Were this scenario to come to fruition, one option is for Bell to replace Jones. It’s an option of last resort — both JGR and Toyota think highly of Jones and do not want to see him leave. Nonetheless, it is on the table.

“What makes our sport so unique is we don’t have a bench, so it’s not like we’re a football team where we can draft five quarterbacks and just hold them,” JGR president Dave Alpern said on Wednesday. “It’s all timing. It’s sponsorship, it’s other driver contracts, it’s how many seats do you have. And the pieces of that, there are literally a dozen of them in every decision and often you start checking them off one at a time.

“We have many of those other boxes that still need to be checked.”

Should Jones need to explore opportunities elsewhere, he’ll have viable options. His name has been frequently linked with Hendrick, where he’d be Johnson’s successor. And sources have told The Athletic that other notable teams are keeping tabs on how Jones’ situation unfolds.

Clint Bowyer

There will be a time when Clint Bowyer retires and transitions to the Fox Sports broadcast booth, where he’ll become a popular analyst. When that career change occurs has been a source of frequent speculation over the past few years, but Bowyer left no doubt he doesn’t want it to happen soon.

“I’m a race car driver, man,” Bowyer said July 20. “I love doing the broadcasts and things like that but I think that time will come and I don’t know when that’ll be. I want to race and I want to be in a race car. I love competing. I love being pissed off at the end of the race. I love being happy at the end of the race. I love that adrenaline of lining up next to that guy and wondering how in the hell you’re going to come off the Turn 2 ahead of him and that’s a feeling that can’t be replaced.”

While Bowyer wants to remain a driver, the question is: Will it be with Stewart-Haas Racing? The team co-owned by Gene Haas and Tony Stewart has decisions to make regarding its roster with both Bowyer and Aric Almirola pending free agents. Almirola is expected to re-sign, though the same thing cannot be definitively said about Bowyer.

If SHR decides to move on from Bowyer or should he price himself out of a ride, the No. 1 replacement is obvious. Waiting in the wings is Xfinity Series standout Chase Briscoe, whose five wins are tops in the second-tier tour and who has shown he’s ready for a promotion to NASCAR’s top level. That’s a nice fallback option for SHR to have, especially since Briscoe would be a cheaper alternative than Bowyer and likely would generate the same level of production, if not better.

Bubba Wallace

The majority of the attention Bubba Wallace has received this season is due to his social activism. Those efforts, understandably, have overshadowed what he’s done on the track, where the 26-year-old is turning in the best season of his career. That he’s doing this with a Richard Petty Motorsports team that lacks an abundance of resources and funding only further enhances what Wallace is accomplishing.

It makes sense for Wallace to be inclined to see about signing with a more competitive team. And this, according to sources, is currently taking place.

RPM offered Wallace an extension in the spring, but that contract remains unsigned with Wallace continuing to explore all his options, multiple sources tell The Athletic. However, jumping to an improved situation hasn’t yet materialized. Though Hendrick and CGR have shown some level of interest, neither is considered likely to sign him. The expectation is that when silly season concludes, Wallace will remain the driver of the No. 43 RPM car.

Matt DiBenedetto

When Paul Menard announced his retirement last fall, he encouraged Wood Brothers Racing to sign Matt DiBenedetto. The team took that advice and signed DiBenedetto to a one-year contract, effectively a “prove it” deal to demonstrate he was worthy of being with a team that gets its cars from Penske and can win races under the right circumstances.

DiBenedetto has certainly shown he’s deserving of the opportunity. He’s well surpassing what Menard did driving the iconic No. 21 Ford and currently has the Wood Brothers positioned to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017. That may be enough to ensure that DiBenedetto returns to the Wood Brothers next year.

Sponsorship is going to factor heavily on who is driving this car in 2021. Menards’ contract to serve as the Wood Brothers’ primary sponsor is also up at the end of the season. And should Menards not re-up, the team may have little recourse but to look for someone who can bring funding. Nor can it be ignored that Ford may see this as a way to elevate Briscoe to Cup.

On July 14, team co-owner Eddie Wood said contract negotiations with DiBenedetto had not started.

Kyle Larson

It wasn’t too long ago Kyle Larson was considered the big fish in the silly season pond. A lot has changed, and Larson is serving an indefinite suspension for uttering a racial slur during an iRacing event in April.

During his NASCAR suspension, Larson has been competing on dirt tracks throughout the country, flashing the talent that made so many top-tier NASCAR teams covet his services. He’s won 20 of the last 34 races he’s entered, according to NBC Sports.

After Larson’s initial suspension there were questions whether he’d seek a return to NASCAR, or perhaps choose to focus on his passion for sprint car racing. But Larson said in an interview with MRN Winged Nation earlier this week that a NASCAR comeback is something he’s interested in should the right opportunity arise.

“There’s a lot to weigh and stuff, and there’s nothing that’s come up, either, so I haven’t had to make too many tough decisions or anything like that,” Larson said. “But definitely if the opportunity was there, I’d love to give it a shot to get back and prove to the NASCAR world that I am a great race car driver, and I know if I got the right opportunity, I could win a lot of races like I am right now.”

Larson’s talent is going to be hard for a NASCAR team to ignore and eventually an organization will pursue him. It will happen, it’s just a matter of when.

So will this be the silly season when this transpires? There is no indication that a NASCAR organization is preparing to make a run at Larson. Such a transaction would necessitate that several hurdles be cleared, including NASCAR lifting its suspension, the team assuaging sponsors’ concerns and Larson demonstrating that he’s learned from his mistake.

As Larson stated, any return to NASCAR is predicated on the right situation where he could consistently challenge for wins. That would seemingly eliminate an image-consciousness organization like Hendrick.

The right spot for Larson may be the team that was considered the favorite to sign him when silly season began — SHR. An opportunity to join SHR would fulfill Larson’s requirements on the competition side. And because Haas self-sponsors a car through his own company, any concerns a primary sponsor might have about being associated with Larson would be mitigated.

With SHR potentially having two openings (the 10 and 14), this scenario cannot be discounted. Last month, RACER’s Robin Miller reported that he spoke to Stewart and he was receptive to the idea.

Matt Kenseth

When Chip Ganassi surprisingly tabbed Matt Kenseth to replace the fired Larson, neither owner nor driver would comment on Kenseth continuing with CGR past this season.

Off the track, Kenseth has helped smooth over the ripples created by Larson’s insensitive remark. On the track, Kenseth has struggled to replicate Larson’s production. His average finish is 8.5 positions worse than Larson from Larson’s four starts this season, and Kenseth has lacked consistency.

It may be tough for Ganassi to overlook Kenseth’s shortcomings on the track and resist going after a driver who can better match what teammate Kurt Busch is doing each week — Busch has the third-most top-10 finishes this season behind Kevin Harvick and Keselowski. But as of now, there is no indication that Kenseth won’t return to CGR in 2021.

Other names to watch during silly season: Ross Chastain, Austin Cindric, Corey LaJoie, Michael McDowell, John Hunter Nemechek, Ryan Preece, Tyler Reddick.

(Photo: Jeffrey Vest / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

 

 

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