Friday 5: Will free-agent frenzy define 2021 Cup season?
The free agent market could prove volatile with more than a third of last year’s Cup playoff drivers entering the final season of their contract and a group of Xfinity drivers positioned to move to NASCAR’s premier series.
Among those entering the final year of their contract are 2012 champion Brad Keselowski, 2004 champion Kurt Busch, 2017 champion Martin Truex Jr., three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, and 2008 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman, as well as 2020 playoff drivers Alex Bowman and Matt DiBenedetto, among others.
Keselowski’s contract with Team Penske was to have expired after last season, but he signed a one-year extension through this year. After finishing second in points and winning four races last season, he’ll again face a decision on his future. He turns 37 two days before the Daytona 500.
“It’s not fun,” Keselowski told NBC Sports. “I think probably the biggest thing is you try to not let it be a distraction to your team. You operate in good faith. There’s a level of persistence that is required to work through it. I don’t sit and dwell on it either.”
As the 2019 season came to a close, Busch signed a multi-year extension to stay at Chip Ganassi Racing, so he could drive the Next Gen car. But NASCAR delayed that vehicle’s debut to next season because of the pandemic.
So would Busch, who is 42 years old, look for a deal next year in order to drive the Next Gen car?
“The biggest thing is this Next Gen car is intriguing,” Busch, who tested the car in November and January, told NBC Sports. “I’ve enjoyed my test sessions with it on the road course and the oval. NASCAR asked me to come back and verify things in January and I felt flattered. That got me even more fired up about what 2022 could bring.
“Again, it’s a matter of all the right timing and making sure things fall into place. I guess the word right now is intrigue. I’m intrigued about the car, all the newness of all these road courses, the dirt race at Bristol and it’s like the slogan - this is NASCAR’s ‘best season ever’ - why jump out? If the opportunity is there with Ganassi, with Monster Energy, with Gearwrench, we’ll see what the schedule brings.”
Denny Hamlin, who is 40 years old, confirmed to NBC Sports that he is in the final year of his deal with Joe Gibbs Racing. He’s not worried.
“I think I’ve built a great relationship, obviously, with my sponsor, and I’m in a such a blessed situation to be with Joe Gibbs Racing,” Hamlin said. “I look at it like this: I don’t know how long I’ll go. I don’t see the end by any means. I do not see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I also know that as long as I continue to perform at the level I’m performing, I’m going to want to continue to win.
“Right now, I know that Joe Gibbs Racing is the best place for me to do that. Like I’ve said many times, I want to end my career there. That’s super important for me. But ultimately, I just want to win as long as I can. There’s a great number of wins out there for me that I’d like to get to before the end of my career. If I could do that, I’m going to be damn proud of my career. I already am. I still am in what I believe the prime of my career, and I’ve still got lot of years of winning ahead of me.”
Newman said he’s more focused on his goal of winning a Cup championship this season at Roush Fenway Racing than leaving the sport.
“The reality is any driver that goes out on their own terms has quit, right? That’s the only way it works,” the 43-year-old told NBC Sports. “So I’m not a quitter. I haven’t achieved my goal, so the only way I would go out on somebody else’s terms is if they quit me. That’s not good teamwork. I’ve got to put myself in position with the right people that have a common goal of winning races and eventually winning a championship. I know that I’m at that place.
“That doesn’t mean I’ll stay at that place, but I’m at that place and as long as I’m capable - in other words, able to do the things I need to on and off the racetrack to be successful - then I’ll continue to do so with the hopes of living out my lifelong dream to be a Cup champion.”
Truex confirmed to NBC Sports that his contract with Joe Gibbs Racing ends after this year. As to what his future could hold, Truex said: “At this point in my career, I kind of take it year by year just because I really don’t have to worry about long-term where I’m going to be, what’s going on.
“I’m happy with where I’m at. I’m confident in what I can do in the race car. As long as I’m fighting for wins and, hopefully, putting myself in that championship conversation again, I don’t have a whole lot to worry about.”
DiBenedetto knows he won’t be in the No. 21 for Wood Brothers Racing after this season. That ride will go to reigning Xfinity champion Austin Cindric.
“The neat thing is I have the opportunity to let my performance do the speaking and auditioning for me, which is all I can ask for,” DiBenedetto told NBC Sports.
A challenge for some drivers will be what the landscape is like for next season.
The Xfinity Series features several returning drivers who won races last season. If they repeat those results this season, it could propel them to Cup rides in 2022.
Some of those drivers could include Harrison Burton (four wins last year), Justin Haley (three wins), Justin Allgaier (three wins), Brandon Jones (three wins) and Noah Gragson (two wins).
Put this together and it could make the race for seats unlike many seasons.
“I think there’s definitely going to be a lot of craziness,” Erik Jones told NBC Sports about this year’s silly season after going through it for the first time last year in his move to Richard Petty Motorsports.
