Friday 5: Free agency could dramatically alter 2021 driver lineup

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Sunday’s Daytona 500 begins a Cup season unlike any other in NASCAR’s history.

Among the year’s biggest storylines is the robust free agent market that could see a number of winning rides change drivers. Among those with contracts expiring after this season are five who won Cup races last year: Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman and Erik Jones.

They represent rides at some of the sport’s top teams: Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing.

“When you look at this, there are always rides available, but there are usually limited amounts of very good rides and this year there are several of them but it is all driven off sponsorships and things like that,” said Clint Bowyer, whose contract with Stewart-Haas Racing expires after this season.

“It isn’t a knock to any driver you see out there, and hell I am putting myself in that group. I think we all – we all know that you are only as good as your last race. You can’t go on a swing of bad races or have a bad year or whatever else. You have to be the total package and that is probably more so today’s day in age than ever. You have to be the total package in that race car and out of it as well.”

Larson, whose future has been speculated on the past few years, admits: “I’m excited to see how it all plays out.”

Larson says that continuing to race on dirt is important in his next deal. He also noted that “just being with a competitive organization is the number one thing. I want to be able to win races consistently, run up front consistently and battle for championships year after year. I feel like at Chip Ganassi Racing, we are very close to being able to contend for championships year in and year out. I feel like we’ve got a great group of people. It will be an interesting year as it plays out.”

With this Jimmie Johnson’s final full-time Cup campaign, the No. 48 Chevrolet is open for next year. Who fills that ride could create a ripple effect in the garage — unless another team makes a move first. 

“There’s high profile rides up for grabs and only two or three drivers that can be really successful with them,” said Keselowski, who is in his 11th season at Team Penske. “There’s going to be a lot dominoes to fall.”

He’s confident that veterans will receive those top rides that are available.

“I think Kevin Harvick said it best: It’s been a great youth movement but those aren’t the guys winning,” Keselowski said. “The guys winning are the ones that are going to get the top rides. I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to run the last four seasons straight with three (or more) wins and that puts me in a great position for those talks and those things that are going to go down. We’ll see how all the cards unfold.”

A key issue could be how much owners are willing to spend on a driver. Teams will face additional costs switching to the Next Gen car for next season, although some of those costs could be offset by a reduction of workforce with the cars being produced by an single entity instead of by each teams.

Corey LaJoie, whose contract with Go Fas Racing expires after this season, thinks the additional costs to teams with the move to the Next Gen car could favor drivers who won’t cost owners as much.

“I think teams are going to be forced to look at that because the expense to switch over from this new car is not going to be taken lightly,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “It’s going to be $3 million cash up front. That’s big for those teams and they’re going to look at guys. They’re going to have to save on that payroll. Driver number on that spreadsheet is probably one of the bigger ones.”

Jones, who has won a race each of the past two years at Joe Gibbs Racing, admits this will be an interesting time for many drivers.

I have no intention of leaving my role there,” Jones said. “I’d love to continue that. But it is definitely a crazy year. There’s a lot of things happening. There’s a lot of things in motion, I guess, already probably for people, not really for me. I’m excited to see.”

Blaney, who has won a Cup race each of the past three years, said he anticipates talks to pick up in the coming months.

“It’s always performance, whether it’s the last two years or the first two months of this year,” Blaney said. “It’s always performance. We’ve had good enough performance the last couple of years and start off the season strong and we’ll see where it goes from there.”

2. Making the right move

William Byron admitted he thought the winning move came too early. But what are you to do?

In the second Duel Thursday night, Kevin Harvick led fellow Ford driver Matt DiBenedetto. Erik Jones, in a Toyota, was third and was followed by the Chevrolets of William Byron, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson.

The move was going to come from either Byron or Busch with the Chevys lined up.

It came with three laps to go.

“It’s just based on when that run comes,” Byron explained after the win. “In an ideal world, everyone would wait until one to go and fan out just because where we were was a good points position to finish the stage or the race. It would have been good to have six points or whatever it was.

