Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, and Kurt Busch are former Cup Series champions with a combined 90 wins and credentials of future first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famers. Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, and William Byron are three of the sport’s rising stars, possessing the kind of talent that owners covet.
These are six of the major players in what is shaping up to be a seismic Silly Season in which some of NASCAR’s most prominent teams will shuffle their driver lineups. Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Furniture Row Racing will each have at least one new addition to their rosters in 2018, with potential openings at Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske.
The first big domino was Dale Earnhardt Jr. announcing in April he would retire from full-time competition at the end of the current season, followed by Kenseth revealing last week he wouldn’t return to JGR in 2018. On Tuesday, Jones was named by JGR to fill the seat of the No. 20 car that Kenseth previously occupied.
Which driver may potentially move to a different team is continually shifting on almost a daily basis. With many teams operating on reduced budgets due to a lack of sponsorship, organizations are hesitant to commit to a driver before sponsorship is secure, further muddying an already fluid situation. All that’s certain is there will be much change ahead.
Where Kenseth ends up is largely dependent on Hendrick and whether the team decides to promote Byron after just a single year in the Xfinity Series or have him continue to develop before moving up the 19-year-old. If Hendrick elects to keep Byron in Xfinity, Kenseth is the perfect stopgap to replace Earnhardt on a one-year basis, giving the No. 88 team a driver who can compete for wins and a playoff berth before giving way to Byron in 2019.
If Hendrick goes in a different direction, Kenseth suddenly finds himself without any attractive options unless SHR can find some additional sponsorship. Barring that, Kenseth would have to decide between joining a lesser team or stepping away with the hope that something more attractive eventually opens up.
At the beginning of the season, it seemed a foregone conclusion Keselowski would re-sign with Penske, where he’s been since 2009 and won a Cup title three years later. Negotiations remain ongoing, though, believed to be complicated by Keselowski’s desire to have increased manufacturer support for his Truck Series team and interest in rejoining Hendrick — whether that interest is real or merely a negotiating tactic is up for debate.
Ultimately, Keselowski is expected to stay with Penske. The two sides are “close to a new deal,” multiple sources told SB Nation.
The 21-year-old is no longer on the market after JGR’s announcement Tuesday. However, his leaving FRR opens up an attractive ride with the same equipment Martin Truex Jr. has taken to three wins and the Cup Series points lead.
SHR holds an option on Busch’s contract, and co-owners Tony Stewart and Gene Haas exercising it largely hinges on whether Monster Energy continues to serve as an anchor sponsor for Busch’s No. 41 team. To varying degrees, Haas is already funding out of his own pocket the teams of Busch, Clint Bowyer, and Danica Patrick, and there is speculation SHR could downsize to three cars if the appropriate sponsorship cannot be found to relieve the burden.
If Busch were to leave, FRR becomes the frontrunner to land the 2017 Daytona 500 winner where he’d replace Jones. Busch had a successful one-year stint with the team in 2013 and the organization is even better situated than it was then, an enticing prospect for a driver who at age 38 is still capable of contending for a second championship
The Hendrick camp is split on what to do with Byron, multiple sources confirmed to SB Nation. There are some who feel Byron is a prodigy in the mold of Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott and is ready for Cup despite having limited experience. Others within the team feel there is no hurry to push Byron and that another year in NASCAR’s second-tier division will only help.
Another factor at play is Axalta, which sponsors both Earnhardt’s team and Byron’s Xfinity team. The company is intrigued by having him as Earnhardt’s immediate successor and is lobbying Hendrick to elevate him to Cup next season.
Team owner Roger Penske told USA Today he wants to bring Blaney in-house after a three-year loan to Wood Brothers Racing. If Keselowski re-signs as expected, that would mean Team Penske expanding to three cars to accommodate Blaney, whose name has also been speculated as a possible Earnhardt replacement at Hendrick.
But were Keselowski to depart, Blaney then becomes the driver of the No. 2 car — a move sponsor Miller wouldn’t object to as the 23-year-old is an ideal spokesman for the adult beverage thanks to his youth and fun-loving way of life. Regardless, Blaney is likely racing a Penske-owned car next season.
With the results absent and Patrick no longer bringing in substantial sponsorship dollars, her future with SHR is in serious doubt. Her contract expires at the end of the season, and for Patrick to return, additional sponsorship is needed, which could be tough considering she no longer moves the marketing needle like she once did.
What Patrick would do if she and SHR separates is unknown. With a new clothing line launched and a fitness book due out in January, Patrick looking outside racing becomes a realistic proposition.
Unless circumstances radically change, Kahne’s tenure with Hendrick will come to an end with his 2018 option not being picked up. A change of scenery would do Kahne good, and a midsized organization could greatly improve itself by signing the 17-time Cup race-winner who, at 37, still has many good years left.
Earnhardt has advocated for Bowman to replace him publicly, and though Byron is the favorite to drive the No. 88 next season, Bowman remains a viable option.
If Bowman were to be passed over, he may not remain sidelined. Hendrick could select him to replace Kahne as a cost-effective alternative, balancing out whatever money Kahne would be owned as part of his buyout. And if Byron gets the bump to Cup, Bowman is seen by many within the company as Byron’s replacement in the Xfinity car co-owned by Earnhardt, his sister, and Rick Hendrick.
NASCAR’s white whale who a lot of upper-echelon teams would love to sign, Edwards has given no indication he’s going to give up the Missouri farm life to return to racing on a full-time basis.
With backing from his family-owned home improvement chain, Menard isn’t lacking sponsorship. That places him in a favorable position where he has more suitors than a driver with just a single win in 382 Cup starts would have otherwise.
What Menard won’t be doing is returning to Richard Childress Racing, which will subsequently contract from three cars to two and has already begun layoffs. Menard’s likely destination is either Penske (Menard sponsors one of Penske’s IndyCar Series teams), which could add a fourth car if Blaney also slides over, or the Wood Brothers as Blaney’s replacement.
The second-year driver was loaned by Roush Fenway Racing to JTG Daugherty Racing this season, and that relationship will continue into 2018, Buescher said Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.