2. Numbers game
Since 2017, Ross Chastain has competed in 243 races across Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Trucks and run 47,275 laps in competition.
“Wow! No wonder everything hurts!” Chastain, 28, quipped to NBC Sports when informed of those stats.
He competed in 77 races across NASCAR’s three national series in 2019. Kyle Busch is the only driver who has run more races in a season across the three national series since 2006. Chastain ran 74 races across all three national series in 2018.
While Chastain’s focus will be on his new Cup ride at Chip Ganassi Racing this season, he says all those races and laps helped him get this opportunity.
“It was that quantity of laps that let me learn,” Chastain said. “There’s not as much testing anymore and I was with teams that did not test at all. I wasn’t in the simulators like I am now. Some drivers through that time would have more laps in simulators than I had in real life. It was real life racing that just helped me continue up the learning curve that I was on.”
As he contemplated all the races and laps he had run the last few years, Chastain recalled his NASCAR debut in 2011 at what is now Lucas Oil Raceway, located near Indianapolis.
“We finished 10th and then we got four more (Truck races),” he said. “I just remember every one of those drivers meetings, sitting in chapel right after the drivers meeting and thinking ‘I’ve got four more. I’ve got three more. I’ve got two more drivers meetings. I’ve got one more race. All right, it’s probably over.’ And now, we’ve run that many in just a few years.
“No wonder everything creeks and pops at 28 years old. I wouldn’t trade any of it. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, because it’s not for everybody and everybody takes a different path. We didn’t have a plan to do it. Get into each race season and start figuring it out ahead of time, ‘OK, you got this opportunity and that opportunity.’ All my peers would just pick one and go with it, and I wanted to do all of them. It’s worked out.”
Drivers who have run the most races in a season since 2006:
3. Not the favorite?
Although the March 28 Bristol dirt race is about two months away, the anticipation for the first Cup race on dirt since 1970 grows.
While many would point to Kyle Larson as among the favorites for that race based on his vast dirt racing experience, Larson says he’s not.
“I don’t think you can pick a dirt guy as a favorite,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I know a lot of people will. (Christopher) Bell, myself and Ricky (Stenhouse), we’ve never driven anything like this. I guess Bell and I have with Trucks at Eldora. That’s a way different race track than Bristol.
“Bubba Wallace beat me the second year of the event (at Eldora) and he had to my knowledge, no dirt experience. Eldora would get so slick that it would turn into a pavement race in a way. The way you would drive it is kind of like a worn out pavement track. We’ll see how Bristol is. Maybe with more banking you can be more aggressive and maybe that will help the dirt guys some.
“I think the dirt guys, their edge on others will be how we can read a surface and change throughout the length of the race. .… We’ll probably be able to adapt to that quicker, but everybody is so good in the Cup series that they’re going to figure it out fast. I think it’s going to be the same people up front that you see running up front every week.”
Larson won the 2016 Eldora Truck race. He won his second consecutive Chili Bowl Nationals Jan. 16.
4. Helpful hand
Cup rookie Chase Briscoe says he’ll lean on Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick this season, but the relationship between the two drivers is not new.
It goes back to Briscoe’s Xfinity debut at Atlanta in February 2018.
“Kevin has helped me a ton over the last two years,” Briscoe told NBC Sports. “My first Xfinity race, I wasn’t even driving at Stewart-Haas. I was with Roush (Fenway Racing) and we just happened to be pitted beside each other at Atlanta.
“I was wearing him out. I almost felt bad for him, how much I was talking to him. He was nothing but nice to me. Ever since that day he’s kind of taken me under his wing.
“Last year, I probably called him before five or six racetracks and talked to him for about 20-30 minutes. He’s been amazing to me. He’s been a huge help to me.”
Briscoe said he also received help from SHR’s Aric Almirola last season and expects to lean on Cole Custer, last year’s Cup rookie of the year, “a lot more than he probably realizes because he’s the most similar to me.”
5. Focused ahead
As Denny Hamlin enters his first season juggling his role as driver at Joe Gibbs Racing and co-owner of 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan, he knows some will watch his results closely to see if they dip. If so, some will suggest Hamlin is spending too much time with his new team.
“I just know that it’s going to be out there,” Hamlin told NBC Sports. “I could win three straight and have two bad weeks and that will be the topic, right? You’ve got to mentally prepare for that because you just know this sport is week to week and you’re only as good as you were the last week.”
Hamlin said he has his weeks figured out so he can manage both roles.
“I’ll spend my time at JGR just like I normally would on Mondays working on debriefing and figuring out what I could do better the previous week,” he said. “Then I’ll shift my focus on Tuesday or Wednesday to 23XI figuring out where was (their) shortfalls, how can (they) get better.”