“I had kind of not been paying attention, not been pushing as aggressively. A run just kind of luckily formed right there.  I figured if I didn’t take it, Kurt was going to.”

Races can be won with such split-second decisions. Just as they can be lost.

DiBenedetto attempted to move up to block the charge by Byron and the Chevys but was too late, allowing Byron to get by. DiBendetto finished seventh.

“I’m a little bummed that I didn’t stall out that top lane, I was a little too late to it and didn’t want to cause a crash and wipe us all out,” DiBenedetto said.

But had it been with three laps to go in the Daytona 500, DiBenedetto would have reacted differently.

“It would have been a more erratic move,” DiBenedetto said. “It’s tough. It’s always hindsight … and you learn.”

Every time on the track is a learning experience and it was for both Byron and DiBendettto on Thursday.

3. What about the 2021 Clash?

With news earlier this week that the 2021 Daytona 500 will be held Feb. 14, the question is what will happen to the Clash.

The Clash typically is held the week before the Daytona 500 but the Super Bowl will be played Feb. 7 in Tampa, about two hours from Daytona Beach.

Although some sports hold events the day of the Super Bowl, should NASCAR still hold the Clash and Daytona 500 qualifying that day?

“I don’t think anybody should do that,” said Clint Bowyer, who attended this year’s Super Bowl to watch his hometown team, the Kansas City Chiefs. “It would be like them going up against the Daytona 500. We are all in this business together. It is an entertainment business and there is a footprint for all of them.

“That is a historic event which is America’s event. The Daytona 500 is a historic event that is also an American showcase. But I don’t think about TV all the time. I don’t think about ratings. I think about asses in the stands. I want to be able to go to the Super Bowl, and if I am not in the car, I want my ass in the stands of the Daytona 500 someday. I feel like we do owe enough respect to everybody and there is enough room for any venue to not be stepping on the toes of another and to respect that.”

Said Chase Elliott of NASCAR trying to run the Clash and Daytona 500 qualifying the day of the Super Bowl: “I think you could expect not many people to be tuned in.”

NASCAR President Steve Phelps said Friday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that officials will look at various options for those events.

“It is on a radar and probably have to make an adjustment,” he said. “What that looks like, we’ll talk about in the coming weeks.”

4. New role for David Ragan

David Ragan isn’t racing full-time in Cup this season but he will still be busy.

Ragan, who is in Sunday’s Daytona 500, will look to race in a variety of racing series and work with Ford Racing.

As part of the Ford Racing program, Ragan also will work with Ford’s development drivers, including Hailie Deegan, from time to time throughout the season

MORE: A new hope: Hailie Deegan’s success could transform NASCAR

“I can help her with some of the things that I’ve seen, that I’ve learned that were good for me and bad for me and that I can hopefully help her get up to speed a little bit quicker,” Ragan said of Deegan, who moved to Ford’s development program in the offseason.

“If I can give her some pointers and some things to think about, spend a little time with her on the simulator and let her know some of those tools that are at her disposal, it’s going to help her avoid a lot of heartaches on the racetrack learning the hard way.”

5. Nashville and Martinsville Track news

Speedway Motorsports Inc. remains encouraged with its talks with Nashville and Tennessee officials about a proposal to bring NASCAR back to Fairgrounds Speedway.

SMI has proposed $60 million in renovation to the track but a deal has not been completed.

The city and Nashville’s new Major League Soccer team reached a new agreement Thursday for the team’s stadium at the fairgrounds near the track.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, has been leading SMI’s efforts. He issued a statement Thursday after the new agreement between the city and the soccer team:

“We congratulate Mayor John Cooper and John Ingram on reaching an agreement to move forward with the MLS stadium development. We are encouraged by our conversations with the city and share Mayor Cooper’s vision for a truly comprehensive redevelopment of the Fairgrounds that includes a plan to restore the speedway and sustain its future. We will continue to work with the city and stakeholders to bring NASCAR racing back to Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.”

