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Big names, big teams at forefront of NASCAR's Silly Season chatter
Roger Penske didn't sound like a car owner who was going to let Brad Keselowski, the only Team Penske driver to win a NASCAR Cup title, leave his stable.
"We're close, we're close," Penske said Sunday at Michigan International Speedway about whether he could convince Keselowski to remain at Penske.
Penske is in the same position as virtually every multi-car owner in NASCAR, still working on contracts with drivers and sponsors for 2018 and beyond.
Keselowski isn't the only former champion without a deal for 2018. Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth and Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kurt Busch both still need to solidify their 2018 plans. Throw in uncertainty with Hendrick Motorsports' Kasey Kahne and SHR's Danica Patrick, and there are several big-name drivers at several big teams that could make this year's Silly Season one of the most active in recent years.
Where will they all land? Well, it's only June. And everyone in the garage is looking for how the dominoes will fall, especially at Hendrick Motorsports, where Dale Earnhardt Jr. already has announced he will retire from Cup racing after this season.
"I've gone a long ways in my life and career with the help of Roger and all Team Penske, and I hope to continue to do so," Keselowski said when asked about the potential of him replacing Earnhardt at Hendrick, an organization that once appeared as Keselowski's destiny when he was driving for JR Motorsports.
Keselowski's crew chief, Paul Wolfe, recently signed a new deal to remain at Penske, Penske confirmed, giving Keselowski another reason to stay where he has been successful.
Kenseth told reporters in April that he wanted to remain at JGR, but he still doesn't haven't a deal done. He would be the top candidate to replace Earnhardt if that deal had significant long-term sponsorship. But Nationwide has yet to determine whether it will continue with Hendrick.
Earnhardt has endorsed Alex Bowman, his fill-in last year for 10 of the 18 races when Earnhardt was out with a concussion, and Bowman appears as the favorite for that ride, according to industry sources and agents surveyed over the past couple of weeks.
But that doesn't mean Hendrick isn't looking for drivers. Kahne is vulnerable to be released a year before his contract ends in 2018. He is 21st in the standings and hasn't won in his past 98 starts, plus his two main primary sponsors, Farmers Insurance and Great Clips, aren't returning next year.
Hendrick could elevate development driver William Byron, who is third in the Xfinity standings driving for JR Motorpsorts, to that ride, giving Hendrick a much younger look with Chase Elliott, Byron and Bowman along with seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who just signed a three-year extension.
Sponsorship, though, remains key, to Hendrick's approach. Hendrick could have to buy out a portion of Kahne's contract, and that could impact whether he wants to pay for an established driver such as Kenseth or opt to look more toward the future and go younger.
But would Jones make that move? He has run well at Furniture Row, sitting 16th in the standings despite four races where he failed to finish while teammate Martin Truex Jr. is consistently battling for wins.
Furniture Row just expanded to a two-car team, and it didn't build that up for one season. Either Kenseth or Kahne could end up there, and the return of Busch, who drove for the organization in 2013, can't be ruled out.
Jones' sponsor, 5-Hour Energy, can't leave Furniture Row as long as Monster Energy sponsors the series because 5-Hour Energy can't execute a new contract to sponsor a Cup car (it can only exercise the existing options in its current deal). Then again, Monster signed for only two years, so there is no guarantee 5-Hour will have to stay at Furniture Row much longer than 2018.
Speaking of Monster, it still needs to renew its deal at SHR and with Busch. They started off the season winning the Daytona 500, but Busch has had just one top-five finish since then and is 14th in the Cup standings.
Team co-owner Gene Haas already foots the bill for about half of the Busch car, and the Clint Bowyer and Patrick cars do not have full sponsorship. SHR had a three-year sponsorship deal for Patrick with Nature's Bakery through next season, but with that deal terminated earlier this year, the sides are trying to determine what to do for 2018.
Patrick told reporters last week during an appearance in Boston that her plan is to continue at SHR. She is 30th in the standings, although she has run better recently, posting finishes of 10th and 16th before she got in a wreck late at Michigan to finish 37th.
SHR would have a shot at signing anyone as long as it could have enough sponsorship to field a car. Aric Almirola and Darrell Wallace Jr. can't be counted out with their Ford ties.
Almirola is not signed yet for next year at Richard Petty Motorsports, which also has to re-sign sponsor Smithfield.
Penske also has to decide if he will bring Blaney in-house instead of racing for the Wood Brothers, whose cars are prepared by Penske. Blaney's crew chief, Jeremy Bullins, also is locked in with Penske, the team owner said.
"We're looking at all these possibilities right now with Ryan," Penske said. "It's a matter if we put something together that's longer, which obviously we'd like to do and at the present time, his trajectory has been terrific. So we're pretty excited about that. We've got to sit with the Woods and see how it all goes together."
One of those possibilities could be with current Richard Childress Racing driver Paul Menard, who brings funding from his family's home improvement stores and whose family also sponsors an Indianapolis 500 car for Penske. That could lead to Menard going to the Wood Brothers, although team officials from all sides indicated nothing is finalized.
If Menard leaves RCR, that would open up a spot (pending sponsorship). Ty Dillon, driving for Germain Racing, would be the natural replacement to race in Cup for his grandfather Richard Childress, although Germain does have a technical alliance with RCR.
The other key will be how charters play out. An organization in the past could just downsize by a team if it didn't have sponsorship. But with the charters, if they don't field the car, NASCAR takes the charter back without compensation. So the organizations must either field a car, lease the charter or sell the charter. That might be enough to keep Hendrick and SHR at four-car stables even if they don't have full sponsorship for all their cars.
If they do want to lease or sell, there probably will be buyers. The teams currently leasing charters that must return to the original team after this season (a team can only lease out its charter for one season every five years):
-- JTG Daugherty Racing (Chris Buescher car) from Roush Fenway Racing
-- Go Fas Racing (Matt DiBenedetto) from Richard Petty Motorsports
-- TriStar Motorsports (Cole Whitt) from Front Row Motorsports
That leaves Roush Fenway, Richard Petty and Front Row in position to expand for next season (and Buescher, the 2015 Xfinity champion on loan from Roush to JTG, with an uncertain 2018 ride), but they all are seeking sponsorship. Mergers, more charter sales and more leasing could certainly shake up the number of rides -- and the number of quality rides.