NASCAR: 2021 Silly Season still loaded with storylines

Despite recent signings, the upcoming 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Silly Season is absolutely loaded with storylines, specifically within the top teams.

Some say that Silly Season never ends, and in many cases, they are probably correct. Even if it took a brief hiatus due to NASCAR‘s unexpected 10-week break brought on by the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year, it is back in full swing and loaded with storylines.

Following the 2019 season, just one of the 17 drivers who competed at the sport’s top five teams (Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing) was given the boot, with that being Daniel Suarez. Stewart-Haas Racing replaced him behind the wheel of the #41 Ford with rookie Cole Custer.

But as far as the 2021 season is concerned, things are looking to shape up quite a bit differently than they did in 2020.

Just eight of the 17 drivers at these five teams entered the 2020 season with contracts to compete in 2021, and one of those eight, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick, signed an extension just before the season began.

Shortly after the season began, Ryan Blaney extended his deal with Team Penske by several years. But then the season was halted by the pandemic.

Not much happened as far as contracts are concerned during the pandemic, aside of Kyle Larson’s abrupt firing from Chip Ganassi Racing after using a racial slur during a virtual race on iRacing which was being livestreamed on multiple Twitch channels. He was replaced by Matt Kenseth.

Aside from that, the only big move that took place during NASCAR’s 10-week hiatus was Hendrick Motorsports’ extension of Alex Bowman through 2021, although that deal notably did not confirm that he would still drive the #88 Chevrolet next year.

The #48 Chevrolet is also set to be open next year, as seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is set to retire after the season, and depending on sponsorship and who Hendrick Motorsports bring on as his replacement, Bowman could potentially move to the #48 team and a new driver could replace him at the #88 team. That remains to be seen.

Since then, the only confirmation has been that Brad Keselowski is set to return to Team Penske behind the wheel of the #2 Ford in 2021.

There are several other things to watch for as Silly Season progresses. The most straightforward situation is probably that of Chip Ganassi Racing. Kurt Busch is already under contract through 2021. But is Kenseth really a long-term option? That is very doubtful.

Chip Ganassi has already said that the team have plans for Ross Chastain, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he ends up behind the wheel of the #42 Chevrolet next year. Also don’t sleep on Front Row Motorsports’ John Hunter Nemechek, given his past ties to the team, and don’t forget about Richard Petty Motorsports’ Bubba Wallace, either.

Another team with a fairly straightforward situation is Joe Gibbs Racing. Of their four drivers, Erik Jones is the only one without a contract to compete next year. The problem is that Leavine Family Racing’s Christopher Bell is waiting in the wings, and Toyota may not be able to retain both, especially given the financial struggles the pandemic forced upon Bob Leavine’s small organization.

They may end up being forced to sell the team. Should that happen, Jones or Bell would likely be forced out, unless Joe Gibbs Racing end up forming a technical alliance with another small organization.

As for the other three teams, that’s where things start to get complicated.

As noted, Hendrick Motorsports may opt to move Bowman to the #48 team, if necessary. With three drivers under contract for next year, that leaves them with one seat to fill, and there have been several names thrown around to replace Johnson in their four-car lineup, including Jones and Bell.

Keselowski had been the most notable name discussed for Hendrick Motorsports, but with him re-signing with Team Penske, Rick Hendrick’s team will be forced to look elsewhere. Could they choose to move forward with only three cars?

Speaking of Team Penske, their three-car driver lineup is now set with Keselowski having re-signed. Will they keep operating at three cars, or will they expand to four?

Both options make sense.

Wood Brothers Racing have had a technical alliance with Roger Penske’s team for six years, and Matt DiBenedetto is driving for them on a one-year deal. If he does not return, that could free up a spot for Xfinity Series driver Austin Cindric with the Wood Brothers, assuming Penske doesn’t promote him straight to his three-car outfit at some point.

If he does return, could Team Penske promote Cindric in a fourth car, or will they keep him at the sport’s second highest level for at least another year? Either move would be justifiable, given the success he has had as the points leader through the first 17 races of the 2020 season, but the most likely option would be both DiBenedetto and Cindric staying put.

That leaves Stewart-Haas Racing, which, as usual, are the team with the largest amount of uncertainty. Not only were they the only team (of the top five) to alter their driver lineup after the 2019 season; they have now made one change after each of the last four years.

And any driver aside of Harvick or Cole Custer could be the next man out. The former signed an extension before the 2020 season, while the latter’s future with the team really hasn’t been questioned since he is a rookie race winner.

Clint Bowyer recently spoke with Beyond the Flag and told us that a move to the broadcast booth after his career “damn sure ain’t gonna be any time soon”, and for the sake of many fans, that is good news. But that doesn’t guarantee an extension.

As for Aric Almirola, his future is also far from clear. Almirola’s sponsorship from Smithfield has played a huge role throughout his career. While he hasn’t been able to win a race since 2018, he has improved as of late, reeling off five consecutive top five finishes at one point and 10 straight top 10 finishes going back to mid-June.

If Stewart-Haas Racing do make another change, which seems almost inevitable given their recent trend, who would they hire?

One option is LaJoie, given his experience and his position at Go Fas Racing, which formed a technical alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing ahead of the 2020 season.

That could free up a spot for Chase Briscoe, their Xfinity Series driver, with Archie St. Hilaire’s team, assuming he doesn’t get promoted straight to the four-car outfit like Custer did this season — another possibility. Again, Jones and Bell could potentially enter the mix as well.

And what about Larson? While he remains indefinitely suspended by NASCAR, a return to the Cup Series with Stewart-Haas Racing makes by far the most sense if he is to return, given that Tony Stewart tried to sign him several years ago, only to be unable to do so based on Larson’s contract with Chip Ganassi Racing at the time.

Several drivers who entered the 2020 NASCAR Cup a Series season as notable pending free agents are already off the market, but there are still many big storylines to watch as this year’s Silly Season progresses.