Martinsville Speedway President Clay Campbell told NBC Sports on Thursday that of all the tickets sold for the track’s May 9 night race, 55 percent are either new orders or orders from fans who had stopped purchasing tickets from the track but returned for this race.

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Can Adam Stevens, Kyle Busch ‘get mojo back’ at Bristol?

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Kyle Busch is known for speaking his mind. He says what he has to say whether things are good, bad, successful or frustrating.

That kind of attitude has rubbed off somewhat on his crew chief, Adam Stevens.

After Busch finished a disappointing 29th in Thursday’s fourth Cup race in 12 days, dropping Busch from 8th to 12th in the standings, Stevens was asked in a Friday teleconference where he would assess the progress of the No. 18 team since returning from the COVID-19 hiatus.

Like his driver, Stevens didn’t beat around the bush – no pun intended.

“Overall, it’s been a disappointing start, I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Stevens said. “You have stretches like that and I think we need to get our program a little better and then internally as a team we have to do better.”

In the four post-hiatus races, Busch finished 26th at Darlington, accidentally knocked Chase Elliott into the wall to finish second in the return trip to the Lady In Black, was fourth in the Coca-Cola 600, and then things just fell apart in Thursday’s race, his 29th-place finish being the second-worst finish this season (worst was 34th in the Daytona 500).

“In general, I would say we’re not as competitive as we’d want to be,” Stevens said. “We haven’t executed like we’ve wanted to.

“We’ve managed to get a couple good finishes in there, managed to get a couple poor finishes – the poor finishes were probably more poor than what they needed to be because of mistakes or circumstances we fell into during the race.”

A potential part of the problem with the No. 18 team – it’s a likely problem for most teams that have struggled since the return to racing – has been fatigue.

By the time Sunday’s race at Bristol is over, that will make five Cup races in 15 days. Plus, wih limitations on personnel numbers both at-track and at the JGR shop due to the pandemic, fatigue is apparent.

But after Sunday’s race, NASCAR Cup teams get a luxury of sorts: no midweek races this coming week and a chance for everyone to collectively catch their breath and rest up for nearly a week until the next race on June 7 at Atlanta.

“There’s quite a few of my crew guys who have been worn out here and spread pretty thin,” Stevens said. “They could really use a day or two off for sure, and they’re going to get that early in the week.

“We have a race in Atlanta with no practice, so the prep is down, but no midweek race … will make it a lot more palatable next week. Next week will probably be a week to get caught back up and assess where we’re at and maybe do a little bit more leg work on some of the future races so we can be a little bit more ahead. For certain there’s a large group of guys who need a day off.”

Sunday’s 500-lap race at Bristol offers a chance at redemption — if not a kind of home track advantage — for Busch and Stevens. In 29 Cup starts there, Busch has eight wins — including three in his last five starts there — plus 12 top-5 and 17 top-10 finishes.

If there ever was a place to right the listing No. 18 ship, the world’s fastest half-mile may just be the place.

“What makes Kyle (Busch) good at Bristol doesn’t change,” Stevens said. “He’s just so good at adapting what he’s doing behind the wheel to suit how the track is changing. Hopefully he’ll get to showcase more of that this weekend.

“It’s the track and the nuances of the track and how that changes and the fact that it changes is what makes KB shine there. He can make time on the bottom, in the PJ1, he can make time around the top when that’s the place to be and he’s not scared to move around and really is exceptional at getting through the lapped traffic as well.

“If you had to circle a place to get your mojo back, this would probably be it.”

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Forget practice, qualifying, ‘I just like to race’

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In the new normal of NASCAR, there are a lot of things drivers are getting used to.

From health screens when they get to the track to carrying their own helmets and other chores that previously were done by assistants, drivers are adapting.

One thing that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. likes is how, with the exception of one qualifying session for the Coca-Cola 600, that the first four Cup races back since the COVID-19 hiatus have not had practice or qualifying.

Stenhouse, to paraphrase late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, wants to “just race, baby, just race.”

