The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series driver lineup has the potential to look a lot different than this year’s. But there is a scenario in which not much changes.
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, 16 returned to their respective organizations this year.
The only change was that Stewart-Haas Racing replaced Daniel Suarez with rookie Cole Custer, who had spent three seasons competing for the Stewart-Haas Racing Xfinity Series team. Suarez then signed with Gaunt Brothers Racing.
But next season’s driver lineup, specifically among these five teams, could end up looking quite different than this year’s, as only 11 of the current 17 drivers are under contract for next year, and none of the five teams have lineups that are completely set.
With that being said, just because change could happen, doesn’t mean it will. Let’s scenario without much change. Keep in mind the fact that this is pure speculation and just one possible scenario.
There are only two confirmed changes among these 17 driver lineup spaces. One is the fact that Jimmie Johnson is set to retire after the 2020 season, meaning that Hendrick Motorsports will have a vacancy to fill. The other is Kyle Larson, who was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing after using the N-word in a virtual race. Other than these two confirmed changes, there are six pending free agents at these five teams, and there is a chance that all of them will re-sign.
At the four-car Joe Gibbs Racing team, Erik Jones is the only pending free agent. This was the case last year, and the team extended his deal by a year. The same could very well happen again if Jones does well enough and/or if Joe Gibbs Racing want to give Christopher Bell another year at Leavine Family Racing.
Of course, Leavine Family Racing could end up selling the team, forcing Joe Gibbs Racing to look elsewhere for a new technical alliance. If that doesn’t happen, either Jones or Bell will be out.
At the four-car Stewart-Haas Racing team, Kevin Harvick is the only driver under contract for next year. But Custer is seen as a long-term option, and Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola could both be back again in 2021 after signing one-year extensions late last season.
Stewart-Haas Racing have altered their driver lineup after each of the last four seasons, but there is no guarantee they would do it again if Bowyer and Almirola are deemed to have done well enough and they bring the sponsorship to warrant additional extensions.
At the four-car Hendrick Motorsports team, Alex Bowman had also been a pending free agent, but he re-signed. That brings us to Johnson’s seat. The two most heavily rumored replacement candidates for Johnson had been the other two pending free agents among these teams: Brad Keselowski, who currently competes for the three-car Team Penske organization, and Larson.
Even before Larson’s firing, Keselowski was seen as the more likely option here. In that case, Team Penske, not Hendrick Motorsports, would be the team introducing a new driver to these top-tier teams.
They could have either taken Matt DiBenedetto from the Team Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers Racing or Austin Cindric from their Xfinity Series team. If they had taken DiBenedetto, they could have moved Cindric to his current seat with the Wood Brothers.
But Keselowski has never driven full-time for a team other than Team Penske, and he has now re-signed with the team. Cindric could still be in play for Wood Brothers Racing.
As a result, if Hendrick Motorsports want to run four cars, they will need to look elsewhere, perhaps to the Xfinity Series at a driver such as Chase Briscoe, who competes for Stewart-Haas Racing, if he doesn’t replace Bowyer or Almirola, or at whomever ends up being shown the door from Gibbs and Toyota: Jones or Bell.
The possibilities here include many others as well, but these have been the most discussed.
As far as the vacancy left at Chip Ganassi Racing by Larson’s firing, Matt Kenseth is filling in for the remainder of 2020, but Chip Ganassi has stated that he still has a plan for Ross Chastain. Given the fact that Kenseth is 48 years old and past his prime, Chastain will likely end up there sooner rather than later.
Even if not Chastain, somebody other than Kenseth will likely be behind the wheel of the #42 Chevrolet next year. Other candidates include Front Row Motorsports’ John Hunter Nemechek and Richard Petty Motorsports’ Bubba Wallace.
Regardless, this entire scenario would not entail a ton of driver movement, even though not even two-thirds of the drivers at these five teams actually have contracts to compete next year.
Which drivers will end up with which teams in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season? Will Silly Season, which has potential to be super chaotic, end up being this mundane?