They call it the “Silly Season” and in every sport speculation during the period just before the end of the season gives the media talking heads something to discuss. Who’s going where next year? Who’s contract will be renewed and who’s won’t? Free agency the bane of fan jerseys and sports clothing sellers. The NASCAR silly season seems to reach new heights every year and 2017 to 2018 is just getting warmed up.
With a week off in the summer schedule it’s a good time to catch up on the silly season so far.
The big news of the year, of course, was Dale Junior’s announcement that he would be retiring from full time driving in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at the end of 2017. Speculation began as to who might fill the seat of the 88 car for Hendrick Motorsports. The most frequently mentioned name was Brad Keselowski. One has to wonder why? Why would you leave the Penske organization when they have the biggest checkbook in the sport and the most support from any of the three manufacturers involved in NASCAR?
Before Dale Jr. was even out of the car he was already being touted to drive the machine in the Clash at Daytona next year. Until wife Amy put a stop to that story. Yes, he would be qualified. But no, she says it’s not worth taking the risk. Come February we will see who wears the pants in that family.
What We Do Know
Matt Kenseth started the chain of dominoes falling by announcing he was not invited to return to the number 20 car at Joe Gibbs Racing next year. That seat is quickly filled by Erik Jones, the Byron, Michigan native. Jones is running an impressive rookie campaign this season for Furniture Row Racing in the 77 car. Jones and Kenseth racing side-by-side at Bristol and sharing the post race press conference podium was like scripted drama. Both handled the situation very well with Kenseth taking the high road and showing the class act he truely is.
Furniture Row Racing owner, Barney Visser, during the press conference at Kentucky Speedway following the Martin Truex Jr. win said. “We are working on our team plans for 2018 but don’t have anything concrete to report at this time except that Martin Truex Jr. will continue to drive the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota.” That led to speculation they may not field two cars in 2018.
Youth Movement Begins
As soon as Alex Bowman inked a deal and was announced as the heir to the Earnhardt ride a number of dominoes dropped into place. Brad Keselowski signed an extension with Team Penske, like that was not going to happen anyway. Then after Kasey Kahne won at Indy, Rick Hendrick says, “Our plans are not set for the No. 5 car.” Did Keselowski sign too early, maybe he could have squeezed another couple of million out of the Capitan?
Ultimately Hendrick Motorsports announced Kasey Kahne would not be returning for 2018. One of the sports rising stars, 19-year-old William Byron, will move into Khane’s seat. Byron, a seven-time winner in his rookie season on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2016 currently drives in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports. The team owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Rick Hendrick, and Dale’s sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller. Byron has three wins so far in 2017.
Hendrick is quoted saying he is working to help Khane find a ride for next year. Possibly in the form a team alliance agreement. Something Hendrick Motorsports has participated in previously.
Veteran Free Agents
Kenseth and Kahne are not the only veteran drivers looking for a ride next season. Kurt Busch announced he would not be returning to Stewart-Haas Racing next season. The team did not pick up his option for 2018. Busch the Daytona 500 winner and contender for the series title seems the most likely to ink a deal quickly.
The biggest surprise yet came from the Wood Brother’s camp. Ryan Blaney won’t be in the number 21 Fusion next year for the team from Stuart Virginia. Blaney heads to Team Penske where he will drive number 12 with Keselowski’s 2 car and Joey Logano’s number 22. Some good number symmetry going on with those guys.
Who fills Blaney’s seat? Paul Menard leaves Richard Childress Racing to team up with Glen and Leonard Wood. Menard brings daddy’s dollars and sponsorship to the Wood’s Brothers 21 car. Wait, yellow is not going to look good on that iconic red and white Ford. The paint shop is going to have to do some amazing things to make that combination work. It won’t be as easy as adding STP Red to Petty Blue.
Can Richard Childress find sponsorship for Ty Dillon to replace Menard and maintain a three-car operation? What about all those other young guns? Bubba Wallace was impressive in his short stint as Aric Almirola’s fill-in. Improving his finishing position every week. What about Cole Custer? He’s 19-year’s old and could be another superstar in the sport.
Trouble Finding Rides?
Matt Kenseth is 45 years old, but could qualify for the playoffs this year and make a run at another championship. Where will he find a ride next year? Danica Patrick is rumored to have worn out her welcome at Stewart-Haas Racing. Despite not having won a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race win she remains popular with the fans. Can she bring a sponsor willing to place 20th to 25th every week to a team in need of a cash infusion and remain on the circuit? Or is a return to Indy Car in her future.
All this and we have not even talked about franchises. The Wood Brothers were borrowing a Penske franchise for 2017. That goes back to Penske with Blaney. Can they purchase one on a highly competitive market? Or maybe rent one from Furniture Row, if the Denver team only fields one car in 2018.
Let’s Get Silly Ourselves
Ok, everyone is doing it, let’s make our own silly predictions for 2018. Does anyone keep score on who guesses right?
Richard Petty Motorsports loaned their second franchise out in 2017. Next year they have to use it or lose it. The King hires Bubba Wallace full-time and puts him in the 44 car. Wallace responds by finishing higher in the points than teammate Almirola and scores two-second place finishes in 2018. An easy sell to a sponsor for the first African-American since Wendell Scott with a chance to win a Cup race.
The Wood Brothers compete in every race in 2018 renting a franchise from Stewart-Haas as big-daddy Menard funnels money into the team and his son’s efforts with a proven winner. But, they have to paint the car all yellow.
Matt Kenseth has no ride as Daytona nears. Tragically someone is injured during next year’s Clash at Daytona and Kenseth fills the seat. Again, he proves he is not over-the-hill as he qualifies for the Playoffs with a win in 2018.
Sponsor Money is Tight
Richard Childress cannot find a sponsor to pony-up full-time for Ty Dillon. He starts the year with a limited commitment. Dillon proves he is sponsor worthy by winning at Richmond. Childress inks a deal that will carry the team through the remainder of the year.
After not picking up Danica Patrick’s option Stewart-Haas racing rents that franchise to the Wood Brothers. Well actually, John Menard Jr. writes the check. Stewart-Haas responds to the NASCAR youth movement by advancing Cole Custer into the number 41 car Kurt Busch drove last year.
Danica departs the team, returns to Indy Car racing and finishes second at Indy. Proving again the best driver’s in the world compete in NASCAR.
Hiring Kurt Busch is enough for a sponsor to send money to Denver. The 77 car returns for Furniture Row Racing with Busch at the wheel.
Further Out on a Limb
Mark it down now. Chase Elliott wins the 2018 Daytona 500, passing William Byron coming to the tri-oval on the final lap. NASCAR gets a huge boost from the young gun’s movement as teen-age and 20-something girls become a ticket buying segment at series’ tracks.
William Byron does break through to win at Kentucky after more near misses similar to Daytona. Cole Custer grabs a win at Bristol spinning out Kyle Busch on the final lap. Custer knocks out Busch with one punch when confronted after the race and the handsome young guy’s fan faction shifts into high gear.
The year culminates with Ryan Blaney winning the championship and Roger Penske signs him to a lifetime contract. NASCAR awards the Lasco Press with a hard card to cover all Monster Energy Cup races in 2019, recognizing the talent and knowledge of their reporting staff.
It’s time for you readers to get in the game. NASCAR has their own silly season site. Complete with a rumor generator to start your own silly season stories.
Share your NASCAR Silly Season predictions with the Lasco Press, email firstname.lastname@example.org, we will print the prognostications and keep score.