CONCORD, N.C. — After several years with few drivers changing places in the NASCAR Cup Series, this year’s silly season has jumped into overdrive as teams and drivers work to set their plans for next season.
A number of chess pieces have already been removed from the table.
Team Penske has signed Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski to contract extensions, keeping them as part of Roger Penske’s program through at least 2021. Hendrick Motorsports has also signed contract extensions with William Byron and Alex Bowman.
Aric Almirola recently agreed to an extension with Stewart-Haas Racing, keeping him in the No. 10 Ford for another year. Christopher Bell is moving from Leavine Family Racing, which has been purchased by Spire Motorsports, to drive the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in place of Erik Jones.
There are still plenty of chips to fall before the new season starts at Daytona Int’l Speedway in February.
The two most valued rides available at this point are the No. 42 Chevrolet with Chip Ganassi Racing and the No. 48 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, replacing seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.
At Chip Ganassi Racing, 2003 series champion Matt Kenseth has driven the No. 42 for most of the season following the Kyle Larson’s termination earlier this year. Kenseth, 48, has had a lackluster year and has publicly stated during an interview on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he does not expect to be back in the No. 42 next season.
Bubba Wallace, who recently announced his departure from Richard Petty Motorsports, was originally thought to be a candidate for the Ganassi ride, but the rumor mill has him going in a different direction. Thus, that leaves the door open for Kenseth’s possible return to the team.
Hendrick Motorsports team owner Rick Hendrick has declined to discuss who will drive the No. 48. All fingers appear to be pointing to Larson joining the Hendrick operation to fill the empty seat there. However, word on the street points to Bowman driving the No. 48, with Larson taking over the No. 88 in his return to the series.
Larson, who has won 38 dirt-track races this season, lost his ride with Ganassi because of his use of a racial slur earlier this year, so there is the chance some sponsors would be reluctant to work with him. Thus far, Larson has not requested reinstatement to NASCAR.
Larson has also been linked to a potential opening at Stewart-Haas Racing, where Clint Bowyer has yet to receive a contract extension to drive the No. 14 Ford. SHR Xfinity Series driver Chase Briscoe is also in the picture.
Stewart-Haas Racing Competition Director Greg Zipadelli recently said during a media availability that he expects the team to have the same driver lineup next year. However, Bowyer has eluded to the fact he may be looking for work next year.
Among the rides open for next season are the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 and the Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota entry.
Jones, Corey LaJoie and Daniel Suarez, who is leaving the Gaunt ride, are among the candidates for the Petty machine.
Garage-area gossip has Wallace replacing Suarez with the Gaunt Brothers with the possibility of Denny Hamlin becoming an ownership partner. Gaunt Racing raced without a charter this season and could purchase one from another team.
GEICO is leaving the Germain Racing team, which leaves that team’s future and that of driver Ty Dillon in doubt.
Matt DiBenedetto’s contract with Wood Brothers Racing has an option for next season and according to DiBenedetto, the team must inform him of its decision by the end of September. If the Woods do not pick up that option, the No. 21 is the likely landing spot for Team Penske Xfinity Series star Austin Cindric.
Other seats available as the season nears its conclusion are the Go Fas Racing entry, which LaJoie has already said he will not return to, and the two Spire Motorsports machines.
But stay tuned, as in any good silly season, there are changes that no one saw coming.