Silly Season heats up with more driver moves

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Tuesday brought the news that Danica Patrick won’t be back with Stewart-Haas Racing after this season and that Aric Almirola also won’t return to Richard Petty Motorsports for 2018.

Neither driver announced their plans for next season. Other drivers who have not announced 2018 plans include Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch, Brickyard 400 winner Kasey Kahne and former champion Matt Kenseth.

Here’s a look at where Silly Season stands as the Cup playoff are set to begin Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

ANNOUNCED RIDES FOR 2018

Erik Jones will drive the No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing, replacing Matt Kenseth (announcement made July 11)

Alex Bowman will drive the No. 88 at Hendrick Motorsports, replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. (announcement made July 20)

Brad Keselowski agrees to contract extension to drive the No. 2 car for Team Penske (announcement made July 25

Ryan Blaney moves to Team Penske to drive the No. 12 car and signs a multi-year contract extension (announcement made July 26)

Paul Menard moves to Wood Brothers Racing to drive the No. 21 car (announcement made July 26)

William Byron will drive the No. 5 at Hendrick Motorsports, replacing Kasey Kahne (announcement made Aug. 9)

Matt DiBenedetto will remain with Go Fas Racing in the team’s No. 32 car (announcement made Aug. 12)

Chris Buescher signs a multi-year contract to remain at JTG Daugherty and drive the No. 37 car. (announcement made Aug. 18)

Ty Dillon signs a multi-year contract to remain at Germain Racing and drive the No. 13 car. Sponsor Geico also extends its deal with the team (announcement made Sept. 5)

OPEN/POSSIBLY OPEN RIDES

— No. 10: Danica Patrick is out after this season at Stewart-Haas Racing. No replacement has been announced. 

— No. 27: Richard Childress Racing states it will announce plans for a third Cup team at a later date with Paul Menard joining the Wood Brothers for next season.

— No. 41: Stewart-Haas Racing declined to pick up the option on Kurt Busch’s contract for next year on Aug. 1. Even so, the team tweeted that it expected Busch back with sponsor Monster Energy for next year. Busch told reporters Aug. 5 at Watkins Glen that “there are a couple of offers already, so we’ll see how things work out.’’  

— No. 43: Richard Petty Motorsports announced Sept. 12 that Aric Almirola will not return to the team. Smithfield also is not returning. Smithfield and Richard Petty Motorsports exchanged terse statements about their parting. RPM is selling Darrell Wallace Jr. to prospective sponsors.  

— No. 77: With Erik Jones returning to JGR, team owner Barney Visser is looking to fill that seat. The first concern, though, is sponsorship. Visser told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Aug. 9: “We’ve got no sponsorship right now for the 77,” for next season. “So we’ve got to find something. We don’t want to give up that car, but if we don’t get sponsorship, we’ll have to.” Sponsor 5-Hour Energy has an option to return. The company can’t go to any other Cup team with Monster Energy as series sponsor.

AVAILABLE DRIVERS

Matt Kenseth: Out of the No. 20 after this season. Doesn’t have anything announced for next year at this point. At Bristol, Kenseth was asked about his plans for 2018. He said: “I’ll be honest with you … I’m not worried about (2018) even really one percent anymore to be honest with you. I’m just not concerned about it.’’  

Kurt Busch: With Stewart-Haas Racing declining to pick up his option for next year, Busch is a free agent. Even with Stewart-Haas Racing’s action, there’s still a good chance Busch signs a deal to remain with the organization.

Kasey Kahne: The 2017 Brickyard 400 winner is available after Hendrick Motorsports announced it had released him from the final year of his contract. Rick Hendrick said Aug. 9 that he’s working to help Kahne land a ride for next season and hinted it could be through an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports. 

Danica Patrick: She will not return to Stewart-Haas Racing after this season. Patrick has not announced any plans for next season. She’s not looking for a ride in the Xfinity Series. “Cup only,’’ she said.  

Aric Almirola: Won’t return to Richard Petty Motorsports, team announced Sept. 12.

GMS Racing/Spencer Gallagher: GMS Racing confirmed on Aug. 30 that it will not have a full-time Cup entry in 2018. The organization, which fields teams in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series, had looked into moving to Cup.

Darrell Wallace Jr.: Richard Petty Motorsports is selling Wallace to prospective sponsors for the No. 43 car for next season. He gained interest from RPM after driving in four races for the team while Aric Almirola was injured. Wallace said Aug. 4 that he’s focused on finding a ride for next year with so few options left for this year.

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NASCAR America at 6 p.m. ET: Las Vegas recap

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 6-7 p.m. ET on NBCSN and will look back at the weekend’s racing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Steve Letarte will be joined by Kyle Petty and Nate Ryan.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 6 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

After Las Vegas incidents, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson look for Richmond rebound

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Sunday’s NASCAR Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas leaves Chip Ganassi Racing with a mixed bag of potential strategies to develop heading into the next race, this Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Kurt Busch, the first NASCAR playoff champion in 2004, was involved in a wreck at Vegas with eventual race winner Martin Truex Jr. on Lap 189 that knocked him out of the event, ending with a last-place finish of 39th.

We were trying to go for the same spot in the middle, it wound up four-wide, got a fender rub and our day’s done,” Busch told NBCSN after he left the medical center. “It just happened that fast. Everyone wants to try to get to the middle and that’s where you make up the most spots and Truex and I were going for the same piece of real estate.”

As a result of the poor finish, Busch finds himself in 14th place among the 16 playoff contenders, a distant 63 points behind points leader Truex Jr.

