Friday 5: Will free-agent frenzy define 2021 Cup season?

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The free agent market could prove volatile with more than a third of last year’s Cup playoff drivers entering the final season of their contract and a group of Xfinity drivers positioned to move to NASCAR’s premier series.

Among those entering the final year of their contract are 2012 champion Brad Keselowski, 2004 champion Kurt Busch, 2017 champion Martin Truex Jr., three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, and 2008 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman, as well as 2020 playoff drivers Alex Bowman and Matt DiBenedetto, among others.

Keselowski’s contract with Team Penske was to have expired after last season, but he signed a one-year extension through this year. After finishing second in points and winning four races last season, he’ll again face a decision on his future. He turns 37 two days before the Daytona 500.

“It’s not fun,” Keselowski told NBC Sports. “I think probably the biggest thing is you try to not let it be a distraction to your team. You operate in good faith. There’s a level of persistence that is required to work through it. I don’t sit and dwell on it either.”

Kurt Busch Season in Review
Kurt Busch has won at least one Cup race each of the past seven years. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

As the 2019 season came to a close, Busch signed a multi-year extension to stay at Chip Ganassi Racing, so he could drive the Next Gen car. But NASCAR delayed that vehicle’s debut to next season because of the pandemic.

So would Busch, who is 42 years old, look for a deal next year in order to drive the Next Gen car?

“The biggest thing is this Next Gen car is intriguing,” Busch, who tested the car in November and January, told NBC Sports. “I’ve enjoyed my test sessions with it on the road course and the oval. NASCAR asked me to come back and verify things in January and I felt flattered. That got me even more fired up about what 2022 could bring.

“Again, it’s a matter of all the right timing and making sure things fall into place. I guess the word right now is intrigue. I’m intrigued about the car, all the newness of all these road courses, the dirt race at Bristol and it’s like the slogan – this is NASCAR’s ‘best season ever’ – why jump out? If the opportunity is there with Ganassi, with Monster Energy, with Gearwrench, we’ll see what the schedule brings.”

Denny Hamlin, who is 40 years old, confirmed to NBC Sports that he is in the final year of his deal with Joe Gibbs Racing. He’s not worried.

“I think I’ve built a great relationship, obviously, with my sponsor, and I’m in a such a blessed situation to be with Joe Gibbs Racing,” Hamlin said. “I look at it like this: I don’t know how long I’ll go. I don’t see the end by any means. I do not see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I also know that as long as I continue to perform at the level I’m performing, I’m going to want to continue to win.

“Right now, I know that Joe Gibbs Racing is the best place for me to do that. Like I’ve said many times, I want to end my career there. That’s super important for me. But ultimately, I just want to win as long as I can. There’s a great number of wins out there for me that I’d like to get to before the end of my career. If I could do that, I’m going to be damn proud of my career. I already am. I still am in what I believe the prime of my career, and I’ve still got lot of years of winning ahead of me.”

Ryan Newman Bubba Wallace
Ryan Newman enters the final year of his contract with Roush Fenway Racing. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Newman said he’s more focused on his goal of winning a Cup championship this season at Roush Fenway Racing than leaving the sport.

“The reality is any driver that goes out on their own terms has quit, right? That’s the only way it works,” the 43-year-old told NBC Sports. “So I’m not a quitter. I haven’t achieved my goal, so the only way I would go out on somebody else’s terms is if they quit me. That’s not good teamwork. I’ve got to put myself in position with the right people that have a common goal of winning races and eventually winning a championship. I know that I’m at that place.

“That doesn’t mean I’ll stay at that place, but I’m at that place and as long as I’m capable – in other words, able to do the things I need to on and off the racetrack to be successful – then I’ll continue to do so with the hopes of living out my lifelong dream to be a Cup champion.”

Truex confirmed to NBC Sports that his contract with Joe Gibbs Racing ends after this year. As to what his future could hold, Truex said: “At this point in my career, I kind of take it year by year just because I really don’t have to worry about long-term where I’m going to be, what’s going on.

“I’m happy with where I’m at. I’m confident in what I can do in the race car. As long as I’m fighting for wins and, hopefully, putting myself in that championship conversation again, I don’t have a whole lot to worry about.”

DiBenedetto knows he won’t be in the No. 21 for Wood Brothers Racing after this season. That ride will go to reigning Xfinity champion Austin Cindric.

“The neat thing is I have the opportunity to let my performance do the speaking and auditioning for me, which is all I can ask for,” DiBenedetto told NBC Sports.

A challenge for some drivers will be what the landscape is like for next season.

The Xfinity Series features several returning drivers who won races last season. If they repeat those results this season, it could propel them to Cup rides in 2022.

Some of those drivers could include Harrison Burton (four wins last year), Justin Haley (three wins), Justin Allgaier (three wins), Brandon Jones (three wins) and Noah Gragson (two wins).

Put this together and it could make the race for seats unlike many seasons.

“I think there’s definitely going to be a lot of craziness,” Erik Jones told NBC Sports about this year’s silly season after going through it for the first time last year in his move to Richard Petty Motorsports.

2. Numbers game

Since 2017, Ross Chastain has competed in 243 races across Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Trucks and run 47,275 laps in competition.

“Wow! No wonder everything hurts!” Chastain, 28, quipped to NBC Sports when informed of those stats.

