By Bob Pockrass
NASCAR silly season dominoes continue to fall, but every answer seems to bring more questions.
The last four days have seen several key elements announced:
Alex Bowman: Will change numbers and sponsors, as he moves from the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 to the No. 48 for next season.
Clint Bowyer: He decided to retire from racing and announced on Twitter that he will join FOX Sports as an analyst starting in 2021.
Matt DiBenedetto: Will remain in the Wood Brothers No. 21 car, with Austin Cindric named for that ride starting in 2022.
Daniel Suarez: Will drive the No. 99 Chevrolet for the new Trackhouse Racing Team, which will be embedded in Richard Childress Racing for 2021. The team is leasing a charter from Spire Motorsports.
The favorite to replace Bowman in the No. 88 – or a different number – at Hendrick Motorsports is Kyle Larson, who has been suspended from NASCAR since April after using a racial slur during what he thought was a private chat while competing in an online racing event.
Larson has spent the last several months racing sprint cars and recently published an essay detailing the educational journey he has navigated before he formally applies for reinstatement.
The favorite to replace Bowyer – even before he announced his retirement – is Chase Briscoe, who has won eight races in the Xfinity Series this year. Briscoe has a contract with Ford, and it appears he will land a Cup ride at SHR as long as sponsorship comes to fruition.
It leaves at least three Cup drivers still looking for rides. Erik Jones (currently at Joe Gibbs Racing), Ty Dillon (Germain Racing) and Corey LaJoie (Go Fas Racing) know they won’t return to their teams next year.
There also are at least three full-time drivers still waiting to hear about their 2021 status from their teams: Ryan Preece at JTG Daugherty Racing and Michael McDowell and John Hunter Nemechek at Front Row Motorsports.
Front Row typically makes its decisions in late November or December, and both drivers have run well enough that many in the industry expect them to retain their rides for 2022.
As Preece waits on the decision from JTG, there is Jones lobbying for a ride as the only young driver with Cup wins and playoff experience among the free agents.
Jones – whose biggest challenge is not having any sponsors to bring with him as well as a resume that theoretically should demand a higher salary than other drivers – also is a candidate for the opening at Richard Petty Motorsports. LaJoie and Dillon also have been on the RPM radar.
LaJoie, who has some sponsorship, potentially could land one of the rides at Spire and has mentioned that he also could run some Xfinity Series races.
With LaJoie leaving Go Fas Racing, that team has an opening. Kaz Grala, who has run part-time in the Xfinity Series for Richard Childress Racing, has been mentioned as a possibility for that ride.
"I’d say anything is a possibility," Grala said. "There are still a lot of rides open and a lot of drivers still looking, so really it doesn’t seem like any of us know where each other are going to land until we read it on Twitter."
Some of that uncertainty comes from NASCAR’s charter situation. A charter is important because it is NASCAR’s version of a franchise, guaranteeing a certain amount of revenue per year and an automatic place in the starting lineup. Teams that don’t have charters must qualify for one of the four "open" spots available each weekend and get significantly less revenue, requiring more sponsorship to be competitive.
Charter uncertainly just exacerbates the situation for drivers and teams, who already face uncertainty from sponsors amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Drivers and sponsors obviously want to be with teams that have charters.
Spire Motorsports said this week it has obtained a third charter for its use in 2021, with the plan to run two cars (each with a driver competing for the full season) and lease one charter to the Suarez team. That third charter possibly is coming from JTG Daugherty Racing, which could be delaying the decision on Preece.
JTG co-owner Tad Geschickter declined to comment on Preece and the charter situation, which always has been complicated.
Todd Braun – a former Xfinity owner and uncle of Xfinity driver Justin Haley, who is a candidate for one of the Spire rides – had in 2016 secured rights for the charter currently being used by JTG.
JTG bought the charter from Furniture Row Racing prior to the 2018 season as part of a deal that included, according to publicly available documents, $1.5 million to be spent from 2018-2020 on other racing programs approved by Braun. What claims Braun has to that charter currently are not clear.
There often is a flurry of charter activity after the season, so more selling or leasing could come over the next four months. Each charter was allowed to be leased for one year from 2016-2020 and now each charter can be leased for one year from 2021-2024, meaning any charter can be leased for the 2021 season.