Even though NASCAR’s race-only policy is predicated upon keeping things simple and staying safe in the pandemic, Stenhouse definitely has embraced the mindset of climbing in the car, firing the motor up and slamming on the gas pedal. No warm-ups, no testing different setups, no nothing. He just wants to chase the checkered flag.

“I just like to race, I like to be in the race car,” Stenhouse said in a media teleconference Friday. “Practice and qualifying doesn’t do it for me as much as getting out and competing in the race, as (opposed to being) in the car on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“Really there’s nothing like going out and racing. I enjoy racing as much as possible.”

Stenhouse, who finished fourth in Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, has also enjoyed NASCAR holding two of its first four Cup races back since the coronavirus hiatus in mid-week and prime time.

While that type of schedule makes it difficult and even grueling for crew chiefs and the rest of the team, count Stenhouse as hoping NASCAR moves forward with more mid-week races next season and beyond once coronavirus and the limitations it has placed upon the sport are gone.

“I like the Sunday-Wednesday schedules; I wish we could kind of keep doing that,” he said. “I’ve never been a fan of shortening the season because I just like to race.

“I’m going to try and sprinkle some more dirt races in when I can, if NASCAR lets me (he laughs). For me, I enjoy the racing aspect of it. I love being in the race car as much as possible. Like probably the other crew chiefs said, the guys at the shop definitely have a lot more work as far as getting cars ready week in and week out.

“So, that’s always been probably the biggest question mark of running these mid-week races to catch up our schedule is the toll that it’s taking on the crew guys. But it’s all been well received, they enjoy it and they love us back racing.”

In his first season with JTG-Daugherty Racing, Stenhouse has admittedly struggled. In the first eight races, the driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet has just two top-five finishes: Thursday night and third at Las Vegas.

Every other finish has been 20th or lower.

But Stenhouse sees light at the end of the tunnel. Ever since NASCAR returned from the pandemic hiatus, Stenhouse has seen improvement within his team that may not necessarily be reflected in the final result, but he definitely likes what he’s seeing from his team and the performance of his race car.

“Looking at the equipment that they have here, the people, the parts and pieces, the Hendrick power, the new Chevy Camaro body – I feel like those are all really good things to put together,” Stenhouse said. “Bringing my crew chief Brian Pattie over, bringing Mike Kelley over, with a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience to work in, they jumped right in. I felt like they’ve been working with these guys for a long time and it’s only been a short amount of time.

“So, I feel like we are definitely capable of running in the top 10. I feel like last night was definitely a night that we hit it right. We had a really good car and I hope we can continue to run top five and contend for wins.

“But I definitely feel like we can run top 10 with everything that we have right here. We have to do that – we have to limit my mistakes, limit the issues that we’ve had and just have good, smooth, solid nights, and I think we can run top-ten.

“I told the boys that we needed a good run going into Bristol, my favorite race track, knowing that I really like the way these cars drive. And if it drives as good at Bristol as it has at these other race tracks, I feel like we’re going to have a shot at a win. I wanted a good solid top-15 run, no issues, no mistakes and it turned out to be way better than that. So, we’re looking forward to hopefully carrying that momentum into Sunday.”

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Starting lineup for Sunday afternoon’s Cup race at Bristol

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Brad Keselowski and Aric Almirola will lead the field to the green flag in Sunday’s Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Keselowski will start first and Almirola will start second.

The top five is completed by Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr., putting all three of Team Penske’s cars in the top five.

The field was determined through a random draw of the following groups:

  • Positions 1-12: Random draw from charter teams in those positions in owner points
  • Positions 13-24: Random draw from charter teams in those positions in owner points
  • Positions 25-36: Random draw from charter teams in those positions in owner points
  • Positions 37-40: Open teams in order of owners points

Click here for the starting lineup.

