Here’s your Silly Season scorecard for 2018

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Tuesday’s announcement of Erik Jones as the replacement for Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 Toyota by Joe Gibbs Racing could be the first in a multitude of driver moves for the 2018 Cup season.

There are many drivers, sponsors and teams whose plans for next year have yet to be revealed, as was discussed on Tuesday’s NASCAR America with Carolyn Manno, Steve Letarte and Slugger Labbe.

Here is a rundown of who could be headed where and with whom:

ANNOUNCED RIDES

Erik Jones will be in the No. 20 Toyota (pushing out Matt Kenseth).

OPEN/POSSIBLY OPEN RIDES

No. 88: Team owner Rick Hendrick hasn’t tipped his hand on a direction for the ride, telling reporters at Daytona there was no timetable for naming Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s replacement.

–No. 5: This car virtually has no sponsorship announced for next season, and Kasey Kahne’s status is uncertain. Hendrick Motorsports seems committed to remaining a four-car team next year.

No. 77: Jones is returning to Joe Gibbs Racing after one season in Furniture Row Racing’s new car. Team owner Barney Visser said after Kentucky that “we have nothing concrete. … Our hope is to have two cars.” 5-hour Energy has an option to return in 2018 and can’t leave for another team. There is speculation Furniture Row Racing might move 5-hour Energy to the 78 with Martin Truex Jr., which would seem to leave the ride’s future in doubt.

No. 10: Sponsorship has yet to be announced for next season, and Danica Patrick’s contract is in its last year with the team.

No. 41: Monster is mulling whether to return as a team sponsor in addition to its series title sponsorship. Monster must inform NASCAR within the next few months if it’s picking up the option on its series title sponsorship (which is a two-year deal with a two-year option). Co-owner Gene Haas has indicated Stewart-Haas Racing wants to stay at four cars. But if sponsorship isn’t there, contraction could become an option for the team.

No. 2: Still awaiting Brad Keselowski to be re-signed … if he were to leave, Miller Lite is expected to stay and is said to like Ryan Blaney (whose social media persona and youth would seem a good fit for a beer company).

AVAILABLE DRIVERS

Brad Keselowski: Still hasn’t re-signed with Team Penske. There are conflicting reports on whether the deal is virtually done or negotiations are at an impasse. The sticking point is believed to be more support from Ford for his Brad Keselowski Racing truck team, similar to the way in which Toyota Racing Development helps subsidize Kyle Busch Motorsports’ trucks. (Keselowski sparked an interesting discussion last week by saying that NASCAR needs more manufacturers.)

Matt Kenseth: Is out at Joe Gibbs Racing but wants to remain in a championship-caliber ride. Hendrick’s Nos. 88 or 5 seems the most likely landing spots, and he has a good friend in Dale Earnhardt Jr. to lobby on his behalf. Stewart-Haas Racing seems as if could be a possibility.

William Byron: Hendrick Motorsports has gauged the 19-year-old’s comfort level about a promotion to Cup. Rick Hendrick and Axalta (which has sponsored Byron in Xfinity races and likes his personality and potential) would like to move him up.

Kurt Busch: The 2017 Daytona 500 winner said at Daytona he is waiting for Stewart-Haas Racing to pick up his contract option and was optimistic that it would because “I deliver for the team.” Also mentioned there were many “moving parts” involving Monster and NASCAR.

Kasey Kahne: Has a deal through next season, but the team controls the option to keep him, and it’s widely thought it could be his last year at Hendrick.

Ryan Blaney: Roger Penske said recently he wants to bring Blaney into the fold as early as next season, possibly in a third full-time car (or perhaps in the No. 2 if Keselowski were to leave).

Danica Patrick: In her final year with Stewart-Haas Racing. She said last month she intends to drive next season, but the sponsorship uncertainty leaves her status murky for next year.

Alex Bowman: If Hendrick goes young, he possibly could be in play for the No. 5 if the team puts Byron in the No. 88. Also in play for the No. 9 at JR Motorsports if Byron goes to Cup

Paul Menard: Hasn’t been announced as returning to Richard Childress Racing, and the Menards sponsorship could be on the move (it already sponsors Team Penske in the IndyCar Series).

Aric Almirola: Hasn’t been announced yet as returning to RPM next season. Has been tied closely to sponsor Smithfield, which also had been mulling a move in its contract year but which just had a key decision-maker leave.

GMS Racing/Spencer Gallagher: The team is mulling a move next season to Cup from the Xfinity Series. At Kentucky, Gallagher told SiriusXM that racing in Cup “definitely is a subject that has been broached, and we’ve put a lot of thought into it. We’ve always known that is our long-term goal to be racing in Cup. We’re looking at different ways we might do it and different times in which it would be best. It’s still in the formative stages.”

Staff picks for today’s Cup race at Indianapolis

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win today’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Kyle Larson. Only one winner in Brickyard 400 (Jeff Gordon, 27th in 2001) has started in a lower position — but if anyone can rebound after qualifying 25th on a track that’s difficult for passing, it’s the Chip Ganassi Racing driver this season.

