NASCAR is sitting at the halfway point of the 2020 playoffs heading into the Charlotte Roval this Sunday. While the race for the championship is heating up, the intensity of a drama-filled NASCAR silly season rages on.
There are many rides still vacant for next season and a surplus of drivers on the market. Teams are not short on options, but there might not be many ways to go based on NASCAR’s current climate.
Here are the latest news, rumors, and predictions on what might happen for the rest of NASCAR’s silly season.
What has been announced this week?
In the last week, several organizations have announced moves that will shape their rosters for the 2021 season. Hendrick Motorsports announced that current driver Alex Bowman will take over the No. 48 for seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson starting in 2021. This move allows Bowman to secure a full 36-race sponsorship.
Team Trackhouse, a new team ran by Justin Marks, announced the following day that they will start racing with Daniel Suarez behind the wheel of the No. 99 Chevrolet in 2021. Suarez was rumored to take over the No. 43 car at Richard Petty Motorsports, however, team owner Justin Marks is confident in their ability to compete.
It was then announced early Thursday that Matt DiBenedetto will race for Wood Brothers Racing in 2021, while Austin Cindric will take over the No. 21 Ford Mustang at the start of the 2022 season. DiBenedetto’s amazing race at Talladega may have saved him. The difference next year will be that the 29-year-old California native knows he will be out of a ride at the conclusion of the 2021 season.
What does Hendrick Motorsports do with the vacant No. 88?
After it was announced that Alex Bowman would move to the No. 48 car in 2021, attention shifted to the now vacant No. 88. Bowman has spent the last three seasons in the No. 88, replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. after his retirement at the conclusion of the 2017 season.
All signs point to Kyle Larson taking the fourth spot at Hendrick Motorsports. Whether that is in the No. 5, 25, 57, or 88 is not known. The No. 5 has always been an important number to Hendrick Motorsports, so it wouldn’t be shocking to see it make a return. Larson completed his sensitivity training mandated by NASCAR and has yet to formally apply for reinstatement.
I mentioned before that Hendrick Motorsports cannot drop the ball when it comes to Larson. He is one of the most talented drivers in the world and outperformed the equipment he was given for years. The 28-year-old California native could become the new face of Hendrick Motorsports if things fall correctly.
Prediction: No. 5 – Kyle Larson
Stewart-Haas Racing now has to fill the No. 14 car
Clint Bowyer announced he would retire from full-time racing in the NASCAR Cup Series at the conclusion of the 2020 season. As he begins his new career in the FOX Sports booth, an opportunity opens with Stewart-Haas Racing for next season.
Chase Briscoe is the current favorite to take over the No. 14 Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2021. He has eight wins this year in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and needs sponsorship to work out for him to land the ride. Other names such as Kyle Larson and Erik Jones have been thrown around, however, neither would make much sense for them at this point.
Briscoe is one of best drivers in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and looks Cup ready. If everything continues on this trend, he should be joining the rookie class in 2021.
Prediction: No. 14 – Chase Briscoe
What is going on with JTG Daugherty Racing?
The future for Ryan Preece and JTG Daugherty Racing has been up in the air lately. It was reported Wednesday that JTG Daugherty racing might lease the No. 37 charter to Spire Motorsports. This would’ve been in an effort to get Team Trackhouse that charter for the 2021 season. However, it was said later on in the day that it was not the case yet.
Without the added drama of whether JTG Daugherty Racing is staying at two cars or not, Preece has yet to be informed on their plans for 2021. Preece is currently sitting 29th in the point standings with five races left in the 2020 season. He has not lived up to the standards set for him. If he is not renewed by JTG Daugherty Racing, who could take over the No. 37?
Erik Jones has been one name tossed around in the ring of potential rides. Jones wouldn’t have to bring any sponsorship, which is a positive situation for him. I recently wrote an article that described why Jones would fit perfectly at JTG Daugherty. I still think Jones ends up with the organization, however, Preece returning would not be a surprise.
Prediction: No. 37 – Erik Jones + No. 47 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Will Front Row Motorsports keep their lineup in place?
One of the lesser talked about narratives in this year’s silly season is what Front Row Motorsports will do. They normally do not finalize their lineups early in the season, so to see very little come from them is not surprising. Both Michael McDowell and John Hunter Nemechek are on expiring deals this season.
McDowell and Nemechek have been racing great for the equipment they are given. McDowell has been excited about the organization as they move closer to the NextGen car in 2022. Nemechek is a rookie and turned heads early in the season, before hitting the proverbial “wall.”
McDowell normally races on one-year deals and if Nemechek stays, that should remain the expectation for him. Many people think both of them will be back with Front Row Motorsports next season.
