As NASCAR hits its annual summer stretch, the weather is not the only thing heating up. Even as the battle for 16 berths in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs hits its stretch drive, Silly Season 2018 is already well underway.
Veteran Matt Kenseth kicked the speculation into high gear two weeks ago, announcing that he will not return to the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota next season. Days later, JGR confirmed Kenseth’s departure, saying that 2017 Rookie of the Year contender Erik Jones will replace the 2003 MENCS champion next season.
Team owner Joe Gibbs said the move has been in the works for some time, but was accelerated by Carl Edwards’ unexpected offseason retirement; a decision that accelerated young Daniel Suarez to the MENCS ranks sooner than expected.
“We got put in this situation with a lot of things happening to our race team over a period of about a year and half,” said Gibbs. “We didn’t want to be here, but we wound up here and had to make a decision.
“This wound up being a team decision, and (with) me owning the team, it fell to me to make this decision. We didn’t want to do this, it wasn’t the right timing for us, (but) a lot of things played into it where we had to make a decision.”
“We love everything about Matt,” said Gibbs of the driver who has won 14 races since joining JGR in 2013. “Everything he’s done for us has been awesome. He was great off the track, he’s a great driver with a lot of talent, and we hate the fact that we’ll be racing against him.”
|Kenseth for Junior at HMS?|
Kenseth is unlikely to remain unemployed for long. He has been linked with the No. 10 Ford at Stewart Haas Racing, should Danica Patrick not return to that ride next season. And multiple sources say that both Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jimmie Johnson are lobbying hard for Kenseth to replace Earnhardt at Hendrick Motorsports, when Earnhardt steps away from full-time competition at season's end. The 45-year old Kenseth would provide an ideal bridge between Earnhardt and heir-apparent William Byron, should team officials decide that Byron will benefit from an additional season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Hendrick also has a stake in young Alex Bowman, who recorded three Top-10 finishes in 10 starts last season after Earnhardt was sidelined with a concussion. Bowman’s best finish -- a sixth from the pole at Phoenix in November – was as good as anything mustered by four-time series champion Jeff Gordon in a similar relief stint, and marked Bowman as a potential star of the future.
For the driver known as “The Showman,” it’s all about sponsorship. If a backer can be found to roll the dice on a young, largely unproven driver – the way Axalta is reportedly willing to do with Byron – Bowman could well have a seat at the Hendrick table in 2018.
|Kasey Kahne: Embattled|
If he does, it will likely be at the expense of embattled veteran Kasey Kahne, who is believed to be on the hot seat despite having one year remaining on his current, three-year contact. Currently ranked 22nd in points and a long shot (at best) to make the playoffs, Kahne has managed just two Top-5 finishes this season. Since a fifth-place outing at Talladega in early May, Kahne has an average finish of just 25.7, with three results of 35th or worse.
That kind of results will not keep a driver employed for long, and with sponsors Farmer's Insurance and Great Clips already planning to leave at season's end, Kahne may need a competitive resurrection in the coming weeks to save his job.
“If I haven’t performed by 2018, I need to leave,” said a potentially prophetic Kahne a year ago. “It’s pretty simple. That will have nothing to do with William Byron or anyone else. If I haven’t performed by then, it’s time to go do something different.”
Ryan Blaney is also expected to be on the move at season’s end, leaving Wood Brothers Racing for a new, third Team Penske Ford. While not yet confirming the move, team owner Roger Penske has made no secret of his desire to bring Blaney in-house in 2018, leaving the Wood Brothers in need of a new driver for the second time in the last three seasons.
|Menard: Wood Brothers-bound?|
Sources say current Richard Childress Racing driver Paul Menard may be that driver, jumping to the Ford camp after seven seasons at RCR. Childress laid off approximately a dozen employees last week, not long after handing veterans crew chiefs Gil Martin and Slugger Labbe pink slips of their own. RCR spokespersons say the moves were nothing more than a reaction to overstaffing, but sources inside the walls say the team is preparing for the possibility of life without Menard and his lucrative, home improvement sponsorship.
If Menard leaves, the door could be open for Ty Dillon to join elder-brother Austin in the RCR Cup camp. That would leave Ty’s current ride – the Germain Racing No. 13 Chevrolet – vacant.
Aric Almirola is also getting some Silly Season love, with scuttlebutt circulating that he and sponsor Smithfield could abandon Richard Petty Motorsports next season, possibly to replace Patrick at Stewart Haas Racing.
Darrell "Bubba" Wallace could also be a candidate for any open seat in 2018, after an impressive four-race stint in relief of Almirola that saw him improve his finishing position with every start. An 11th in his final race at Kentucky marked Wallace's 2017 high water mark.
No matter how the 2017 playoffs pan out, it appears that in the next few months, there could be as much NASCAR news made off the track as on it.