As if all the crazy things that have happened during the 2020 season wasn’t enough, this season also has one of the biggest pools of drivers in a contract year that we’ve seen in a long time, and there are some very big names on that list too. About a month ago I reached out to Bob Pockrass from FOX Sports on twitter to see if I could get a complete list of all the drivers currently out of contract and which cars are without drivers for 2021, and thankfully he was right on it coming back to me with a list of 15 full-time rides, currently without a driver. Since then I have been trying to figure out who would fit where, what the different teams might be looking for and I’ve basically just been waiting for news of some sort of who is going where. And just as this entry was completed and getting ready to be posted, news started breaking about Brad Keselowski and Penske Racing coming to terms over a contract extension, which unfortunately cut out a big part of this article, as well as changed a lot of what I had predicted as possible driver moves.
Let’s start off by listing all the full-time cars currently without contracted drivers for next season: 10, 13, 14, 20, 21, 32, 34, 37, 38, 41, 42, 43, 48 and 96. This means that drivers like Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, Matt DiBenedetto, John Hunter Nemechek, Cole Custer and Bubba Wallace are all currently without a contract for next year. Add to that the group of drivers currently in the Xfinity Series looking to take a step up to the Cup Series. Drivers like Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric will most certainly end up in one of these seats, Noah Gragson and Brandon Jones will most likely be looking to do the same. This entry I will focus on some of the main drivers and cars going into this silly season, then summarize the rest at the end. If you don’t fancy reading it all, here is a full list of what changes I believe will be made for 2021, along with some second choices for most cars.
|Brad Keselowski (conf.)
|Chase Briscoe (R)*
|Kyle Larson, Clint Bowyer
|Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace
|Austin Cindric (R)*
|Noah Gragson (R)*, Timmy Hill
|John Hunter Nemechek
|Chase Briscoe (R)*
|Matt DiBenedetto, Clint Bowyer
|Noah Gragson (R)*
|John Hunter Nemechek
|Clint Bowyer, Matt DiBenedetto
|Brandon Jones (R)*
#48 Hendrick Motorsports – Starting off with probably the biggest question mark on everyone’s minds on this matter, -Who will replace the 7-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson in the 48 car? This has been the one that’s been hardest for me to figure out. Should HMS decide to put a younger driver in this car, that would leave Alex Bowman as the oldest driver of the team at 27 years old. Chevrolet has been a little bit behind for the last few seasons now, and with Johnson retiring I think the only reasonable way to go would be to get someone with experience in there to help both the team and the other younger drivers to develop. In my mind that only leaves somebody like Clint Bowyer or potentially Justin Allgaier who served as Johnson’s replacement at Indianapolis earlier this season. Though I do not see either of those drivers getting that ride. If they want to go with a younger driver and focus solely on speed, I think the driver with the best shot at the #48 is John Hunter Nemechek. But who knows, they might even go with Matt DiBenedetto. Then there are also the rumours that Hendrick might be cutting the team down to just three cars, getting rid of the #88 and moving Alex Bowman to the #48. I hope this will stay a rumour, as I don’t see either RCR or Chip Ganassi Racing adding a third car for next year, thus leaving us with one less competitive car on the track.
Brad Keselowski – Just as this entry was finished, Keselowski signed a new deal with Penske Racing to continue driving the #2 car. Considering the success he has had this season, scoring three wins and sitting 2nd in points, that was to be expected.
Aric Almirola – Going into this season I thought Aric would be the first driver to leave Stewart-Haas Racing due to lack of good results, but boy has he proven me wrong. He may not have a win yet, but he’s currently 8th in points, highest of all winless drivers, and he’s on a streak right now of nine straight top-10 finishes. Every week I wait for him to win a race, and as soon as that happens, I am sure he will have a contract extension on the table. If for some reason that were to not happen, he can end up literally anywhere.
Clint Bowyer – As much as I love this guy, I just don’t see him staying at Stewart-Haas. I really hope I’m wrong on this one, but I feel like SHR will have to move Chase Briscoe up from the Xfinity Series after this year, and with Cole Custer being a rookie this year, having already scored his first career win, I don’t see him going anywhere. Unfortunately, I don’t know where Bowyer would end up should he have to leave SHR, but the only two potential cars I see for him are either the #37 or possibly the #48 with some luck. He has expressed a desire to get into broadcasting when his career is over, but also said that he does not feel like his racing career is over yet. However, if he can’t get in a top tier car, I think he’s going to call it quits.
Matt DiBenedetto – This is another driver that can end up literally anywhere. He has a love for racing unlike anybody else in the field, but for some reason he just can not seem to get the sponsorship deals some of these other drivers can. For now I will put him in the #43, as they will be looking to get as good a driver as possible for that car, but I believe he is a second choice for a lot of other cars, like the #42, #48, #14 or possibly even the #20 over at Joe Gibbs Racing.
John Hunter Nemechek – Still in his rookie season, but he has proven that he is a good race car driver. Time and time again he’s outperforming the equipment he’s in, and I believe that has opened up a lot of doors for him going into 2021. If he can just get the sponsorship for it, I would put him in the #48, despite what I said earlier about them being best off putting an older driver in that car. If he doesn’t get the #48, he’s another one of those drivers that could go anywhere, like the #14, #20, #42 or #43.
Bubba Wallace – Richard Petty Motorsports have publicly said that they have offered a new contract to Wallace, which would include part ownership of the team, but with his current market value I think he will take his shot at moving to the #42. He says he has a lot of offers on the table, but I just can’t see any of the other top teams to have put themselves on that list.
Kyle Larson – One of the best race car drivers out there. Unfortunately he is currently suspended by NASCAR, but should he ask to get reinstated and brought back, the only person who I believe would take him on is Tony Stewart, which would most likely see Larson driving the #14 in 2021. There are probably smaller teams who would love to do the same, but I don’t see Larson coming back unless it’s in one of the fastest cars.
#20 Joe Gibbs Racing – I think this one has flown under many peoples radars, but with JGR being the best performing organisation in the Cup Series over the last few years, this is probably one of the most wanted rides of the 2021 silly season. Currently driven by Erik Jones, who is 43 points below the cut-off line, and despite several top-5 finishes this season, just haven’t been able to get the consistent finishes you would expect out of that car. Who will end up In this ride obviously depends a lot on what is going to happen with the #95, but I believe we will see Christopher Bell in the #20 next season.
There are obviously plenty of other things to go through as well, but I don’t want to make this too long, so here’s a quick summary of the other most highly anticipated cars and drivers. We’ve got Ty Dillon who will need to catch a break soon if he wasn’t to evolve his career. Tyler Reddick, who despite being contracted by RCR might get bought out of that contract and put in a top tier car. Will Daniel Suarez get another chance at a good ride? How many rookies will we eventually see from the Xfinity Series? And finally, Levine Family Racing is rumoured to be wanting to sell the business, which would mean that the #95 is either moving or disappearing all together, which means Cristopher Bell is potentially on the market, should he not get moved to the #20.
To sum it all up in short, the 2021 silly season will be one of the best in a long time. As drivers and cars starts getting paired up for next year, we’ll go back to this list and see what’s happening, and I’ll probably make some minor adjustments depending on the first few announcements that are made. The main pieces to this whole puzzle though are obviously #2, #48 and Kyle Larson, and what happens to those three pieces will dictate a large portion of what is going to happen with the rest.