How Busch rebounds at Richmond will go a long way toward determining whether he will advance to the Round of 12 following the Roval elimination race at Charlotte in two weeks. Busch is currently 14 points behind 12th-ranked Aric Almirola, but he is also only 12 points ahead of 16th-ranked Erik Jones.

There’s no question Busch is in need of a big comeback at Richmond, a track that he has had decent success at, including two wins (last time was in spring 2015), seven top five and 15 top-10 finishes in 37 career Cup starts there.

A win would immediately wipe out the Las Vegas nightmare and push Busch into Round 2.

And then there’s teammate Kyle Larson, who had a car that looked like it could challenge for the win at Vegas. But a costly pit road penalty — a behind-the-wall crew member trying to grab tires back over the wall slipped, touching the ground on pit road — pushed Larson back and he wound up playing catch-up the rest of the race. He settled for an eighth-place finish that potentially could have been a top five showing had it not been for the penalty.

Our car was better than what I thought it was going to be,” Larson said. “We were able to battle up front there in the second stage. Then, we had the pit road penalty and had to come from the back.

The restarts were crazy and I was just being safe. It probably cost us a little bit, but we still got a top-10 out of the day and some decent stage points. So, all-in-all, it wasn’t a bad day.”

Busch has one win this season, while Larson is still looking for his first.

Our cars have definitely been good enough to win, we just have to put the whole races together at this point,” Larson said. “We want to win. We’ll keep working at it and hopefully we can knock one out before the season is over.”

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Best of the rest: How non-playoff drivers did in Las Vegas

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The Cup playoffs began Sunday night in Las Vegas, and the playoff drivers made their presence known by occupying every spot in the top 10.

But what about the rest?

The first 16 spots were not filled by the 16 playoff drivers. In fact, playoff drivers only made up 13 positions in the top 20.

Here’s a look at the top-finishing drivers who are not contending for the championship:

Jimmie Johnson – finished 11th

With him not participating in the playoffs for the first time in his career, the spotlight wasn’t focused on Johnson very often Sunday.

But the Hendrick Motorsports driver finally put together his first complete run six races into Cliff Daniels’ tenure as his crew chief.

It was their first race together to not be involved in some sort of incident and it saw Johnson earn his first top-15 finish with Daniels. It’s only his second top 15 in the last nine races.

Austin Dillon – Finished 12th

The Richard Childress Racing driver earned his second straight 12th-place finish and his third consecutive finish of 12th or better.

He’s earned a top-15 finish in four of the last five races. That’s after only having one in a 12-race stretch.

Dillon also finished sixth in Stage 1.

“When the caution came out on Lap 180, we pitted to take another swing at loosening up this Chevy,” Dillon said. “Unfortunately, we had an uncontrolled tire penalty but it did allow us to come back down pit road to top off with fuel and adjust on the car more. We got the car better and made a good strategy to stay out for track position during a late caution to pick up additional spots.”

Paul Menard – Finished 14th

Menard took part in his first race since announcing last week that he would retire from full-time competition after this season.

The Wood Brothers Racing driver kicked-off his final 10 races for the team with his sixth top-15 finish in the last nine races. He finished outside the top 15 just once in his last 11 starts at Las Vegas.

Ty Dillon – finished 16th

The Germain Racing driver earned his best finish at Las Vegas in five starts (previous was 24th).

Dillon has finished 20th or better in six of the last nine races.

Daniel Hemric – finished 17th

The rookie driver earned a top-20 finish after two straight DNFs for wrecks. He has only three top 20s in the last nine races.

“Our handling balance would swing a lot from being really tight and then halfway through the run it was like a light switch and I would get super, super loose,” Hemric said. “We got that better throughout the race and back to where I could run more throttle, which allowed us to move forward into the top 10 and be more aggressive on restarts and make some hay during those time. On that last green flag stop we just got a little too free to where I couldn’t make the most time coming off pit road and just struggled a bit on that last run.”

Chris Buescher – finished 18th

The JTG Daugherty Racing driver extended his streak of finishes inside the top 18 to 16 races. The streak began at Kansas Speedway on May 11.

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Brad Keselowski rebounds to ‘steal’ third-place finish in playoff opener

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Usually when you see a race car on pit road with its hood up in the middle of a race, it’s a sign that a team’s race is over or will be soon.

It’s not typically a prelude to a third-place finish.

But that’s what happened to Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The adjustments made to his No. 2 Ford on pit road during the Stage 2 break, including adjustments to the front suspension, helped cure what was a “miserable” first 160 laps for Keselowski.

“Nothing I was doing was working,” Keselowski told NBCSN after his top-five finish. “We were losing spots to everybody out there.”

Keselowski, the race’s defending winner, qualified 18th. But while his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano went from 22nd to first in 34 laps, Keselowski was “just kind of bleeding positions.”

“I am disappointed we didn’t start the race any better than we did but very proud that we didn’t freak out and everyone kept their head on their shoulders,” Keselowski said.

After Stage 2, Keselowski pitted from 13th. He would pit twice under the caution before the start of the final stage.

“The team worked on it really hard there and got us back to a spot to where we could kind of almost steal a win,” Keselowski said. “I thought for a minute we might be able to.”

Keselowski thought if he had gained one or two spots on the final restart with 71 laps to go, he might have been the winner instead of Martin Truex Jr.

Instead, “we kind of stole a third place today,” Keselowski told NBCSN. “I guess I can’t complain. … Decent recovery, great fight. That’s kind of what these playoffs are about. Minimizing your bad days. That’s what we were able to do.”

Keselowski’s finish is his ninth straight top 10 at Las Vegas. He hasn’t finished worse than seventh on the 1.5-mile track since 2012.