With so few drivers under contract with NASCAR’s top teams for the 2021 Cup Series season, the driver lineup could see plenty of changes heading into next year.
Compared to what the upcoming Silly Season could hold, last year’s did not feature much driver moment. Of the 17 drivers who competed for either Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing in the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series season, only one was replaced ahead of the 2020 season.
That one driver, Daniel Suarez, signed with Gaunt Brothers Racing after he was replaced at Stewart-Haas Racing by rookie Cole Custer, who spent three seasons competing for Stewart-Haas Racing’s Xfinity Series team.
But this Silly Season, there is the potential for far more change, as none of these five teams have solidified their entire driver lineups for next year, and only 11 of the 17 drivers are under contract for next year.
Let’s take a look at a very real scenario that involves basically as much driver as possible.
Note that everything discussed below in regard to changes is pure speculation and just one possible scenario.
Joe Gibbs Racing have only one pending free agent in Erik Jones. But they have Christopher Bell waiting in the wings at Leavine Family Racing, ready to join the four-car team if need be. Bell moves to the #20 Toyota in 2021, replacing Jones. As for Stewart-Haas Racing, they are the only team to make a chance to their driver lineup from last year, and they have now altered their lineup after four straight years. During these four years, however, they have never made more than one change. With only one of their four drivers under contract for 2021, expect more than one change this year.
Kyle Larson was Chip Ganassi Racing’s lone pending free agent before he was abruptly fired after using a racial slur during an iRacing event. But there is a very real possibility that he returns to NASCAR next year, despite the fact that he currently faces a future that is beyond uncertain. If he does, keep an eye on one team in particular.
Larson does what Tony Stewart wanted him to do in 2017 and moves to the #14 Ford, replacing Clint Bowyer. Ross Chastain replaces Larson behind the wheel of the #42 Chevrolet alongside Kurt Busch at Chip Ganassi Racing.
Custer stays with the team, but Aric Almirola, also under contract through only 2020, is replaced by Jones. Corey LaJoie, who currently competes for Go Fas Racing, is replaced by current Stewart-Haas Racing Xfinity Series driver Chase Briscoe, due to the technical alliance between the two teams.
With Larson off the table, the replacement for Jimmie Johnson seemed clear: Brad Keselowski, who had been Team Penske’s lone pending free agent. However, he just re-signed with Roger Penske’s team, so the #48 Chevrolet remains open.
Hendrick Motorsports already managed to re-sign Alex Bowman to avoid overhauling half of their four-car lineup for the second time in four years. He moves to the #48 Chevrolet with Ally Financial having already signed a contract to fund the team through the 2023 season.
Team Penske don’t make any changes at their three-car squad, but Wood Brothers Racing’s technical alliance with the team comes into play. They move Xfinity Series driver Austin Cindric to the #21 Ford as the replacement for Matt DiBenedetto, while DiBenedetto moves to the #88 Chevrolet to replace Bowman (technically as Johnson’s replacement).
As for other notable moves, Bubba Wallace sticks around with Richard Petty Motorsports after accepting an ownership stake in the team, despite speculation that he would move to Chip Ganassi Racing or Hendrick Motorsports.
Which drivers will end up competing for which teams in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season? Will the upcoming Silly Season live up to the hype and provide tons of driver movement?