It’s going to be impossible to live in the present during the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season thanks to all the changes looming in 2021.
NASCAR is set to introduce a new Cup Series car next season that could be radically different and radically disrupt the way current Cup Series cars are produced. The Cup Series schedule could be in for a serious shakeup, too, as NASCAR has teased significant changes to the 36-race slate.
And yet those changes could seem fairly inconsequential to many NASCAR fans if things get crazy on the free-agent driver market ahead of 2021.
The 2020 season begins with drivers like Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, Alex Bowman and Clint Bowyer entering the last seasons of their current contracts. Five Cup Series winners potentially hitting the market at the same time is significant. And that significance is ramped up with the impending retirement of Jimmie Johnson.
The seven-time Cup Series champion is retiring at the end of the 2020 season and Hendrick Motorsports doesn’t have an in-house replacement lined up to take over the No. 48 car. It’s very likely that Hendrick will go get an established driver to take over Johnson’s seat. And his successor could come from that list of names above.
“A lot of people want me to put in a good word,” Johnson said. “A lot of people think that I probably will have a big say in who goes in the car. I'm sure I will when the time is right. I think we're all so focused on 2020, the burning question is not getting answered or is hard to even really lead on anything. Our heads are down on 2020 trying to make sure we have the best year here.”
It’s easier for participants in other sports and series to say they’re focusing on the season at hand and not worrying about offseason contract negotiations. In NASCAR, there rarely are offseason contract negotiations. Especially for top-tier drivers.
The “silly season” typically begins in earnest during the late spring of a preceding season and there’s no reason to think things will be any different in 2020. We’ll have a good idea of what the 2021 driver lineup will look like as the 2020 playoffs roll around.
Larson will likely be the silly season’s biggest name. It’s easy to envision him taking over for Johnson in 2021 when running through all the potential free-agent scenarios. But the Chip Ganassi Racing driver’s well-known love of racing sprint cars as often as he can may be considered a hindrance by Hendrick. The team once told Kasey Kahne to cut back on sprint car racing after a crash.
“Wherever I end up, that is going to be a priority for me is still being able to race quite a bit on dirt tracks,” Larson told NBC Sports in December. “I think teams understand that is what I love. We’ll see. I think Chip definitely continuing to let me run and then also letting me run more than I have in the last few years has been awesome.”
Larson said Wednesday at Daytona that his top priority for his new contract was a competitive Cup Series organization. CGR hasn’t won a Cup Series title and a Ganassi driver hasn’t finished in the top five of the Cup Series standings since Sterling Marlin was third in 2001.
“I feel like every year, people are always assuming stuff about my contract and all that. I don’t know, obviously dirt racing is important to me and, also, just being with a competitive organization is the number one thing,” Larson said. “I want to be able to win races consistently, run up front consistently and battle for championships year-after-year. I feel like at Chip Ganassi Racing, we are very close to being able to contend for championships year in and year out. I feel like we’ve got a great group of people. It will be an interesting year as it plays out. I’m excited to see how it all plays out.”
Another suitor for Larson’s services could be Stewart-Haas Racing. Team co-owner Tony Stewart has been high on Larson for a long time and drove sprint cars while he raced in the Cup Series. With Bowyer out of contract in the No. 14 car after the season, Larson’s services would ostensibly be coveted by SHR as well.
“When you look at this, there are always rides available but there are usually limited amounts of very good rides and this year there are several of them,” Bowyer said. “But it is all driven off sponsorships and things like that. It isn’t a knock to any driver you see out there and, hell, I am putting myself in that group.
“I think we all — we all know that you are only as good as your last race. You can’t go on a swing of bad races or have a bad year or whatever else. You have to be the total package and that is probably more so today’s day and age than ever. You have to be the total package in that race car and out of it as well.”
Both Keselowski and Blaney enter the season with new crew chiefs at Team Penske. Keselowski, now paired with Blaney’s old crew chief Jeremy Bullins, is searching for his second Cup Series title and just his second final four appearance. Blaney, now with former Joey Logano crew chief Todd Gordon, has won a race in each of his three years with Penske and has improved his average finish every season.
It’d be hard for either driver to upgrade if he left Team Penske. The only comparable rides out there would be Johnson’s car at Hendrick or Bowyer’s car at Stewart-Haas if Bowman re-signs with Hendrick. That’s why it seems very farfetched if both left Penske after the season.
Meanwhile, Jones could be the silly season wild card. He signed a one-year extension to drive the No. 20 car through 2020 as Christopher Bell moved to the No. 95 car. Jones, 24, is younger than Bell and has won races in each of the last two seasons. Yet if JGR is impressed with Bell in the first half of 2020 and wants to move him in-house, Jones could somehow find himself looking for a ride.
If he’s in that situation you can bet that he’d be a coveted free agent.
“I have no intention of leaving my role [at JGR],” Jones said Wednesday. “I'd love to continue that. But it is definitely a crazy year. There's a lot of things happening. There's a lot of things in motion, I guess, already probably for people, not really for me. I'm excited to see.
“The pressure is on myself from within, right? There's no pressure from the outside, in my opinion. It's pressure from me trying to perform. I want to run well. I want to win races. I think if you can do that, the rest of the things are going to come with it, what you want to do. You'll have as many choices as you want. Hopefully that's the case.”
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports
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