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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NASCAR Awards to air at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Joey Logano didn’t need much time to answer the question.

Who would the two-time Cup champion want to introduce him at the NASCAR Awards?

Racing icon Mario Andretti, Logano immediately said. 

And there was Andretti on the stage at the Music City Center introducing Logano, the 2022 Cup champion. Watch that and the rest of the night’s festivities at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock. You can order Peacock here.

MORE: See the red carpet scene

MORE: Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

NBC Sports’ Marty Snider and Kim Coon co-hosted the show along with Fox Sports’ Kaitlyn Vincie. The Cup, Xfinity and Truck champions were honored. Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, whose father died hours after Gibbs won the Xfinity title last month, received a standing ovation and thanked the industry for its support.

The highlight of the night for Logano was having Andretti on stage to introduce him.

“He’s just been a great role model for me, not only as a racer, but as a person for so long,” Logano said afterward. “I had his picture on my wall. I looked at Mario Andretti before I went to sleep every night as a kid. I thought it was the coolest thing that he signed it to me.”

NASCAR Awards and Champion Celebration
Cup champion Joey Logano on stage with racing icon Mario Andretti during the NASCAR Awards in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Logano and Andretti have gotten to know each other through the years. Logano ran a throwback car that honored Andretti at Darlington Raceway in 2015 and 2021.

But none of that compared to being on stage with Andretti.

“That’s still like a pinch-me moment,” Logano said. “It’s Mario Andretti. He’s the man. The fact that he knows my name I think is really, really cool.”

Catch the NASCAR Awards at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community showed its support Thursday at the NASCAR Awards for the Gibbs family, grieving the death of Coy Gibbs on Nov. 6. 

During his interview on stage, car owner Joe Gibbs thanked the NASCAR industry for its support. (The NASCAR Awards show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock).

Coy Gibbs, son of Joe Gibbs and father of Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, died hours after seeing Ty Gibbs win the series title last month at Phoenix Raceway. Coy Gibbs, 49, was the vice chairman and chief operating officer at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief operating officer, introduced Ty Gibbs at the NASCAR Awards and noted that “everyone gathered tonight is all a part of the NASCAR family, and I know I speak for everyone that the entire NASCAR family is 100% percent behind this young man.”

Ty Gibbs received a standing ovation.

“Thank you,” he told the crowd, “that means a lot.”

Ty Gibbs spoke for less than a minute, thanking his team, sponsors, fans and the NASCAR community.

He closed his speech by saying “And thanks to my family. I love you. I hope everybody has a great offseason. Enjoy it. Thank you for all the support. Thank you for all the claps. I really appreciate it.”

Ty Gibbs spoke to the media earlier Thursday. Asked how he was doing, he said: “I’ve been doing good. Thank you for asking and definitely appreciate you guys. We’ve been doing good, doing a lot of stuff this week. … It’s been fun to experience this stuff.”

Asked about Joe Gibbs addressing the organization after Coy’s death, Ty Gibbs politely said: “For right now, I’m not going to touch on any of that subject at all. I’m just going to stick with all the racing questions and go from there.”

Cup champion Joey Logano said he spent time with 20-year-old Ty Gibbs on Wednesday at the champion’s dinner.

Logano said he told Ty Gibbs that “we’re here for you. You need something reach out.”

Brennan Poole joins Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for 2023

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Brennan Poole will join Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity season, the team announced Friday.

Poole will drive the No. 6 car for the full season. Currey returns to the team’s No. 4 car for the season. Currey scored five top-15 finishes last season for the organization.

JD Motorsports is planning to run the No. 0 car next season. No driver or sponsor has been announced for that ride.

“We’re full throttle here and getting ready to go,” Davis said in a statement from the team. “Bayley and Brennan are signed on and looking forward to chasing races and points next year. We’re actively moving along looking for sponsor commitments and for drivers and sponsors for the No. 0 car.”

“We’ve always taken the approach here that we want to go after the series with multiple cars, and that’s how we’re looking toward 2023. The new schedule is very interesting and provides new challenges to our drivers and team members.”

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.

Friday 5: Will Kyle Busch become NASCAR’s Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The weight of an unfulfilled season, deciding where he’d race in 2023 and the impact on his Truck Series team are off Kyle Busch.

It’s back to racing for the two-time Cup champion, who seeks to reignite his career at Richard Childress Racing this season.

Busch performed his final duty representing Joe Gibbs Racing at Thursday’s NASCAR Awards (show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock) and it’s now all about helping RCR win its first Cup championship since 1994.

MORE: NASCAR Awards red carpet scene

Busch will be with Richard Childress Racing this weekend at Circuit of the Americas for World Racing League endurance events. Busch said the team has turned an old Cup car into an endurance car for the event. Last year, RCR won an eight-hour endurance race there with Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick and Kaz Grala.

Busch seeks better fortunes at RCR than what he’s had recently at Joe Gibbs Racing.

He has one Cup win in his last 53 starts — 14 drivers have won more races than Busch in that span, dating back to the July 2021 race at Road America.

His 17 top-10 finishes this past season were his fewest since scoring 16 top 10s in 2015. 

He was running at the finish in 29 of 36 points races — the first time he’s been running at the finish in fewer than 30 races since 2015. Two blown engines in the opening round of the playoffs led to failing to advance to the second round for the first time in his career. 

“It’s obviously been a challenging, not just this year, but the last little while,” Busch said Thursday at the Music City Center. “So, it’s kind of maybe a blessing in disguise, honestly, where it might just be time for a fresh start, time for something new, time for something different.”

He looks to future NFL Hall of Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for inspiration.

Brady won six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots before  joining Tampa Bay and winning a Super Bowl in his first season with the Buccaneers.

