As the calendar turns to June, NASCAR’s free agency scramble known as “silly season” will heat up with the time of the year when teams begin working in earnest on firming up their plans for the following year.
More often than not “silly season” features considerable movement among star drivers looking for fresh starts elsewhere. Within the past few years alone Kyle Larson, Bubba Wallace, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Christopher Bell, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Ross Chastain have made significant jumps from one team to another.
Expect more of the same this during this cycle. Consider this a primer on the drivers to watch as big decisions need to be made and contracts signed.
Martin Truex Jr.
Whether Truex re‐signs with Joe Gibbs Racing or retires is one of two big dominoes in this year’s market. The 2017 Cup Series champion has been noncommittal about his intentions, saying if he’s still competitive and having fun will factor into his decision.
On the competitiveness front, Truex is winless, but he does rank fifth in points and with a little bit of luck easily could have a couple of victories. With the performance gains JGR and Toyota have made, upcoming races at Sonoma, Nashville, Road America and Pocono offer Truex a good chance to beef up on wins this summer.
But is Truex having fun and finding enjoyment adapting to the Next Gen car?
“Some things, yes. Some things, no,” Truex said. “Obviously, we haven’t won yet, which is disappointing. We’ve been finding some speed here lately, feel like and getting our arms around that. We just need to clean up some details and do all those little things right.”
JGR has given Truex time to decide his future, but the understanding is that the team would like a resolution before too long, so it can plan accordingly for next season. A decision is expected soon, although exactly what that is remains unclear.
Should Truex step away, a coveted seat with one of NASCAR’s top organizations is suddenly vacant. The name that quickly will be atop a lot of minds is Ty Gibbs, team owner Joe Gibbs’ grandson who already has seven Xfinity Series wins in just 31 starts. But the 19‐year‐old is in his first full Xfinity season, and the consensus among those The Athletic spoke to close to the situation is that another year in Xfinity would serve him well and there is no rush to promote him to Cup.
One name to watch for this potential opening is Tyler Reddick, currently in his third season with Richard Childress Racing. RCR holds an option on Reddick for 2023, which team owner Richard Childress told The Athletic and NBC Sports in March that he will exercise. But should JGR decide Reddick is the best choice to replace Truex, it wouldn’t be the first time a team found a way to negotiate the release of a driver under contract to another team.
The other big silly season domino is, of course, Busch, who also happens to drive for JGR, further complicating matters for Toyota’s flagship organization.
Busch would like a big-money, long‐term contract befitting his status as a two‐time Cup champion who is still one of NASCAR’s best wheelmen. And in a perfect world, JGR would be able to offer Busch the financial compensation he seeks as drivers of his ilk are hard to replace.
Complicating matters, however, is that Busch’s longtime primary sponsor, Mars, is ending its backing of the No. 18 team at the end of the season. No replacement sponsor is yet signed, and until this issue has some clarity, JGR is limited on what it can offer Busch, who publicly expressed his frustration in April about the drawn-out negotiations.
“I’ll pull this up because I keep the stat handy all the time: One driver has accounted for 36 percent of our total wins across all three (NASCAR national) series, and you know who that driver is. It’s just amazing,” said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development. “So any scenario that doesn’t have Kyle Busch retiring from Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota would be a monstrous disappointment — for us and for Coach Gibbs and the family.”
In recent weeks, JGR has moved closer to securing primary sponsorship for the No. 18 team. According to the Sports Business Journal, JGR is in “advanced discussions with a major technology company” on what would be a one-year contract.
A company coming on to back a major team for just one year is unusual, but such a deal could allow JGR to at least sign Busch to one-year bridge extension and push negotiations down the road. Although not what either side wants, it may be the best alternative.
What is clear is that Busch doesn’t have many options should he choose to leave the team he has been with since 2008. With the exception of Stewart‐Haas Racing, there are few viable landing spots for Busch that could give him a realistic chance to win a third Cup championship. Hendrick Motorsports has all four of its drivers under contract, with Chase Elliott and William Byron each recently signing multi-year extensions, while Team Penske is content with its three‐driver lineup and has no known plans to add a fourth car.