NASCAR Cup Series at Bristol

Race Time: 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Track: Bristol Motor Speedway; Bristol, Tennessee (half-mile oval)

Length: 500 laps, 266.5 miles

Stages: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125. Stage 2 ends on Lap 250.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Xfinity race: June 1 at Bristol (300 laps, 159.9 miles), 7 p.m. ET on FS1

Next Truck Series race: June 6 at Atlanta (130 laps, 200.02 miles), 1 p.m. ET on FS1

Chase Elliott ‘Sent it, for Judd’ in Charlotte Cup Series win

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A rollercoaster week for Chase Elliott ended Thursday night with him in Victory Lane for the second time in three days and for the first time this year in the Cup Series.

But Elliott’s win at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the seventh Cup victory of his career, had additional weight for the Hendrick Motorsports driver. Not long after the race, Elliott posted a picture on Instagram of him celebrating on the frontstretch. At the bottom of the picture was a drawing of a character saying “send it.”

A sticker of that figure, which is a walrus, is located on the front bumper of Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet.

“Sent it, for Judd,” Elliott wrote in the Instagram post. “This ones for you brother, miss you my friend. That sticker will forever stay on the front of that 9 car, I promise y’all that.”

On Friday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. asked Elliott on NASCAR America at Home the meaning behind the sticker.

“Judd (Plott) was my best friend since I was a kid, he and I grew up together,” Elliott said. “His mom sang at my parent’s wedding and just my best friend since I can remember. Lost him last fall. That sticker is kind of remembrance of him. He had a tattoo on his leg of that little walrus and that was kind of his little logo.

“So I had a friend make up some stickers last fall after (Judd passed), and I just thought it’d be really cool to carry that moving forward. He was my best friend as long as I can remember and just always supportive and just felt like it’d be special to carry that for the rest of my career and always remember him and he was one of a kind and he was a genuinely good dude.”

The walrus decal and its placement on Elliott’s bumper is similar to one that can be found on the bumper of Jimmie Johnson’s car. It’s dedicated to his friend Blaise Alexander, an ARCA driver who was killed in a crash at Charlotte in 2001, and the 10 people who were killed in a Hendrick Motorsports plane crash in 2004.

The walrus decal isn’t the first time Elliott’s honored his late friend. Last November, he had a tribute to Judd on his nameplate above the driver-side window.

Following Thursday’s race, the Cup Series next competes Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway. Like the previous four races, it will be a one-day show. Elliott shared his thoughts on how a limited at-track schedule and condensed crew rosters are bringing the No. 9 team together.

“It’s brought an excitement back to it that I haven’t had in a little while, from the standpoint of I feel like I’m short-track racing again,” Elliott said. “I feel like it’s brought our team closer together because different guys on our team are having to do more jobs. Like (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson is) having to come off the box and catch tires during the pitstop. And that’s brought him closer to our pit crew. I’m having a couple more items to do and keep up with than what I had before and I think all that is bringing us closer together. And for me, it’s just been a lot of fun kind of condensing the group and doing more racing and less sitting around.”

The one-day show at Bristol has an added element to it. Without any prior track activity before Sunday’s green flag, the traction compound added to the lower lanes in the turns will be more difficult for drivers to navigate.

Elliott thinks it’s been “overlooked a little bit.”

“(The traction compound) does not like to be run on until it gets run in and those are two things that don’t go good together, right?” Elliott said. “Because it doesn’t have grip and nobody wants to run on it. But we all want it at the same time because we want another option. What I’ve noticed is it seems like it takes the leaders catching lap cars and forcing cars into a position that they don’t want to be in to start to run that stuff in. Until it gets run in, it’s really hard. It’s really slick. And I think that’s probably the biggest thing is just, you know, marrying up all those things, right? Do we have the splitter height, right? How slick is that stuff going to be? How long is it going to take it to come in. And when it does come in how long until it wears out and the top becomes the advantage because it typically does by the end of a race.

“But we typically have a full weekend to practice and qualifying and a Xfinity race. And a lot of times we don’t see that top line come dominant until late in the Cup race on Sunday. So I’m really curious to see how all those things play out.”