Getting up to speed on NASCAR free agency

Free agency in sports is always a fun time. Just look at the NBA. Some are arguing that the offseason and all these big names moving to new teams has been more entertaining than the regular and postseason. We’re intrigued by stars in sports bouncing from team to team looking to further themselves, wearing different jerseys and playing in different cities.

But in NASCAR, free agency doesn’t happen in the offseason. It happens during the season. In fact, we even have our own terminology for the free agent frenzy that occurs almost every year in NASCAR: Silly Season. And in 2017 leading into 2018, it’s been real silly.

Big names are moving on to bigger teams, other drivers are taking their talents to the broadcast booth and some drivers don’t know what they’re doing next season more than halfway through the season. It might be a lot of keep track of. But have no fear: that’s why I’m here to help you.

Let’s take a look at who is landing where for the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season and what it means in the grand scheme of things.


DALE EARNHARDT JR.

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The sport’s most popular driver for almost two decades is retiring at the end of this season. We knew that back in April. But we didn’t know what he was going to be doing as soon as he climbed out of his No. 88 Chevrolet at Homestead-Miami Speedway—and now we do.

Earnhardt will be following in the footsteps of his former teammate Jeff Gordon and becoming a broadcaster for NBC. He recently signed a contract with the television network that will take effect in January 2018. The belief is that Earnhardt will be calling MENCS races in the broadcast booth with play-by-play man Rick Allen and his former crew chief Steve Letarte. It’s not clear whether or not current driver analyst Jeff Burton will remain in the booth for 2018.

Earnhardt’s deal was signed with NBC Universal, not just NBC Sports, meaning that other doors will be open for him to explore, such as possible Sunday Night Football gigs, the Olympics and even more. We know he’s a die-hard Washington Redskins fan and he recently talked about his passion and interest for bobsledding on the Dale Jr. Download. So Junebug will be having fun.


ALEX BOWMAN

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Hendrick Motorsports announced last week that Bowman would be the man to replace Earnhardt in the No. 88 next season. The deal is reportedly for two years. Nationwide and Axalta will sponsor Bowman next season for 34 of the 36 races, which is huge.

Sponsorship in NASCAR is the driving force behind getting the car to the track every week, running on track, contending for wins, paying employees and the operation sustaining itself. No sponsor, no ride. It’s that simple in NASCAR nowadays, unfortunately. Going from an established veteran and household name like Dale Earnhardt Jr. to a relative no-name youngster like Alex Bowman is a lot to ask from Nationwide and Axalta. But the deal got done, and “Bowman the Showman” will be living out his dream of driving a premier car in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in the 2018 season.

Bowman substituted for Earnhardt last season when he was sidelined due to a concussion and dazzled. He led the most laps at his home track of Phoenix after winning the pole and almost won the race. During media availability last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, team owner Rick Hendrick said that he relied on Earnhardt Jr. more than anyone else when it came to putting Bowman in the car last season. And once the body of work was out there to see, it wasn’t much of a decision to tab Bowman as the full-time driver of the No. 88.


WILLIAM BYRON

The one name that kept surfacing when it came to the potential driver of the No. 88 for next season along with Bowman was William Byron. And for a good reason.

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The kid, not dude, kid, is GOOD. He’s 18 years old and is currently leading the standings and dominating the XFINITY Series. He has three wins (Iowa, Daytona and Indianapolis) and seems like the presumptive championship favorite for JR Motorsports.

Another reason he was being tabbed as the No. 88 driver for ’18 was sponsorship. He is a student at Liberty University, and the school is sticking with him, just like Axalta is. After all, an 18-year-old kid who can’t stop winning, says all the right things and seems to have “it” seems like a great driver to sponsor. But as of now, Byron’s plans for 2018 are relatively unknown. He will most likely end up running another season in XFINITY in the No. 9 Chevrolet. Unless….


KASEY KAHNE

Unless … Kasey Kahne is on the way out at Hendrick Motorsports, which is looking more and more likely. Farmers Insurance and Great Clips, which have made up and still do make up almost all of the sponsorship for Kahne this season, have announced they will not return to HMS and/or Kahne next season. No other sponsor has been announced for Kahne in 2018.

Yes, his triumph at the Brickyard 400 a couple weeks back helped him in hopes of staying at Hendrick Motorsports. But the ship might have already sailed. The performance of Kahne for the past three years in the No. 5 Chevrolet have been subpar, to put it nicely. The IMS win was his first since Atlanta of 2014, and he has failed to make the playoffs since 2013.

Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Kahne’s contract with the team runs through 2018, but Hendrick was also non-committal of Kahne returning to the organization for 2018, beating around the bush and saying, “it puts him in the (playoffs),” when asked what the win at the Brickyard does for Kahne’s future at HMS.

There are a few household names (we’ll get to them later) who are currently without a ride for next season. But as stated when talking about Alex Bowman, it all comes down to dollars. And sponsorship will most likely determine whether or not HMS runs a fourth car (which Hendrick has said the plan is) and/or a high-profile driver will slide into the seat for 2018.


BRAD KESELOWSKI

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The driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford will remain exactly that—the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford “well into the future,” according to a Team Penske release earlier last week.

Keselowski signed a contract extension with Penske after going a bit longer than usual before officially signing the contract. But he’s staying with the organization that’s helped him win over 30 races and a championship back in 2012. His crew chief Paul Wolfe is also staying around for the long haul. Specific terms of the deals weren’t announced. But we saw this one coming.


