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.”

Kasey Kahne, Matt DiBenedetto marking Cup start milestones at Kansas

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Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway will mark career milestones for Kasey Kahne and Matt DiBenedetto.

Kahne, who is in the final five races of his tenure driving the No. 5 for Hendrick Motorsports, will make his 500th Cup Series start.

DiBenedetto, driver of Go Fas Racing’s No. 32 Ford, will reach the century mark with his 100th Cup start.

The two join the ranks of drivers who have celebrated similar milestones this season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. marked his 600th start at Auto Club Speedway. Kevin Harvick made his 600th start in the regular-season finale at Richmond Raceway and Kurt Busch made his in the Bristol night race.

Brad Keselowski won Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway in his 300th Cup start.

Kahne, 37,  made his first Cup start in the 2004 Daytona 500 for Evernham Motorsports. The 24-year-old driver won the Rookie of the Year that season, making him the youngest winner of the award at the time since Jeff Gordon earned it at the age of 22 in 1993.

Since then he has earned 18 wins, 92 top fives, 175 top 10s and 27 poles. He has yet to miss a race in his 14-year career in the Cup Series.

DiBenedetto, 26, made his first Cup start on March 15, 2015 in the CampingWorld.com 500 at Phoenix Raceway. The start, in the No. 83 Toyota for BK Racing, came after he failed to qualify for the previous two races at Atlanta and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

In the two years since, DiBenedetto has earned three top 10s, including two this year in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.

His career-best finish is sixth in the April 2016 race at Bristol.

Through 31 races this year, DiBenedetto has an average finish of 26.8, an improvement over his totals in 2015 (32nd) and 2016 (30th).

In five Kansas starts, DiBenedetto’s best result is 24th in the fall 2016 race. His average finish is 28.2.

“I really enjoy racing at Kansas Speedway,” DiBenedetto said in a press release. “Our mile-and-a-half program has been very strong this year and (Crew chief) Gene (Nead) has been giving me fast race cars to compete with. We qualified in the second-round here at Kansas earlier in the season, so that gives us a lot of hope.

“I like the racing at Kansas because you can move around a lot groove-wise and find a line that works with the balance of your race car. I’m usually one of the first people to move up into the high-groove and that seems to help find us some speed. If we can get a balance on the race car like we had in the spring, I know we’ll be fast and competitive.”

NASCAR America: Scan All from the Alabama 500 at Talladega

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“Ol’ Dega is giving me one last thrill.”

That’s the remark Dale Earnhardt Jr. made after he narrowly avoided being collected in the second of three wrecks in the final 16 laps of Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, his last start at the track.

It’s one of many highlights in the latest edition of “Scan All,” which documents the Alabama 500 at the restrictor-plate track.

In the above video, Brad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe relive the race, which ended with Keselowski’s sixth win at the track.

Here are more highlights from “Scan All.”

  • Listen to the communication of the No. 48 team as confusion breaks out over whether they can work on Jimmie Johnson‘s car during a red flag.
  • “It is a restrictor-plate race, so I’m not going to promise you anything.” – Brendan Gaughan after remarking he hoped his team wouldn’t have to make too many body repairs. He would be eliminated in a crash with 10 laps to go.
  • “Those stands are packed. They should get a free Dale Jr. autograph.” – Clint Bowyer on the large crowd that took in Earnhardt’s final Cup start at Talladega.
  • “Holy (expletive). What an idiot. That was the absolute stupidest (expletive) thing he’s ever done.” Kyle Busch after a crash involving Jame McMurray, Erik Jones and Jeffrey Earnhardt. The crash began when McMurray slowed down enter pit road and Jones ran into him.
  • Listen as Keselowski and his team struggle to communicate with each other do to a faulty radio system.
  • “How in the (expletive) did we wind up in the (expletive) back? (Expletive) stupid.” – Part of a tirade by Bowyer following a Lap 157 crash that collected him. Bowyer pulled his car into his pit box, exited it, had a brief exchange with his crew chief and walked back to the garage.

Watch the above video for more.

Race distance for Charlotte Motor Speedway road course still TBD

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CONCORD, N.C. — It still might be known as the Bank of America 500, but 500 kilometers might not be the distance of the first road-course race in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

Charlotte Motor Speedway announced Wednesday in the media center during a break in tire testing that next year’s Round of 16 cutoff race would be 500 kilometers or about 130 laps on the 2.42-mile layout. Track officials said it would be the longest road course race on the circuit (roughly 90 miles longer than the events at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International).

