NASCAR free agency’s ‘silly season’ takes turn after Kyle Larson firing

Kyle Larson using a racial slur on what he mistakenly thought was a private iRacing channel a couple weeks ago didn’t just impact himself and his team – it might impact the entire way the NASCAR Cup Series lineup will look in 2021.

Considered one of the top, if not the best, free agents, Larson is no longer the driver most teams would get into a bidding battle over for 2021 and beyond.

Before the April 12 incident that resulted in his sponsors quickly dropping him and his firing by Chip Ganassi Racing, Larson was probably among the top choices for Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing. While Larson had not announced that he would leave Ganassi, and it was possible he would have stayed, it didn’t appear likely, as other teams had their sights on the 29-year-old talent.

Now, the only team among those three that might take a look at him is SHR, if co-owners Tony Stewart and Gene Haas can convince Ford that he won’t hurt its reputation and if their companies (or their close friends who own companies) would be willing to take that chance in hopes of winning races and championships. And even then, the sponsors of their other cars might need some convincing.

Larson has so much potential that he still has a chance to make a comeback. He has six wins and finished in the top-10 in the standings the last four years, and has placed top-10 in 45 percent (101 of 223) of his races. He also is in his ninth year of racing stock cars, a relatively short time compared to many of his competitors.

SHR has just one driver (Kevin Harvick) who is under contract after this season. Rookie Cole Custer would likely return, but Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola are veterans whose deals end after this year. It is conceivable that both return – Bowyer is 41 years old; Almirola is 37 – or neither returns.

Joe Gibbs Racing has one driver (24-year-old Erik Jones) who isn’t yet set for next year. Hendrick has two – Alex Bowman and Jimmie Johnson. Johnson already has announced he would scale back from full-time racing, and Bowman, with his win at California, should be back at Hendrick if sponsorship materializes.

Seeking or renewing sponsorship at the moment is difficult as companies might alter marketing budgets amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I guess everything is kind of put on hold right now,” Bowman said after his victory Sunday in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race at virtual Talladega. “You know, obviously I want to be at HMS for a long time, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

“Hopefully they’re working on it for sure.”

Jones could have more leverage now that one of his biggest competitors for rides is likely on the sideline. JGR (or Hendrick) might be willing to spend more money to have Jones since Larson is off the table for them.

Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champion, also is without a deal yet for next season. He could return, although there have been signals a change of scenery might be something all sides would consider. While it wouldn’t appear he would fit in at JGR (can you see Keselowski and Kyle Busch on the same team?), and he has done things in the past to irk the folks at Hendrick Motorsports, it might make him a choice at SHR if a sponsor is looking for a new start and Ford wants to keep him in the Ford camp.

Other drivers whose contracts are up after this season include Matt DiBenedetto (Wood Brothers Racing), Bubba Wallace (Richard Petty Motorsports), Corey LaJoie (Go Fas Racing), Ty Dillon (Germain Racing), John Hunter Nemechek (Front Row Motorsports), Michael McDowell (Front Row Motorsports), Daniel Suarez (Gaunt Brothers Racing), and Ryan Preece (JTG Daugherty Racing).

DiBenedetto could well be in line for a spot at Penske if Keselowski leaves as the Wood Brothers have a strong alliance at Penske. DiBenedetto and the others likely still need some of this season to play out to make names for themselves and prove their case to potential team owners and sponsors.

Stat of Note

Matt Kenseth, named as Kyle Larson’s replacement, ranks tied with Tim Flock for 20th on the all-time Cup career wins with 39.

Social spotlight

— IMSA driver Jordan Taylor indicates why he might change his alter ego’s outfit

What They Said

“While sports isn’t particularly important, it still serves a role in American society and … it will be good for the American psyche to have a diversion from life for a while and see a live sporting event.”

– Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage, advocating for the return of racing to the track