RYAN BLANEY

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We also kind of saw this one coming, too. Ryan Blaney will head over to the mothership of Team Penske and pilot the No. 12 Ford next season, increasing their operation from two to three cars. He will leave Wood Brothers Racing after two seasons driving the No. 21.

As soon as Blaney came into NASCAR, he was signed by Penske. When he has driven in the Camping World Truck and XFINITY Series, it’s been in a Penske affiliated vehicle. He was with WBR on a loan, basically, as that team has a technical alliance with Penske. But now, Blaney will be able to be closer to the “big time” drivers in Keselowski and Joey Logano at Team Penske. Jeremy Bullins will follow Blaney to Penske from WBR. Sponsorship plans have yet to be announced.


Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

PAUL MENARD

Blaney’s departure from the Wood Brothers leaves a spot open in the No. 21, and that will be filled by Paul Menard. Menard will leave Richard Childress Racing for the one-car, Ford-powered organization next season with sponsorship from his family business, Menard’s.

Menard has been with Richard Childress Racing for almost a decade and has one win to show for it (Indianapolis, 2011). If his family company will sponsor him, he will have a ride. Like I’ve said: sponsorship = a ride. Menard leaving the No. 27 leaves a spot open at RCR, though.


RICHARD CHILDRESS RACING

Or does it? We have seen teams downsize recently, and sometimes, it has ended up working out. Roush Fenway Racing has found victory lane twice after downsizing from three to two cars. Chip Ganassi Racing didn’t downsize, but their two-car operation has been thriving this season. HMS, JGR and Stewart-Haas Racing are still doing well, but have seen their performance taper off a tad.

Photo: Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR

Dollars and sense will determine whether or not RCR keeps their organization of three cars or downsizes to two. Ty Dillon seems like the most logical driver to come into the company to pilot a third car, if the opportunity presents itself. He is the grandson of team owner Richard Childress and brother of Austin Dillon, who won his first career race this season at Charlotte.

But Dillon is at Germain Racing in the No. 13 right now, and that team has sponsorship from GEICO and Twisted Tea. Dillon has also been running pretty well this season, almost as well as the RCR cars have been. If there is no sponsorship imminent at RCR, he will most likely stay at Germain, which also has a technical alliance with RCR. But that remains to be seen.


ERIK JONES

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The driver of the No. 77 Toyota for Furniture Row Racing will become the driver of the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing next season, replacing veteran Matt Kenseth. This will mark the second driver change made by JGR in as many seasons, as Daniel Suarez replaced Carl Edwards on short notice for the start of this season.

Kenseth, who doesn’t have a full season sponsorship-wise in 2017, will vacate the seat for Jones, who brings a young, bright future with him along with a handful of sponsors. We saw this move coming for a good amount of time, and Kenseth did too. Jones has been signed with JGR since his emergence onto the NASCAR scene. He won a truck title for Kyle Busch Motorsports (JGR-affiliated) and almost won the XFINITY title last season for JGR. So the kid can drive.


STILL SOME QUESTION MARKS

  • Photo: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

    Jones’ new ride in the form of the No. 20 puts 2003 MENCS champion Matt Kenseth out of a ride. It’s hard to believe that a top-tier driver like Kenseth can still be without a ride more than halfway into the 2017 season, but age is definitely a factor. At 45, Kenseth isn’t getting any younger. But he has said he feels the best he’s ever felt, is in the best shape of his life and has more wins left in him. Being the biggest name on the market, most people have a feeling he’ll find a ride somewhere for 2018.

  • Photo: Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    Danica Patrick’s future in NASCAR is uncertain, as well. There has been much speculation that 2017 will be Patrick’s last in a Cup car and she will retire. She has a ton of interests outside of racing including cooking, fitness, fashion, and is one of, if not the most marketable race car drivers in the world. If she were to vacate the No. 10, that would leave a premier ride open for any of these drivers to fill.

  • Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. filled in for the injured Aric Almirola while he was recovering from a back injury and did very well for himself. Richard Petty Motorsports has said they’d love to have a second car come back to full-time competition for Bubba to race in, but getting the No. 43 of Almirola a full year of sponsorship is their priority.

    Photo: Tim Bradbury/Getty Images
  • So if a second car at RPM isn’t feasible, what happens to Bubba? Well, maybe he lands in the No. 10 Ford, if vacant. Gene Haas has paid out of pocket to sponsor his cars before and will most likely do it again for Wallace Jr. But once again, it all comes down to sponsorship, dollars and sense. If any Fortune 500 company has any of that, they’ll sponsor Bubba ASAP. Because he has “it.”
  • Kurt Busch has yet to sign a contract extension with Stewart-Haas Racing, but has previously said he has no real worries that he’ll be anywhere other than SHR next season. The No. 41 has sponsorship from Monster Energy and Haas Automation for the foreseeable future. But you never know in this sport. Don’t sleep on “The Outlaw.”

    Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images
  • And of course, there are a handful of young drivers making their way up through the NASCAR K&N Pro Series (East and West), Camping World Truck Series and XFINITY Series that will be looking for Cup rides sooner rather than later. Just to name a few: Christopher Bell, John Hunter Nemechek, Chase Briscoe, Cole Custer, the latest XFINITY winner Ryan Preece, Todd Gilliland, Harrison Burton, the list goes on.

So, there you have it. It’s safe to say there’s a lot of movement at NASCAR’s top level ahead of next season—and we still don’t know where everyone will end up. Keep it locked to Impact 89FM Sports for all your Silly Season news, as well as the Victory Lane podcast (shameless plug). This has been one of the silliest seasons in recent memory, and it’s only getting sillier.