Every year there are drivers who find themselves as free agents looking to either keep their current ride or land a new one. However, 2020 has a somewhat large group of pilots who find themselves in that very position as the season plays out. So throughout this campaign there will be plenty of jockeying as both drivers and teams work to position themselves in the best possible situations for the years to come.
And while we’re only heading into the fifth racing weekend of the season, it’s never too early to start thinking about what will happen beyond this year.
Based on the Team Chart from the Jayski.com website, here are the drivers whose deal is set to expire at the end of 2020 and our take on what the prospects for each might be going forward:
Ryan Blaney: Team Penske has fired the first shot of the 2020-21 silly season by signing the driver of their No. 12 Ford to a multi-year contract extension. Blaney was no doubt on the radar screens of several teams and would have been a valuable commodity to land. So now the first thing we know for sure is that this second generation racer will stay put for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps the real question regarding Blaney’s new deal is what does it mean for the other Team Penske driver whose contract is set to expire?
Brad Keselowski: This past weekend in Phoenix the other Penske driver who will need a new deal going into the 2021 season was asked about his current situation with the team considering that Blaney had just received an extension. Keselowski’s answer was somewhat noncommittal and offered no real insight other than he and the team did not have an agreement in place.
There has been speculation that Keselowski might be moving elsewhere in 2021. In particular, one rumor that has pervaded has been that he will replace the retiring Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports. Furthermore, there is a relationship there as the Michigan native did race for JR Motorsports(which has connections to HMS) in the early years of his NASCAR Xfinity career.
At the age of 36, this is likely to be Keselowski’s last long-term deal so the issue of how much he wants to get paid at this stage of his career could ultimately be the deciding factor as to where he ends up.
As of now, speculation is all we have to go on in regard to the 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion.
Kyle Larson: This could very well be the keystone of the entire silly season. There are almost certainly multiple teams, including his current Chip Ganassi Racing operation, seeking this driver’s services for the next several years to come. The Californian will turn 28 during the 2020 season which puts him at a prime age for winning races and he will no doubt be looking to capitalize on that.
But also consider that with him being so highly prized by multiple teams, he will have considerable negotiating power in the upcoming talks with potential suitors. And with this being a driver who has made no bones about the fact that he wants to compete in as many Sprint Car races as possible, money may not be the only demand he will have of whatever team he settles on.
With seats potentially open at Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and others, his signing announcement could very well be the signal to the other teams and drivers that they can go ahead and lock in “Plan B” options.
Clint Bowyer: Quite simply, Bowyer needs to produce this season and that means more than just slipping into the NASCAR Playoffs based on points. If Stewart-Haas Racing ultimately ends up not being his home in 2021, he needs to show some other organization that he can run up front and potentially win races.
If the Kansas driver intends to keep racing past the age of 40, Bowyer may find himself in a situation that will call on him to do so with a mid-pack type of organization who would be looking for a veteran driver to provide their team with valuable feedback. However, if the No. 14 pulls into victory a couple of times in 2020, this speculation may all be a moot point.
Alex Bowman: Here is someone whose stock is no doubt rising among NASCAR team owners. The 27-year-old’s performance in the early part of 2020 has taken him from being a guy who many thought would struggle to even find a quality ride for next year to someone who is being sought after as possibly even a first choice among needy teams.
There will definitely be one seat open at Hendrick Motorsports in 2021 with the pending retirement of Jimmie Johnson. That could potentially be filled by Keselowski, Larson, or any number of others. Will the organization work to lock down Bowman as quickly as possible to avoid having to fill two of their Chevrolets during this silly season or will they let things play out for a while and see who else might become available to them?
Either way, Bowman is currently in a stronger position in terms of negotiations than he was just a few months ago.
Erik Jones: When you’re at the peak of Mt. Everest your next step is always going to be downhill. Right now, Joe Gibbs Racing is the Mt. Everest of NASCAR so if Jones is unable to remain where he is, he will be taking a step down no matter where he goes. And what’s going to make his search more difficult should he not be offered an extension with JGR is going to be the question of why he could not perform with the best organization in the sport.
It’s certainly noteworthy that when his contract with JGR expired in 2019, the 24-year-old driver who was once considered among NASCAR’s hottest prospects was only offered a one-year extension.
Like so many others on this list, production this season will be the key for his future. If Jones hopes to stay where he is or even land with another highly competitive team, he needs to win races and contend for a championship.
Matt DiBenedetto: Driver Paul Menard made somewhat of a surprising move last year when he retired and designated DiBenedetto as his replacement in the famed Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Ford.
And so far, so good for the new pairing of driver and team. While they haven’t won, DiBenedetto appears to be getting the most out of that car by running solidly inside the top-10 and even the top-5 at least in certain periods of races. Should his time in the No. 21 not be extended, there will no doubt be other suitors. But with the way this driver has had to bounce around over the course of his career, a little stability might be welcomed.
Other drivers such as Corey LaJoie, Bubba Wallace and Daniel Suarez are among those who hope to find themselves in the mix for competitive rides in 2021 as their contracts are set to expire at the end of the current season.
As is always the case in racing, the key will be in the financing. The combination of driver and sponsor will in all likelihood determine which teams, if any, each of the drivers mentioned above will sign with.
Only time will answer the questions of who signs where and for how long so until then we are left to wonder when the music stops playing which of these drivers will be left without a chair in which to sit? Or at least the chair he most wanted?
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
Respond to this piece on Twitter –> @RichardAllenIDR
or on Facebook –> InsideCircleTrack/Facebook