NASCAR: The key puzzle pieces of Silly Season

While there haven’t been any big NASCAR Cup Series contracts announced since May, Silly Season for the 2021 season is already looking like a crazy one. Who and what are the key puzzle pieces?

The changes in the driver lineup between the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season and the 2021 season have the potential to be much more dramatic than they were from the 2019 season to the 2020 season.

Looking at the big teams alone, 16 of the 17 drivers who competed for Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing last year returned to their respective teams for the 2020 season.

The only change was at Stewart-Haas Racing, where rookie Cole Custer replaced Daniel Suarez, and Stewart-Haas Racing have altered their lineup in some way after each of the last four seasons.

But only 10 of these 17 drivers are under contract for the 2021 season, and only two of these 10 drivers signed a new deal following the start of the 2020 season.

Those two drivers are Ryan Blaney, who signed a multi-year extension with Team Penske back in early March, and Alex Bowman, who signed a one-year extension with Hendrick Motorsports in mid-May.

All five of these teams still have drivers whose contracts are set to expire at the end of the season, which could lead to quite a bit of driver movement, especially since several other drivers who do not currently compete for these teams could seek deals with them.

Kyle Larson had been slated to be one of the hottest free agents on the market, arguably the hottest with Blaney locked up with Roger Penske’s organization for the foreseeable future. Technically he still is, given that he is out of a ride for next year, but it did not happen as expected.

He was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing after using the N-word during a virtual race at Autodromo Nazionale Monza on iRacing, leaving the #42 Chevrolet without a driver. The team selected 2003 champion Matt Kenseth to replace him for the rest of the 2020 season, but the 48-year-old is nowhere near being a long-term answer for Chip Ganassi’s team.

Will Ross Chastain get the chance that many thought he would get as Larson’s replacement this year?

As for the other four teams, there is only one that will undoubtedly see a lineup chance: Hendrick Motorsports. That is because seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson announced that he is set to retire at the end of the 2020 season.

Yes, he did admit that those plans could change depending on how the season pans out with the coronavirus pandemic, but in all likelihood, the #48 Chevrolet will need a new driver.

Fortunately for Hendrick Motorsports, they are in an optimal position, as they can effectively pick the best driver available. Ally Financial recently signed a multi-year extension to serve as the car’s full-time primary sponsor through the 2023 season.

As noted, Bowman has already signed a contract extension to return next year. But perhaps a move to the #48 team could be in the cards of Rick Hendrick finds a viable replacement for Johnson who comes with additional sponsorship money.

Could that driver be Brad Keselowski, who has never competed full-time for a team other than Team Penske? He is now the only one of Roger Penske’s three drivers without a contract for next year, and there is mounting speculation that he won’t be back with the team next year.

With Larson effectively out of the picture for Hendrick’s team, even before the racial slur incident, Keselowski has become the favorite to replace Johnson, although several other drivers have been mentioned as well.

Keselowski leaving Team Penske would set off its own chain reaction. The team have a technical alliance with Wood Brothers Racing, where Matt DiBenedetto currently competes.

He would be the easy pick to replace the 2012 champion, which would allow Team Penske to promote Xfinity Series driver Austin Cindric, the son of team president Tim Cindric, to the Cup Series with the Wood Brothers. Or, perhaps he could directly replace Keselowski, although the first scenario makes more sense from a driver development standpoint.

That leaves two more of the top teams: Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing. Joe Gibbs Racing’s situation is fairly straight forward. Of their four drivers, only Erik Jones doesn’t have some kind of deal in place for next year. If he doesn’t have his contract extended, he will likely be replaced by Christopher Bell.

Bell is currently in his rookie season driving for Leavine Family Racing, which have a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. Bell is tied to the Gibbs organization and Toyota through at least next year on a “multi-year deal”, but he is not tied to a specific team.

Bell replacing Jones could move Jones out of the Toyota camp, and it could allow Joe Gibbs Racing to promote Xfinity Series driver Harrison Burton to the Cup Series with Bob Leavine’s organization, assuming they are able to overcome their financial struggles caused by the pandemic and return to the sport in 2021.

That leaves us with Stewart-Haas Racing, which have just one of their four drivers under contract for next year. They have not kept their driver lineup the same from one year to the next since from 2015 to 2016, so to say that some kind of change is likely is a bit of an understatement.

Admittedly, rookie Cole Custer is seen as a long-term option for the team. He will likely join Kevin Harvick again next year. But Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola are both driving for the team on one-year extensions after 2019 seasons that left a lot to be desired.

After they both qualified for the round of 8 with a combined three wins in 2018, they went winless in 2019 and were among the final three drivers to qualify for the playoffs. While they have both been strong to start the 2020 season, they are both still looking to find victory lane for the first time since 2018.

If Stewart-Haas Racing switch up their lineup next year, they will have a plethora of options to choose from on the outside. They have been talked about as the most realistic option for a potential Larson return, given Tony Stewart’s ties to the former Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

But even if that isn’t feasible, look no further than their Xfinity Series team and the Cup Series team with which they have a technical alliance, Go Fas Racing. Chase Briscoe competes in the former and Corey LaJoie competes in the latter. If Joe Gibbs Racing end up releasing Jones, he could fit in well here as well.

There are still plenty of puzzle pieces that are not in place when it comes to the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, even with Ryan Blaney having signed a long-term extension, with Alex Bowman having signed a one-year extension and with Kyle Larson unexpectedly finding his NASCAR future in jeopardy. Even with these three drivers having been considered the top three pending free agents, things still have the potential to become chaotic.