Is NASCAR's Silly Season about to get in gear?
Heading into the 2018 edition of the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301, NASCAR's annual Silly Season carousel looked ready to enter a permanent slumber. Most top drivers were locked into long-term deals and it looked like little, if any, driver movement would happen during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series offseason.
But that weekend, 5-Hour Energy stunned Furniture Row Racing with its decision to end primary sponsorship of the sport's defending championship team. Within months, the Colorado-based program had decided to close its doors, sparking a series of dominoes that caused Martin Truex Jr. to wind up at Joe Gibbs Racing and a long list of drivers to swap race teams. When the dust settled, Daniel Suarez wound up at Stewart-Haas Racing, Kurt Busch jumped to Chip Ganassi Racing and Matt DiBenedetto found himself with Toyota-backed Leavine Family Racing.
Fast forward to this July, the 2019 edition of the Foxwoods race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and the NASCAR garage would make you believe Silly Season is seriously slumping once again. The big story entering the weekend is the heat off the racetrack, not drivers on the hot seat with temperatures expected to inch up toward 100 degrees. Driver after driver with expiring contracts (Kyle Larson this week) has announced they'll be back with their current program in 2020.
Other major names are "in discussions" to sign extensions with existing teams. Erik Jones claims he's on the verge of re-signing with Joe Gibbs Racing while Kurt Busch is eager to stay with CGR. Alex Bowman seems set with Hendrick Motorsports despite the biggest news to date; primary sponsor Nationwide Insurance is ready to bolt from HMS' No. 88 Chevrolet, leaving half his races in need of additional funding for 2020.
With so many drivers supposedly staying put, who does that leave in position to jump? The team to watch, it seems, is Stewart-Haas Racing after going winless during the first 19 Cup races. Prospect Cole Custer has been lighting up the competition in NASCAR's Xfinity Series, winning five times and appears ready for a 2020 promotion. SHR could align themselves with a smaller Ford program, like Roush Fenway Racing or Front Row Motorsports, to move Custer up to Cup.
But what if SHR wants him on their own four-car program instead? Kevin Harvick, despite a frustrating year, will almost certainly be back. Aric Almirola, bringing sponsorship from Smithfield, appears set for 2020 as well. But Daniel Suarez and Clint Bowyer, both on the postseason bubble could be vulnerable to a demotion or outright pink slip depending on how the year plays out.
All eyes are also on seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson as his winless streak has now reached over two years. Turning 44 years old this September, will Johnson announce 2020 as his last full-time year running the Cup Series? Mentor and good friend Jeff Gordon chose retirement at the same age; NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart recently hung it up at age 45. Will Johnson keep scratching the itch for that record eighth title if he's still struggling to remain competitive on a weekly basis?
There's also the push for new manufacturers that could make its way into the Silly Season fray. Hyundai was the latest rumor but everyone from Dodge to Nissan to even Volkswagen has been mentioned as NASCAR tries hard to inject fresh cash in the sport. Sagging charter values combined with aging ownership raises the importance of finding new long-term financial investors for this sport.
Change is inevitable, the type of evolution that keeps competition fresh and fans debating at the office every Monday morning. NASCAR Silly Season can't stall out much longer.
It's time for the first dominoes to start falling all over again.
Foxwoods Resort Casino 301
Time: Sunday, July 21 at 3:15 p.m. ET
Track: New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Loudon, N.H.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Kurt Busch
The elder Busch brother was the first to make a splash up front in NASCAR's Cup Series. Since then, he's been eclipsed by younger brother Kyle, a rare talent whose win total the last three years in the sport's top three divisions (36) is comparable to Kurt's two-decade NASCAR career (40).
So it's a special type of personal victory, then, for the 40-year-old aging brother to snag one from right under Kyle's fingertips. A late caution flag at Kentucky Speedway gave him an opportunity, one Kurt made the most of during a green-white-checkered restart. The fantastic finish saw the No. 1 Chevy best Kyle's No. 18 Toyota by the slimmest of margins, the first time older brother got the best of a 1-2 Cup Series finish between them.
"I'm really proud of the way we finished this race 1-2," Kurt said. "Put on one hell of a show, one of those old-school type races where it's two guys duking it out. Just happened to be brothers."