AUTO: FEB 21 NASCAR Cup Series - Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube
Ross Chastain will drive the No. 42 Cup car for Chip Ganassi Racing this season. (Photo by Will Lester/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

He competed in 77 races across NASCAR’s three national series in 2019. Kyle Busch is the only driver who has run more races in a season across the three national series since 2006. Chastain ran 74 races across all three national series in 2018.

While Chastain’s focus will be on his new Cup ride at Chip Ganassi Racing this season, he says all those races and laps helped him get this opportunity.

“It was that quantity of laps that let me learn,” Chastain said. “There’s not as much testing anymore and I was with teams that did not test at all. I wasn’t in the simulators like I am now. Some drivers through that time would have more laps in simulators than I had in real life. It was real life racing that just helped me continue up the learning curve that I was on.”

As he contemplated all the races and laps he had run the last few years, Chastain recalled his NASCAR debut in 2011 at what is now Lucas Oil Raceway, located near Indianapolis.

“We finished 10th and then we got four more (Truck races),” he said. “I just remember every one of those drivers meetings, sitting in chapel right after the drivers meeting and thinking ‘I’ve got four more. I’ve got three more. I’ve got two more drivers meetings. I’ve got one more race. All right, it’s probably over.’ And now, we’ve run that many in just a few years.

“No wonder everything creeks and pops at 28 years old. I wouldn’t trade any of it. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, because it’s not for everybody and everybody takes a different path. We didn’t have a plan to do it. Get into each race season and start figuring it out ahead of time, ‘OK, you got this opportunity and that opportunity.’ All my peers would just pick one and go with it, and I wanted to do all of them. It’s worked out.”

Drivers who have run the most races in a season since 2006:

Season

Driver

Trucks

Xfinity

Cup  

Total

2009

Kyle Busch

15

35

36

86

2008

Kyle Busch

18

30

36

84

2010

Kyle Busch

16

29

36

81

2006

Kyle Busch

7

34

36

77

2019

Ross Chastain

23

19

35

77

2020

Timmy Hill 

10

29

36

75

2010

Brad Keselowski 

4

35

36

75

2006

Clint Bowyer 

3

35

36

74

2018 Ross Chastain 7 33 34 74

3. Not the favorite?

Although the March 28 Bristol dirt race is about two months away, the anticipation for the first Cup race on dirt since 1970 grows.

While many would point to Kyle Larson as among the favorites for that race based on his vast dirt racing experience, Larson says he’s not.

“I don’t think you can pick a dirt guy as a favorite,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I know a lot of people will. (Christopher) Bell, myself and Ricky (Stenhouse), we’ve never driven anything like this. I guess Bell and I have with Trucks at Eldora. That’s a way different race track than Bristol.

Bubba Wallace beat me the second year of the event (at Eldora) and he had to my knowledge, no dirt experience. Eldora would get so slick that it would turn into a pavement race in a way. The way you would drive it is kind of like a worn out pavement track. We’ll see how Bristol is. Maybe with more banking you can be more aggressive and maybe that will help the dirt guys some.

“I think the dirt guys, their edge on others will be how we can read a surface and change throughout the length of the race. .… We’ll probably be able to adapt to that quicker, but everybody is so good in the Cup series that they’re going to figure it out fast. I think it’s going to be the same people up front that you see running up front every week.”

Larson won the 2016 Eldora Truck race. He won his second consecutive Chili Bowl Nationals Jan. 16.

4. Helpful hand

Cup rookie Chase Briscoe says he’ll lean on Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick this season, but the relationship between the two drivers is not new.

It goes back to Briscoe’s Xfinity debut at Atlanta in February 2018.

NASCAR Xfinity Series Rinnai 250 - Practice
Chase Briscoe with Kevin Harvick at Atlanta in 2018. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

“Kevin has helped me a ton over the last two years,” Briscoe told NBC Sports. “My first Xfinity race, I wasn’t even driving at Stewart-Haas. I was with Roush (Fenway Racing) and we just happened to be pitted beside each other at Atlanta.

“I was wearing him out. I almost felt bad for him, how much I was talking to him. He was nothing but nice to me. Ever since that day he’s kind of taken me under his wing.

“Last year, I probably called him before five or six racetracks and talked to him for about 20-30 minutes. He’s been amazing to me. He’s been a huge help to me.”

Briscoe said he also received help from SHR’s Aric Almirola last season and expects to lean on Cole Custer, last year’s Cup rookie of the year, “a lot more than he probably realizes because he’s the most similar to me.”

5. Focused ahead

As Denny Hamlin enters his first season juggling his role as driver at Joe Gibbs Racing and co-owner of 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan, he knows some will watch his results closely to see if they dip. If so, some will suggest Hamlin is spending too much time with his new team.

“I just know that it’s going to be out there,” Hamlin told NBC Sports. “I could win three straight and have two bad weeks and that will be the topic, right? You’ve got to mentally prepare for that because you just know this sport is week to week and you’re only as good as you were the last week.”

Hamlin said he has his weeks figured out so he can manage both roles.

“I’ll spend my time at JGR just like I normally would on Mondays working on debriefing and figuring out what I could do better the previous week,” he said. “Then I’ll shift my focus on Tuesday or Wednesday to 23XI figuring out where was (their) shortfalls, how can (they) get better.”

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NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).