The Unknowns of Silly Season
By Bob Pockrass
The NASCAR free agency “silly season” typically centers on the unknown of where drivers will go and who will sponsor them.
The 2020 version is complicated by even more unknown: Kyle Larson and new ownership in the sport.
It is hard to predict what will happen when it's not known if the players and the teams being talked about will actually end up in the game.
That's why amid the playoffs – the NASCAR Cup Series enters the final race of its opening round Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway – the silly season highlights much of the NASCAR industry chatter.
Larson – suspended by NASCAR, dropped by sponsors and fired by Chip Ganassi Racing in April after using a racial slur on what he thought was a private channel while streaming and competing in an online race – is stockpiling trophies in sprint cars and even has one from a dirt late model since his NASCAR banishment. He has shown all the skills that reminded everyone, if needed, that he is a rare racing talent.
Although he hasn’t formally applied for reinstatement, he has talked with NASCAR about being reinstated and considering he has missed 24 races, that would appear to be much more than long enough for NASCAR to OK his return.
The question is convincing sponsors and a manufacturer to bring him back for 2021. Hendrick Motorsports has an opening and is known for making some bold moves. Remember when there was no room at the inn and all of a sudden, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in and Kyle Busch was out?
When the 2020 season started, everyone had Larson pegged to go to Stewart-Haas Racing, but industry executives indicate Hendrick Motorsports is the leader to put Larson in a car for 2021 while SHR appears focused on keeping Bowyer or elevating Chase Briscoe. Hendrick has a lot of sway with car manufacturers, and it certainly is conceivable that he could convince Chevrolet to not veto a Larson hire even if it doesn’t do a personal services deal as it would with most top drivers.
The other big unknown is whether Denny Hamlin buys into a team. He was looking into investing into Richard Petty Motorsports but now it appears he has eyes on a purchase of Germain Racing, whose owner Bob Germain is looking to sell after being told earlier this month that sponsor Geico won’t return to the No. 13 car.
With a Toyota deal (along with the cars currently being used by Leavine Family Racing) potentially in Hamlin’s pocket, that would be a place for Bubba Wallace, who then gets a fresh start with the sponsors he brings. Wallace has significant sponsorship, although what is tied to him and what is tied to Richard Petty Motorsports beyond Doordash is subject for debate.
The connection is Wallace and Hamlin are represented by the same agency, and Hamlin has said he is looking at ways stay involved in the sport when his driving days are over.
Hamlin’s ability to purchase into a team appears possible as NASCAR recently has been using different talking points about its four-team cap. When originally designed in the mid-2000s, NASCAR indicated the rule was as much about control of the sport as it was competition.
NASCAR didn’t want one person to benefit financially by the performance of more than four cars and not able to attract sponsorship for more than four cars. So allowing someone to drive for one team and own another for a total of more than four cars was determined a violation of the rule.
But the way NASCAR President Steve Phelps talked to reporters earlier this month, he focused more on competition – he doesn’t want a car to essentially be a fifth car of another organization. Phelps left the door open for Hamlin to own a piece of a team and still drive for the four-car JGR.
Once Larson and the Hamlin team ownership venture are either solidified or fall apart, that will start the dominoes. The Hamlin team with Wallace could be solidified as early as this week. The Larson piece and whether he goes to Hendrick could take longer.
And that has Erik Jones likely waiting in the wings. He needs to seriously seek other routes such as Ganassi, Petty or JTG Daugherty Racing (if Ryan Preece doesn’t renew his deal).
RPM also will likely take a look at Daniel Suarez, who is not signed for next season with Gaunt Brothers Racing. With Germain having been a Richard Childress Racing affiliate and potentially leaving for Toyota, RCR would be looking for a team to replace that one (as well as a possible spot for Germain driver Ty Dillon, a grandson of Childress).
RPM has a second charter that currently is being operated by Rick Ware, so whether a deal could be done for RPM to operate a second car or the establishment of another new team with an RCR alliance is possible.
Former driver Justin Marks is actively seeking a charter to build a team with longtime industry executive Ty Norris in a leadership role.
The Money Team, which has an association with Floyd Mayweather Jr., also has been bidding on teams.
Xfinity: Allgaier Sweep
Justin Allgaier didn’t just sweep the Xfinity doubleheader at Richmond, he nearly doubled his playoff points from 13 to 25. He likely guaranteed himself a spot in the semifinal round, going from nearly on the bubble when the playoffs start in a couple of weeks to having a cushion.
“There’s a lot of guys with bonus points and there is a range of guys in the middle pack that it’s going to come down to every point is going to matter once these playoffs start,” Allgaier said.
“I don’t particularly like being in those situations. I would like to have a bigger buffer. I remember a few years ago we won five races in the regular season, had all these playoff points, and failed miserably.”
Trucks: Enfinger Wins Third
Grant Enfinger won for the third time this season, but it included an incident early in the race where he had contact with ThorSport Racing teammate Ben Rhodes while battling for the lead. Enfinger had to pit to repair damage.
“Grant is notorious for laying on your door,” Rhodes said. “That’s just kind of how Grant races. He races hard.
“He’s a fierce competitor. ... Just got loose underneath him. I had a little contact. But it’s just good, hard racing as I guess Joey Logano or Denny Hamlin would say.”
Enfinger: “At the end of the day, [team owners] Duke and Rhonda Thorson they let us race. ... They want a ThorSport Racing F-150 in victory lane. That’s really the only drivers’ orders we have. I probably squeezed him a little bit.”
On The Air
Gander RV Trucks UNOH 200 (Bristol), 7:30 p.m., FS1
Xfinity Food City 300 (Bristol), 7 p.m., NBCSN
Cup Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race (Bristol), 7:30 p.m., NBCSN
Stat of Note
Brad Keselowski has 20 top-10 finishes through 28 races, the most in his career at this point in the season.
They Said It
“We have to win next weekend. It is pretty plain and simple. ... We will see if we can get it done.” – Ryan Blaney who has opened the playoffs with two poor finishes.