Storylines: What will NASCAR’s top free agents do?


When the Cup season started, some wondered if what happened off the track would overshadow the racing.

They pondered that because this year’s free agent class ranks as one of the largest in NASCAR’s history and could alter the sport’s landscape. 

With Jimmie Johnson announcing that this would be his final full-time Cup season, the suitors for the No. 48 car at Hendrick Motorsports are many.

A former champion and two other drivers who won races last season are among those with contracts set to expire after this season. Other drivers who have won in the past or come close to doing so also are available.

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Even with some changes since March, free agency remains among the key storylines as the NASCAR season resumes Sunday at Darlington Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX).

Two impending free agents are off the list.

Team Penske announced March 6 that Ryan Blaney had signed a multi-year extension. Alex Bowman announced Saturday a one-year extension with Hendrick Motorsports.

Another free agent’s future is unclear.

Kyle Larson, viewed by social media as the favorite to take over Johnson’s seat at Hendrick Motorsports, is without a ride. Chip Ganassi Racing fired Larson on April 14 after he said a racial slur during an iRacing event. Larson remains indefinitely suspended by NASCAR. The team signed Matt Kenseth for the rest of this year.

With Blaney and Bowman signed, and Larson seemingly out of the mix at this time, the top free agents are former Cup champion Brad Keselowski, Erik Jones, Matt DiBenedetto, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola.

FREE AGENCY SCORECARDWho remains in contract years for Cup

Keselowski, who starts on the pole at Darlington, is in his 11th full-time season at Team Penske and has won at least three races a year each of the past four seasons.

“I’ve made no decisions and had no meaningful talks because right now the entire industry is about survival and does not really have the opportunity today to look past surviving the next few weeks,” Keselowski told NBC Sports this week on if he had moved closer to determining where he’ll race in 2021.

“I hope to have those conversations. I hope they go really well. I think they will. But I haven’t had a single conversation to that regard.”

Bowman’s stock had risen with his victory earlier this season at Auto Club Speedway when he and his team dominated the weekend. 

With NASCAR wanting to run 32 Cup races over the next 25 weeks, it could be challenging at times for teams to complete negotiations.

Another key for some teams will be sponsorship for next season with many businesses significantly impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. How much sponsorship a driver can bring to some rides could prove key. Johnson’s ride at Hendrick Motorsports is an exception with Ally signed through 2023 as the primary sponsor.

With the uncertainty of sponsorships, some deals could be pushed back later in the season, even later than deals were completed a year ago.

It wasn’t until last September when some driver deals were announced with DiBenedetto heading to the Wood Brothers for this season and Jones signing a one-year extension at Joe Gibbs Racing.

October had the announcements that Almirola and Bowyer were returning to Stewart-Haas Racing for this season, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was headed to JTG Daughtery Racing.

Other drivers who have contracts expiring after this season include Ty Dillon, Bubba Wallace and Corey LaJoie, who gave car owner Rick Hendrick a handwritten letter in January at the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony, expressing his desire to be considered for the No. 48 ride after this season.

“This was the first time I’ve gotten a letter from the heart,” Hendrick told NBC Sports in February. “I’ve gotten letters and phones calls, usually from agents. It was really a heartfelt letter and it was really personal.

“I was impressed with him before and am more impressed after.”

Whether it’s enough for LaJoie join the organization remains to be seen. That’s just among the decisions to be made not only at Hendrick Motorsports but Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske, Stewart-Haas Racing and elsewhere on what their driver lineups for next season will be.

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NASCAR Saturday schedule at Circuit of the Americas


Saturday will be a busy day at Circuit of the Americas, as all three national series are on the track.

Cup will qualify ahead of the Craftsman Truck and Xfinity Series races.

The forecast Saturday calls for sunny conditions and no chance of rain all day. The high is expected to be 69 degrees during Cup qualifying, 76 degrees at the start of the Truck race and 81 degrees for the start of the Xfinity race.

Zane Smith looks to win his second consecutive Truck race at the road course in Austin, Texas. AJ Allmendinger seeks his second consecutive Xfinity win at COTA.

Saturday, March 25

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 8 a.m. – 1 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 10:30 a.m.  — Truck Series
  • 2 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS1)
  • 1:30 p.m. — Truck race (42 laps, 143 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 5 p.m. — Xfinity race (46 laps, 156 miles; FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

COTA Xfinity starting lineup: AJ Allmendinger takes pole


AJ Allmendinger, who won this race a year ago, will start on the pole for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Circuit of the Americas.

Allmendinger earned the pole with a lap of 92.173 mph Friday on the 20-turn, 3.41-mile road course.

MORE: COTA Xfinity starting lineup

He will be joined on the front row Sammy Smith (91.827 mph).
Ty Gibbs (91.665) will start third. Sheldon Creed (91.652) qualified fourth. Parker Kligerman (91.195) will start fifth.

Cup driver William Byron will start ninth. Byron’s time was disallowed for cutting the esses. Cole Custer, who will start 10th, didn’t make a lap in the final round of qualifying.

Cup driver Aric Almirola (91.269) qualified 13th. Truck Series racer Carson Hocevar (90.669) will start 17th. Alex Labbe (90.476) will start 23rd. He’s filling in for Josh Williams, who is serving a one-race suspension for parking his car at the start/finish line of last weekend’s race at Atlanta.

COTA Truck starting lineup: Ross Chastain wins pole


Ross Chastain will start on the pole for Saturday’s Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas.

Chastain earned the top starting spot in Friday’s qualifying with a lap of 91.877 mph. He’ll be joined on the front row by Kyle Busch (91.490 mph).

More: COTA Truck starting lineup

Ty Majeski qualified third with a lap of 91.225 mph. Rookie Nick Sanchez (90.993) will start fourth, and Christian Eckes (90.937) will complete the top five.

Alex Bowman failed to make the race. Bowman had a flat right front on his qualifying lap.

Tyler Reddick leads Cup practice at COTA


Tyler Reddick posted the fastest lap in Friday’s Cup practice at Circuit of the Americas.

Reddick, who won two road course races last season, topped the field in his 23XI Racing Toyota with a lap of 92.989 mph. Kyle Larson was next, posting a lap of 92.618 mph around the 3.41-mile road course.

MORE: COTA Cup practice results

Ross Chastain, who won this race a year ago, was third on the speed chart in practice with a lap of 92.520 mph. He was followed by Kyle Busch (92.498 mph) and Daniel Suarez (92.461 mph).

Jordan Taylor, subbing for the injured Chase Elliott in the No. 9 car for Hendrick Motorsports, was 10th on the speed chart in practice after a lap of 92.404 mph.

Former world champion Jenson Button, driving for Rick Ware Racing, was 28th in practice with a lap of 91.759 mph. Former world champion Kimi Raikkonen, driving the Project 91 car for Trackhouse Racing, was 32nd in practice after a lap of 91.413 mph.

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, driving in his first race for Legacy Motor Club since the Daytona 500, was 36th in practice after a lap of 91.072 mph. IndyCar driver Conor Daly was last among the 39 cars in practice with a lap of 90.095 mph.

Cup qualifying is Saturday. The series races Sunday.