“We’re working on it,” Wilson said. “This is a conversation I have with Joe (Gibbs) every week, and I’m optimistic. (Busch) doesn’t want to go anywhere else. He has been very candid. You know, he can’t wait for the day that his little boy, Brexton, races a Toyota Tundra out of the Kyle Busch Motorsports stable. He has that in his sights. And that’s not going to be for another 10-plus years, which means that we’ve got to make sure that we’re still together long after Kyle’s out of the driver’s seat full time.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
While Stenhouse was seen by some as a candidate to replace the retiring Aric Almirola at Stewart‐Haas Racing, Stenhouse is now off SHR’s radar. He is now expected to re‐sign with JTG Daugherty Racing as negotiations between the two sides are underway and expected to be finalized “soon,” according to a person familiar with the discussions. When Stenhouse was asked Saturday about his future, he expressed confidence he would continue driving JRG’s No. 47 car in 2023.
“Definitely I’ve started those talks, and I feel really good about where we are in that process,” Stenhouse said. “Nothing to announce or anything, but I do feel good about where we’re at, where our whole race team is right now. We’re in a really good position with how we’re running, and our partners are super pumped, which is always a plus.
“I think we’re in a good place. I really like everybody that’s there. And they seem to like me as well. So, two positives. I’m looking forward to hopefully getting (the contract) done sooner than later. But like I said, I’ve been having talks with them about that so I would say that’s in a good spot.”
Jones quietly has turned heads this season, sitting 16th in points and in playoff contention just past the midpoint of the regular season. That’s a notable accomplishment considering he’s essentially driving for a Cup team in Petty GMS Motorsports that is in its first year after Maury Gallagher purchased the assets to Richard Petty Motorsports during the offseason.
Entering the summer without his plans unsolidified is not new for Jones as he has been in this position each of the past three years. Understandably, he would prefer a multi-year contract this go round and would like to have things settled by the end of summer.
“Having a multi-year deal would be something I would like,” Jones said. “To at least give some comfort of knowing what (you’ve) got going on for a while and be able to continue to just build the program, continue to work towards one goal with everybody.”
Looking at the landscape it’s likely, although not a foregone conclusion, that Jones remains with GMS. It’s a good fit for both him and the team. Jones stays with an organization committed to building and fielding a competitive team while GMS gets a driver whose ability is worthy of a ride with a higher profile team but repeatedly has found himself shuffled out.
“I feel like we’ve done good for each other,” Jones said. “I feel like I’ve helped their program. And I feel like Maury coming in has helped our program with the Petty side of things. So overall, it’s been good. I like working with Dave (Elenz, crew chief). I like working with the guys. I’d like to stay, it’s just a matter of getting both sides happy and getting everything good. But I’ve been happy there so far.”
Ever since Almirola announced in early January that he would retire at season’s end, the question of his replacement has loomed large. SHR is an upper-echelon team where a driver has a chance to consistently contend for wins. This is a coveted opportunity that allows team co‐owners Tony Stewart and Gene Haas to pick the best available driver, which they’ve done by even gauging Busch’s interest, according to sources.
As the process has played out and remains fluid, Preece has emerged as the leading candidate to replace Almirola behind the wheel of the No. 10 Ford. Since signing on with SHR as the team’s reserve driver in January, which includes spending extensive time in Ford’s simulator, Preece has left a favorable impression.
“We haven’t made any decision, but Ryan Preece might be a logical candidate to fill that seat,” Haas said on May 7. “He’s talented and did really well in the Xfinity Series a few years back.”
Haas is not the only person within SHR speaking on Preece’s behalf. Kevin Harvick, whose agency also represents Preece, advocated for Preece on Saturday, saying the 31-year-old driver is deserving of an opportunity like the one SHR can provide.