That prompted a raft of buzz on social media about a 500-kilometer race that likely would be pushing at least four hours with two stage breaks and a few cautions (lap times were in the 90-second range during the test).

But in a statement early Wednesday evening, NASCAR wouldn’t confirm 500 kilometers as the distance of the Sept. 30 race.

Here’s the statement:

This week’s test provided valuable data that will be part of the equation in determining the distance for next fall’s race. We will continue working closely with our partners to develop the best event for fans and competitors alike.

There was no immediate response from Charlotte Motor Speedway to the NASCAR statement. A release from the track near the conclusion of the two-day tire test late Wednesday afternoon referred to next season’s race as the Bank of America 500 but didn’t specify the race’s distance.

Charlotte road course could be Talladega, Part II as Round of 16 cutoff race

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CONCORD, N.C. – There are many unknowns about the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course – passing zones, tire compound, even race distance – but Martin Truex Jr. said Wednesday there is one certainty.

When the new layout makes its debut as the Round of 16 cutoff race next season, playoff drivers will want to be assured of advancing ahead of time.

“I’m going to be hoping I’m going to win one of the first two in that round,” Truex said. “I’m going to put this right in there with Talladega.”

The Furniture Row Racing driver tested tires Tuesday and Wednesday on the 18-turn, 2.42-mile track (which incorporates most of Charlotte’s 1.5-mile oval) with Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray and Daniel Hemric.

Busch said the layout was similar to the Daytona International Speedway road course but with a much smaller footprint that ratcheted up the intensity.

“There’s no room for taking a break or having a quick, deep breath down the straightaway,” Busch said. “As soon as you’re in high gear off turn 2, you’re in a chicane. Back through the gears, you’re downshifting on the brakes to go to the frontstretch chicane. It’s a very busy track.”

There is a 35-foot change in elevation on the course, which features two chicanes that track officials say are designed to encourage passing and provide an option for rain tires.

The transitions between the high-banked surface and the flatter road course make it tricky to navigate.

“There’s all kinds of craziness going on,” Truex said. “Turns 1 and 2 are pretty wild, narrow with concrete walls on both sides. Intimidating.

“It’s a unique track. I don’t know if I’ve run a road course anything like it because of the elevation changes, the bumps and the humps. Charlotte isn’t smooth to begin with and add in infield that has been around a long time, there’s a lot of swells in it. It definitely is interesting. It’s a unique challenge. I don’t know I’ve raced anything like it.”

The track announced the race distance as 500 kilometers, which would make it the longest road course race on the circuit, but NASCAR didn’t confirm the length of the first playoff race with right turns (saying “it provided valuable data that will be part of the equation in determining the distance for next fall’s race”).

Also in flux is the layout. Truex talked to Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO Marcus Smith about adding some safety features such as curbing, runoff areas, tire barriers and walls.

Busch also has recommended eliminating Turn 8 to connect the seventh and ninth turn, reducing the number of slow corners on the track. “There are a lot of slow sections with turns 5, 6 and 7,” Busch said. “Those are good rhythmic corners. … (But) a 3,500-pound car going 35 mph too many times isn’t too exciting. We need to speed up the track a bit.”

Truex, who shaved 10 seconds off his lap time on the first day, estimated the top-end speed is about 175 mph and said the ninth turn (before entering the oval in Turn 1) is the slowest.

Where are the best passing zones?

“That’s a great question,” he said. “I can’t tell you that. Single-car runs so far, it’s hard to say. There’s a lot of places you can crash. I’m not sure about the passing yet.”

After starting on the Watkins Glen tire, it’s expected Goodyear could bring a softer tire next year for faster speeds and better grip. Lap times were in the 90-second range, which Busch said was slower than anticipated but illustrated the difficulty of balancing a tire between a high-speed oval and a road course that drove more like the technical Sonoma than the high-speed Watkins Glen.

“The corners are sharp, low grip and we have 800 horsepower, so we’re trying to put the power down and sliding the tires quite a bit,” Busch said. “The process is to work with Goodyear and Charlotte Motor Speedway to find things we can change safety-wise and recommend the shapes of chicane around the back straightaway and even the front straightaway section.”

Busch, who drove the No. 14 Ford in place of Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer, said he volunteered for the race because of its playoff implications in 2018.

“It’s a cutoff race,” he said. “Teams better get their arms wrapped around it and their heads focused on it because it’s one of the most important races of the year. When it’s a new situation like this, there’s a lot of oddities and variables. Fans will see it.”