Prediction: No. 34 – Michael McDowell + No. 38 – John Hunter Nemechek
Who might be in contention for Richard Petty Motorsports?
When Bubba Wallace announced he will be joining Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan’s new team in 2021, it left an open spot in Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 car. Many names have been linked to the ride such as Erik Jones, Ty Dillon, and Corey LaJoie.
Daniel Suarez seemed to be an easy plug-in to the ride, but he joined Team Trackhouse. All three drivers should be able to land a ride of some sort for next season. Richard Petty Motorsports may be looking at someone who can bring sponsorship to the team, as Bubba Wallace could be taking the majority of it.
I have Jones going to JTG Daugherty Racing, which means Dillon and LaJoie are two names that pop out. LaJoie should be able to land a decent Cup ride or good Xfinity ride. However, support from Richard Childress Racing could be what gives Dillon, grandson of Richard Childress, the ride for next season.
Prediction: No. 43 – Ty Dillon
Spire Motorsports could hit the jackpot for drivers
Spire Motorsports could land two drivers that would be above the level of their equipment. When Leavine Family Racing sold their charter to them, speculation began to brew over who might take over the second ride. There was no full-time driver in the No. 77 this season, but the expectation is that they will have full-time drivers next year.
With more free agents avaialble, there are more drivers than seats up for grabs. This could create a scenario where a decent or good driver signs with the team that wouldn’t have before. Spire Motorsports is receiving equipment from Hendrick Motorsports next year, which could be an upgrade over this season.
Justin Haley has won in a Spire Motorsports car before and ran many races this year with the organization. Even with him being unsure where his ride will be next year, Haley could be a great building piece. Depending on what JTG Daugherty Racing does, maybe Preece would be a good fit for the organization in the second car. No matter what happens, they are in a good spot.
Prediction: No. 77 – Justin Haley + No. 95(?) – Ryan Preece
Who is Go Fas Racing looking at?
Go Fas Racing finds themselves in a familiar position. First, DiBenedetto decided to take a chance on himself and now GFR finds the same situation with LaJoie. Maybe this could be another starting point for another young driver. It has been mentioned before that Go Fas Racing is looking at a young driver for at least the next two years.
One driver that has been mentioned is Kaz Grala. Current Go Fas Racing driver Corey LaJoie said a few weeks ago that Grala looked to be the front runner for the ride. Considering he is still a part of the organization, that could be telling. Due to the influx of free-agents, there could be competition when it comes to the ride so nothing is definite.
Grala subbed in for Austin Dillon at the Daytona Road Course when he tested positive for COVID-19. He ran an amazing race and finished seventh in his first NASCAR Cup Series start. This could be the small break Grala is looking for to start his NASCAR Cup Series career.
Prediction: No. 32 – Kaz Grala
What *could* be this year’s NASCAR silly season surprise?
Last year it was Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Chris Buescher switching rides that took the mantle of “biggest surprise” in NASCAR’s silly season. This year it could be Bubba Wallace joining Michael Jordan or Kyle Larson still possibly going to Hendrick Motorsports despite his suspension. However, there is one scenario that may land a decent driver in a great spot next year.
Corey LaJoie took a risk when he and Go Fas Racing decided to mutually part ways at the conclusion of the 2020 season. LaJoie took a risk similar to the move done by DiBenedetto a few years earlier. While he might not get a ride capable of truly winning at the Cup level, he could find himself in a really good position in the NASCAR Xfinity Series world.
Briscoe is the favorite to replace Bowyer at Stewart-Haas Racing in the NASCAR Cup Series for 2021. This would leave the No. 98 seat in the NASCAR Xfinity Series open. LaJoie has talked about his desire to prove his worth in NASCAR. If he were to move to a top-tier ride in Xfinity, it could showcase his ability and get him a better ride in 2022. That is one scenario to monitor.
Prediction: No. 98 – Corey LaJoie (NXS)
Ty Gibbs might be bound for the Xfinity Series
This one could be a shocker to many people. Ty Gibbs, grandson of team owner Joe Gibbs, could find himself racing in the No. 18 Monster Energy Toyota Supra in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2021. Riley Herbst has not raced particularly great this year in the ride and might be on the outside looking in.
Gibbs is 18 years old and has yet to race at the top three levels of NASCAR. When Herbst took the ride this season, he had never raced full-time in any of the three series. However, with Gibbs also having Monster as a primary sponsor, the incentive to move him to the No. 18 car is there.
Christian Eckes arguably should get the No. 18 car if Herbst were to leave, but sometimes sponsorship and names mean more. Many people might not agree with the move, but it’s hard to deny that Gibbs is not a talented race car driver. His equipment might be better than the rest in ARCA, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s a good driver.
Prediction: No. 18 – Ty Gibbs (NXS)