Manning won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts before joining the Denver Broncos and winning a Super Bowl there in his final season in the NFL.

“I’m kind of looking at it as a Tom Brady, Peyton Manning aspect where they left great teams, great organizations where they won championships and they were able to win a championship somewhere else,” Busch said. “I’d like to think I still have that opportunity to be able to do that at RCR.

“I look at the opportunity with the new Next Gen race car as an easier move to make now with that vs. years past with previous generation cars.”

He says that because with the previous generation of cars, there was a greater separation between teams because NASCAR did not regulate as much of the car. With the the Next Gen car, teams have the same parts. Two-time Cup champion Joey Logano that his team still has much to learn about the car and maximizing setups. 

Even with his struggles at the end of his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch says he doesn’t go to RCR with a chip on his shoulder. 

“I don’t think I have anything to prove or I need to have a chip on my shoulder,” Busch said. “I just want to go out there and run well again. … I felt like we had a lot of strong runs this year. There were like six races I can count that we could’ve, would’ve, should’ve won and we didn’t whip is very frustrating. 

“We were so good at giving them away that I need to get back to I’m so good at stealing them and earning them.”

2. Special delivery 

Among the perks with winning a Cup title is getting the Champion’s Journal. Jimmie Johnson started the tradition after his 2010 championship. The existence of the journal remained a secret until 2017 when Johnson posted a picture on social media of him handing the journal to Martin Truex Jr.

The journal passes from champion to champion with the current champion holding on to it for a year and adding an entry for the next champion before handing it to them. Logano will receive the journal from Kyle Larson. 

“I can’t wait to read it again,” Logano said before Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “I’m telling you, it’s probably one of the coolest things. Jimmie deserves all of the credit for coming up with the idea. 

“I wish it started sooner. It’s so interesting. Some drivers are very detailed what they write to the next champion and some are kind of quick and simple. It’s very interesting to read it. It’s cool. It’s a real secret. It’s kind of like an unwritten rule, you can’t take pictures of it and post it. It’s a thing that only the championship drivers know and have read and seen.

“Every time I get it, I’m so nervous. I’m like don’t spill anything on this thing, don’t lose it. It would suck to be the guy that loses that. That would be bad. I’m putting it right in the safe.”

Logano won his first Cup title in 2018. He then gave the journal to Kyle Busch, the 2019 series champion.

“It’s something you put a lot of thought into, at least I did,” Logano said of what he penned. “I wrote a letter to Kyle. You put a lot of thought into it. It’s something that will be there as long as our sport is around. I hope so at least. It’s a really great tradition.”

3. Fun factor 

The day of last year’s NASCAR Awards, William Byron said he wanted compete in more races outside NASCAR in 2022. 

Byron, who seeks to make Sunday’s prestigious Snowball Derby Super Late Model race, has fulfilled his goal, winning, gaining confidence but also having fun.

“What I got out of it was immediate fun, sort of relief,” Byron said of racing various Super Late Model races this year. “It was not racing the Cup car. It was different. It was not as stressful working with the team and things like that because there’s not as much on the line. There’s still prize money and things, and honestly you’re there to have fun. I enjoyed that.

“As I got going in it, I realized how productive it really was for me to do it, how much I was learning. As I did it more often throughout the season, I learned little nuances that were helping me get back in the Cup car with a better skill set.”

That element of fun stood out to Byron. Cup racing is full of pressure with the multi-million dollar sponsors, expectations to win and all the people at the shop relying on the car’s performance. That’s significant pressure, on top of what any driver puts on themself.

“There’s a lot of guys that you are trying to provide for and do a good job for,” Byron said of Cup racing. “There is a weight to that. You want to perform for those guys that work non-stop at the shop. There’s just a much broader net that you are casting as a driver. Whenever you go to the short track level, it’s you and six to 10 guys working on the car. … There’s natural pressure with what we’re trying to do at the Cup level because it is the No. 1 motorsports in the U.S.”

4. Looking for a ride

Ross Chastain says he’s been “trying for years” to get a ride in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway without success but that hasn’t deterred him.

“I’ve met with the president of IMSA,” said Chastain, who finished second to Joey Logano for the Cup title this season. “I’ve met with team owners. I’ve talked to drivers. I just can’t find my way in yet. I haven’t found the right person yet to either tell me how to do it or give me the opportunity. I could show up with sponsorship and get a ride, but how do I get in as a race car driver? I haven’t found that spot yet.”

Chastain said he’s reached out to some this offseason with no luck. 

He said the prestige of the season-opening IMSA event (Jan. 28-29, 2023) draws him but he also wants to gain more experience racing on a road course — even with his win at Circuit of the Americas this past season. And Chastain is not picky on the type of ride he’d like to have for that race.

“I’m not even looking to be in the top class. I want to find a mid-pack Xfinity team of the Rolex and go run there and experience it and then just to be around those road racers that do it year around. I know I could learn something. … I just want to race.”

5. Indy 500-Coke 600 double

It has been eight years since Kurt Busch competed in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, the last time the feat has been accomplished. 

Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson are among those who have expressed interest in running both races in the same day but don’t appear to be in a position to do so in 2023 because of the limited IndyCar rides available. 

Roger Penske, owner of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said he could see Jimmie Johnson attempting it this year, and others as soon as next year. 

“It’s about having the car and the manufactures, whether it’s Chevy and or Honda,” Penske said, referring to the IndyCar manufacturers. “All would be interested to see somebody run the double. Maybe Jimmie is going to do it, which would be great. 

“He has the experience. He did very well on the ovals. … It’s my understanding that he’s going to run potentially the 600 as one of his races (with Petty GMS). We’ll see.”