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Storylines: What will NASCAR’s top free agents do?

Brad Keselowski chats with Mike Tirico about the challenges Darlington poses as NASCAR prepares to resume its season on May 17 in South Carolina.

When the Cup season started, some wondered if what happened off the track would overshadow the racing.

They pondered that because this year’s free agent class ranks as one of the largest in NASCAR’s history and could alter the sport’s landscape.

With Jimmie Johnson announcing that this would be his final full-time Cup season, the suitors for the No. 48 car at Hendrick Motorsports are many.

A former champion and two other drivers who won races last season are among those with contracts set to expire after this season. Other drivers who have won in the past or come close to doing so also are available.

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Even with some changes since March, free agency remains among the key storylines as the NASCAR season resumes Sunday at Darlington Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX).

Two impending free agents are off the list.

Team Penske announced March 6 that Ryan Blaney had signed a multi-year extension. Alex Bowman announced Saturday a one-year extension with Hendrick Motorsports.

Another free agent’s future is unclear.

Kyle Larson, viewed by social media as the favorite to take over Johnson’s seat at Hendrick Motorsports, is without a ride. Chip Ganassi Racing fired Larson on April 14 after he said a racial slur during an iRacing event. Larson remains indefinitely suspended by NASCAR. The team signed Matt Kenseth for the rest of this year.

With Blaney and Bowman signed, and Larson seemingly out of the mix at this time, the top free agents are former Cup champion Brad Keselowski, Erik Jones, Matt DiBenedetto, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola.

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Keselowski, who starts on the pole at Darlington, is in his 11th full-time season at Team Penske and has won at least three races a year each of the past four seasons.

“I’ve made no decisions and had no meaningful talks because right now the entire industry is about survival and does not really have the opportunity today to look past surviving the next few weeks,” Keselowski told NBC Sports this week on if he had moved closer to determining where he’ll race in 2021.

“I hope to have those conversations. I hope they go really well. I think they will. But I haven’t had a single conversation to that regard.”

Bowman’s stock had risen with his victory earlier this season at Auto Club Speedway when he and his team dominated the weekend.

With NASCAR wanting to run 32 Cup races over the next 25 weeks, it could be challenging at times for teams to complete negotiations.

Another key for some teams will be sponsorship for next season with many businesses significantly impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. How much sponsorship a driver can bring to some rides could prove key. Johnson’s ride at Hendrick Motorsports is an exception with Ally signed through 2023 as the primary sponsor.

With the uncertainty of sponsorships, some deals could be pushed back later in the season, even later than deals were completed a year ago.

It wasn’t until last September when some driver deals were announced with DiBenedetto heading to the Wood Brothers for this season and Jones signing a one-year extension at Joe Gibbs Racing.

October had the announcements that Almirola and Bowyer were returning to Stewart-Haas Racing for this season, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was headed to JTG Daughtery Racing.

Other drivers who have contracts expiring after this season include Ty Dillon, Bubba Wallace and Corey LaJoie, who gave car owner Rick Hendrick a handwritten letter in January at the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony, expressing his desire to be considered for the No. 48 ride after this season.

“This was the first time I’ve gotten a letter from the heart,” Hendrick told NBC Sports in February. “I’ve gotten letters and phones calls, usually from agents. It was really a heartfelt letter and it was really personal.

“I was impressed with him before and am more impressed after.”

Whether it’s enough for LaJoie join the organization remains to be seen. That’s just among the decisions to be made not only at Hendrick Motorsports but Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske, Stewart-Haas Racing and elsewhere on what their driver lineups for next season will be.

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