“I think for me, I’ve kind of seen Ryan and seen how he operates, and he’s just a hard-nosed racer and can put everything together himself and do everything himself,” Harvick said. “And to me, that’s the kind of guy you want, right? You want somebody who knows it all, and he’s just a fun kid to be around and works hard and can race. He just needs the right opportunity.”
Further working in Preece’s favor is that he won’t command a big-dollar contract. That’s an enticing prospect for a team still uncertain whether Smithfield Foods will continue as the primary sponsor. It wouldn’t be surprising if Preece gets what is essentially a one-year “prove it” deal, allowing SHR to reassess its options for 2024 in what could be a robust market featuring several notable free agents.
Few, if anyone, expect Suarez not to return to Trackhouse Racing for a third season. But he’s included on this list because he is without a contract for next year, and that is worth noting. The expectation is Suarez and Trackhouse will agree on an extension. This is another example of a driver-team pairing that makes too much sense not to continue forward.
“We are in discussions,” Suarez said. “This is where I want to be.”
During the past year, Gragson has matured considerably with his results reflecting his growth. He has five Xfinity victories in the past 23 races, emerging as one of the most consistent drivers to the point he’s considered a favorite to win the championship.
As opposed to the scrutiny he faced last spring following some missteps, folks are now talking about Gragson in a positive light. This makes the timing right for him to make the move to Cup full time, as there is little upside in staying in Xfinity for a fifth year.
One obvious option is with Kaulig Racing, where Gragson is currently driving the team’s No. 16 Cup car on a part‐time basis. Kaulig Racing president Chris Rice said Gragson is on the team’s list of candidates the team is currently sorting through and hopes to have a decision made by late July or early August.
Also keep an eye on what happens with Reddick and RCR. Should Reddick leave, Gragson likely will be a candidate to drive the No. 8 Chevrolet. Beyond his talent, Gragson is sponsored by Bass Pro Shops, which has longtime ties to RCR, and Chevrolet is high on him, so it would have no objections seeing him sign with the Chevrolet‐aligned RCR. A lot needs to happen for this scenario to come to fruition, but the pieces fit.
Like Gragson, Hemric is a candidate to drive the Kaulig’s No. 16 Cup car, which he’s timesharing with Gragson and AJ Allmendinger this season. Unlike Gragson, Hemric has had an up and down season and largely has struggled, posting just a single top‐five finish. Such tepid results hurt his candidacy, even if he’s the defending Xfinity champion and is incredibly well-liked in the garage.
At this point, Hemric isn’t in line for a competitive Cup ride. His best bet is to remain with Kaulig’s Xfinity program.
McDowell is off to a solid start this season, already tying his career‐high with five top‐10 finishes. Adding to this accomplishment is that he has done this working with first‐year crew chief Blake Harris and his Front Row Motorsports team lacks the wealth of resources of other organizations.
A bigger team needing a veteran stopgap could do a lot worse than signing McDowell, who’s deserving of such an opportunity. More realistic is that the 2021 Daytona 500 winner stays with Front Row, which values McDowell’s contributions on and off the track.
The only hiccup is that most of Front Row’s driver decisions are predicated on sponsorship and McDowell being victimized by this wouldn’t be outlandish, although unfair. Don’t expect any decision by Front Row any time soon as team owner Bob Jenkins is often among the last to solidify his driver lineup for the following season.
“I feel like Bob has been ultra-committed to me and has been more than loyal and given me a great opportunity,” McDowell said. “And we’ve had a lot of success and, to be honest with you, I don’t think about it too much and don’t worry about it too much.”
The inclusion of Smith on this list may seem odd, but it shouldn’t be. The 22‐year‐old has been stellar in the Truck Series, posting consecutive runner‐up finishes in the championship, and his three wins this season are a series best.
A lot of teams are high on Smith, who should have assorted opportunities as he looks to climb the ladder. One option that cannot be dismissed is if his current team, Front Row, somehow has an opening with its two‐car Cup program. Were this to occur, Smith immediately becomes the top choice to fill that vacancy.
(Top photo of Martin Truex Jr.: Kevin Abele / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)