Contingencies abound for NASCAR's 'silly season'
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Brad Keselowski left himself very little wiggle room when asked if he is a candidate to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. next season.
Keselowski is in a contract year with Team Penske, and crew chief Paul Wolfe already signed a multi-year extension to stay on. Keselowski? There's no signature on his new contract, and the delay left many wondering if he's eyeing Earnhardt's ride or simply using it as leverage in negotiating with Roger Penske.
“Roger has given me a lot, and I have no reason to not want to stay with him,” Keselowski replied when the Associated Press asked him if Earnhardt's retirement at the end of the season and his open seat at Hendrick Motorsports is holding up a new deal.
As NASCAR hits the long, slow stretch of summer, its “silly season” is certainly heating up and Earnhardt's seat in the No. 88 Chevrolet the biggest prize of free agency.
Keselowski would be a great fit for the 88. His NASCAR career was launched by Earnhardt, and he spent time as a development driver in the Hendrick system. But he flourished after hooking up with Penske near the end of 2009 and was a Cup champion three years later.
Perhaps Keselowski wants more support for his Truck Series team, which loses money annually but is a starting point for many young NASCAR drivers. It's hard to say what the holdup is, particularly because few employees ever voluntarily leave teams owned by Roger Penske or Rick Hendrick, but it's a strong bet that Keselowski eventually signs his name to stay right where he is now.
So where does that leave Earnhardt's seat?
Hendrick actually has two potential vacancies. Kasey Kahne has a contract to drive the No. 5 through next season, but few would be surprised if he's replaced at the end of the year.
That would mean Hendrick needs to scour the market for available drivers, and the top name might be Matt Kenseth. The two-time Daytona 500 winner is in a contract year with Joe Gibbs Racing, and what he decides for his future could be the most important domino to fall. Yes, Alex Bowman did an admirable job filling in for Earnhardt last season, but he's young and unproven and could be a hard sell to sponsors who pay top dollar for Earnhardt's representation.
William Byron probably isn't ready for a Cup ride — he has all of 13 Xfinity Series races on his resume — so Hendrick is going to need a seat filler if he ends up with two empty cars. It wouldn't be surprising to see Bowman in one ride and Kenseth in the other.
There's not been much talk about Stewart-Haas Racing, but there could be significant changes there next season. Team co-owner Gene Haas already pays for a portion of Kurt Busch's program, and Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer have sponsorship holes on both of their cars.
Busch is believed to be in a contract year, but Cup title sponsor Monster Energy also helps foot the bill on his car and may decide it doesn't need to be with an individual driver.