Who's at the Back: Kevin Harvick
A miserable race at Kentucky that included both an uncontrolled tire penalty and power issues left Harvick lucky just to finish 22nd. It's his third straight race without a top-10 finish in a winless season that’s turned into an unexpected struggle for the perennial title contender.
Despite the inconsistency, Harvick remains inside the top 5 in points but won’t advance without some serious improvement on pit road and to his luck. He hasn't had a top-5 finish since Dover in May despite leading over 275 laps since then.
Adam Stern is reporting Kyle Larson is set to return to Chip Ganassi Racing for 2020. Larson appeared to confirm that in a Friday press conference at New Hampshire Motor Speedway where he said, "There has been no contract negotiations. I am still there [at CGR] through next year." Speculation has been rampant Larson might wriggle out after a second straight winless season has left him dangling in 13th, just 40 points above the playoff cutline.
Jeffrey Earnhardt will apparently remain with XCI Racing after the team unexpectedly pulled out of Daytona. The organization announced Friday they'll run a total of seven more races this season (six Xfinity, one Cup) with four of those in direct partnership with Joe Gibbs Racing's NXS program. Earnhardt ran 22nd earlier this season in XCI Racing's lone Cup start of the year at Talladega.
No additional penalty was given to Stewart Friesen and his NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series team this week after his No. 52 was confiscated at Kentucky Speedway. NASCAR took the truck due to a "firewall issue," forcing Friesen to a backup but ultimately determined no more consequences were warranted. Friesen wound up finishing a surprising second in the race, keeping himself in position to make the GOTS playoffs if the season ended today.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Races since Jimmie Johnson last visited victory lane in the Cup Series. (Dover, June 2017).
Starts in NASCAR's top three series (Cup, Xfinity and Trucks) for Andy Seuss, making his Cup Series debut for Rick Ware Racing this weekend in New Hampshire.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Just three owners have won the last 10 races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway: Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing. That bodes well for pole sitter Brad Keselowski, whose run of success at this track hit a roadblock with a 32nd-place finish last year. It was the first result for him outside the top 15 at this one-mile oval since way back in 2011. Chances are lightning won't strike twice and you can count on him for a solid finish near the front.
Martin Truex Jr. has never won a race up in New Hampshire. That could change as soon as this weekend. He's on a streak of four straight top-10 finishes at this track, leading a total of 473 laps during that stretch. When you lead over one-third of the laps run here, chances are you’re going to cash in at some point.
Ryan Blaney has quietly improved at this flat track almost every time he's run it. A disappointing 23rd in his first visit to NHMS, back in 2015 has improved to a respectable seventh-place finish last July. A top-5 qualifying effort puts him near the front of the pack at a place where track position is crucial. It makes Blaney a solid pick.
Ryan Newman ran sixth up at this oval last year for Richard Childress Racing, the best performance at New Hampshire in four years. His Roush Fenway Racing team is coming off a Kentucky top-10 finish and remains in contention on the playoff bubble. Add in that their No. 6 outfit was 15th with Matt Kenseth last year and you've got yourself a solid pick on your hands.
Matt DiBenedetto has never earned so much as a top-25 finish at New Hampshire in seven career starts. But a seventh-place qualifying effort has provided hope he might have a breakthrough weekend at this track. Keep in mind he's got top-20 performances in three of the last four Cup races, easily the best stretch of his NASCAR career.
Rookie Ryan Preece has one career Cup start, a 32nd, at New Hampshire running for a now-defunct No. 98 team. But he's run this place for over a decade during his time with the sport's Whelen Modified Tour. That experience could come in handy Sunday along with position differential points for daily fantasy leagues (he starts 28th).
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch has 5/2 odds entering New Hampshire, edging out teammate Martin Truex Jr. (7/2). Defending winner Kevin Harvick is next on the list (11/2) followed by Brad Keselowski (8/1) and Denny Hamlin (9/1).
What I Think
A quirky last few weeks in NASCAR continues that trend. Team Penske's Ryan Blaney raises some eyebrows by breaking through with a victory at New Hampshire to secure a playoff spot.