Dustin Long

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Even before Daytona earlier this month I had this vision of Earnhardt scoring his win to make the playoffs at this track. We’ll see if I can see the future.

Daniel McFadin

Jamie McMurray reminds everyone what he’s capable of by earning his second victory in the Brickyard 400.

Jerry Bonkowski

Sentimentally, I’d like to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. win this one. But from a realistic standpoint, I’m going with Kevin Harvick to earn his second career Brickyard win.

With Matt Kenseth available, Hendrick Motorsports already was set on Alex Bowman long ago

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INDIANAPOLIS – Hendrick Motorsports announced Alex Bowman as the driver of its No. 88 Chevrolet last week, but the choice effectively was made long ago.

“We had Alex in the back of mind for whatever opportunity we had,” team owner Rick Hendrick said during a news conference Sunday morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “It wasn’t much of a decision at all. Alex was the guy.”

Hendrick confirmed Bowman signed a multiyear contract last October that runs through 2019 and hardly considered any other options – including impending free agent — Matt Kenseth to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“We were very, very careful not to guarantee (Bowman) anything other than if opportunities arose, he would have a shot,” Hendrick said. “I can’t make all the decisions. The sponsors have to be involved. But in my mind, Alex was going to get the next (ride).”

When Kenseth revealed two weeks ago that he wouldn’t be returning to Joe Gibbs Racing, Earnhardt was confident his friend would find a ride for 2018.

But with Hendrick having solidified its lineup for next season with Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, Bowman and perhaps Kasey Kahne (Hendrick plans to run four Chevrolets next year but left open the possibility that William Byron could drive the No. 5 – “we’re not ready to cross that bridge yet.”), the options for Kenseth remaining in Cup seem limited.

“I love Matt Kenseth,” Hendrick said. “He is a tremendous talent. He and I have actually talked about this in the past. Sometimes things just don’t line up at the right time.”

Everything has seemed to line up well for Bowman, who drove the No. 88 in 10 races last year while Earnhardt recovered from a concussion. He also has tested for the team in its driving simulator and wheelforce transducer car (which gathers critical setup data).

“A lot of guys have the talent, they just need that one critical break, if they stay committed and keep pushing, eventually that opportunity might come along,” Earnhardt said. “(Bowman) gets that opportunity because of his commitment to his career and the gamble on himself he made a long time ago.

“He works hard and has been a key investment for Chevrolet, incredibly helpful for the company and race team. It’s very tedious work. He’s been a team player knowing if he put forth this effort, he possibly could get this opportunity.”

Hendrick said he knew little about Bowman before Earnhardt personally vouched for him. Bowman validated the recommendation by winning the pole at Phoenix International Raceway last November and leading 194 laps.

“The word for Alex is he deserved it,” Hendrick said. “He deserves a shot. He stepped into the most pressure point. I don’t think there’d be a situation on pit road of having the pressure of sitting in Dale Earnhardt’s car and to perform like he did and then the contributions he’s made to our company to help our guys.”

Rick Hendrick: ‘The plan is to run 4 cars’ next year

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INDIANAPOLIS – Car owner Rick Hendrick says “the plan” is to run four Cup cars next year even as questions have been raised about the company cutting back to three cars.

Questions have been raised with because the need of sponsorship for the No. 5 team next season. Both Great Clips and Farmer’s Bank Insurance are not returning after this season. Those companies are scheduled to sponsor the car in 22 races this year.

Hendrick said Sunday that “the plan is to run four cars” next year.

The comment was well-received. Jim Campbell, who oversees Chevrolet’s motorsports program, liked a tweet that had Hendrick’s comment about remaining four cars.

Hendrick also was asked Sunday about the status of the No. 5 car driven by Kasey Kahne but said only “that’s for another day” during a press conference with Alex Bowman, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Nationwide’s Jim McCoy.

Kahne has a contract through next season yet questions have been raised if he’ll be back. If not, an option could be for William Byron, who won Saturday’s Xfintiy race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, to move from JR Motorsports into that spot. The 19-year-old Byron, a rookie in the Xfinity Series, has won three of the last five races.

Asked about Byron moving into a Cup car next year, Hendrick said: “We’re not ready to cross that bridge yet.”

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Jimmie Johnson to start in the rear after gear change

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INDIANAPOLIS – Jimmie Johnson‘s bid for a record-tying fifth Brickyard 400 will have to begin at the back of the 40-car field.

Johnson qualified fourth Saturday but stated on Twitter that he’ll have to go to the rear of the field because they had to change the rear gear.

Although track position is pivotal at Indianapolis Motor Speedway because passing is difficult, optimists can view Johnson’s woes as a good sign. He has scored two of his three wins this season – Texas and Dover – after starting in the rear.

Also starting at the rear today is Cole Whitt (rear gear change) and Joey Gase (engine change). Whitt qualified 34th. Gase qualified 38th.

Today’s race is on NBC. Coverage begins at 2 p.m. ET with Countdown to Green.

 

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