With the 2020 calendar-year half over, NASCAR’s annual silly season is getting ready to kick into high gear, with numerous rumors circulating the garage area about the 2021 plans for various drivers and teams. At the time of publishing this story (July 2nd, 2020), no OFFICIAL moves have been made, except for contract extensions by Alex Bowman (Hendrick Motorsports) and Ryan Blaney (Team Penske).
2021 NASCAR SILLY SEASON RUNDOWN: VOLUME ONE – JULY 2ND, 2020
Note: The following are all RUMORS, either reported by reliable news sources (credit given when required), or reported directly to TobyChristie.com on the condition of anonymity. Nothing is official until a contract has been signed and a deal announced.
COREY LAJOIE LEAVING GOFAS RACING AT THE CONCLUSION OF THE 2020 SEASON?
Corey LaJoie, without a doubt, has been one of the best feel-good stories in the entire NASCAR Cup Series garage.
LaJoie, who started his NASCAR National Series career as a Richard Petty Motorsports development driver in 2013, has been fighting his way into the limelight in the NASCAR Cup Series ever since and has become one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers.
Never having the opportunity to drive a race-winning car in one of NASCAR’s National series, LaJoie saw the window potentially open when Jimmie Johnson announced that he would be stepping away from full-time competition following 2020. Instead of a phone call, text message or email, LaJoie chose to deliver a handwritten letter to Rick Hendrick, in person, at the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Induction Night in January 2020, merely asking just to be considered for the No. 48 in 2021.
Whether or not the letter will work for LaJoie, is yet to be seen, but since the initial buzz about the letter has died down, Brad Keselowski, Erik Jones and now even Denny Hamlin have passed LaJoie as top prospects for the No. 48.
In the most recent episode of “Sunday Money”, LaJoie spoke about his thoughts heading into what is traditionally known as “Silly Season”:
“Well, eventually, this entire story is going to get told. And if you’re keeping up with my social media and mine and Go Fas Racing’s plans over the next several months, you’re going to know there are some things that I’m in a tough spot with. I got Kevin’s opinion — I went to Kevin Harvick’s bus on Sunday to get his opinion on how to navigate such things that are put on my plate. He gave me some amazing advice from his own experience as well as he says he’s worn the owner’s hat, he’s worn the driver’s hat, he’s worn the father’s hat, he’s worn them all. And he was wearing the friend hat when he was talking to me. He gave me some advice on how to deal with it that I’m going to definitely take into account for the next month or two.”
“Stay tuned, it’s going to be an interesting couple of weeks. But I’m going to end up doing what’s good for my family and my career. And what is necessary. My team is doing some necessary things. I’m doing some necessary things to stay relative as a race car driver and provide for my family. We’re going to address and navigate through it and be okay, everybody’s gonna be okay.”
While there are no clear signs of where Corey LaJoie will land next season, the 28-year old has made it clear that he will be doing what is best for his family and his racing career, even if that means not returning to GoFas Racing in 2021, which seems like the most likely option at this point in time.
JIMMIE JOHNSON’S RETIREMENT BRINGING BRAD KESELOWSKI BACK INTO THE HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS FOLD?
Without a doubt, Brad Keselowski has been at the forefront of names being mentioned as possibilities for Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 in 2021, but Keselowski has a unique history with the team, that makes this an interesting situation to follow.
Keselowski spent three years early in his career driving for Hendrick Motorsports and affiliate teams JR Motorsports and Phoenix Racing, allowing him to score six NASCAR Xfinity Series victories and one NASCAR Cup Series victory, leading to the popular opinion that he would be the next superstar for Hendrick Motorsports. However, when Mark Martin experienced a career resurgence in 2009, visiting victory lane five times throughout the season, and finishing second in points to teammate Jimmie Johnson, which became concerning to Keselowski, who was all but promised a NASCAR Cup Series ride for Hendrick Motorsports in 2010.
“As soon as Mark [Martin] had won Phoenix, he walked up to Mr. Hendrick and told him he wanted to drive the car for the next year or two, which essentially meant there was no spot for me.” Keselowski told Graham Bensinger in an interview.
Since leaving Hendrick Motorsports over a decade ago, Keselowski has found immense success at Team Penske, netting two championships and sixty-four victories between NASCAR’s top-two divisions. Despite nearly a decade of stability, it appears as though Brad Keselowski could be on the move after the season concludes in November, due in large part, to the almost complete departure of Miller Lite, Keselowski’s primary sponsor from 2011 to 2019.
Per Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern, “Keselowski has not received a contract extension offer from Team Penske.”
➖ However, some people close to the team think that the sides could still eventually strike a deal — though Roger Penske may try to negotiate new terms first. pic.twitter.com/Z3My1KA8PS
— Adam Stern (@A_S12) June 30, 2020
Even though Keselowski has been rumored as a front-runner to drive the No. 48 in 2021, Roger Penske still may have something to say about the car that Keselowski hops behind the wheel of next February at Daytona.
ERIK JONES A LEADING CONTENDER FOR HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS’ VACANT RIDE OR STAYING WITH TOYOTA AND JOE GIBBS RACING?
It seems as though, every year when we talk about NASCAR silly season, Erik Jones’ name is at the forefront of the conversation in some way, shape or form.
Jones, the 24-year old from Byron, Michigan will once again find himself at the forefront of that conversation heading into 2021, as his one-year extension at Joe Gibbs Racing will have run its course when the NASCAR Cup Series takes the checkered flag in Phoenix. In a seven-year NASCAR career, Jones has exclusively driven for Toyota teams in the NASCAR Cup Series, NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series.
Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson, would like to keep that immaculate record intact beyond 2020, but has not been able to make a decision on the best way to ensure that both Erik Jones and Toyota teammate Christopher Bell remain racing under the Toyota banner.
According to reports by Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern, contract negotiations have begun between Jones and Joe Gibbs Racing, but are still in the very early stages.
Recently, rumors have quickly surfaced that Jones may be of primary interest to Rick Hendrick, who is trying to fill a hole left in his team’s lineup following Jimmie Johnson’s end-of-season retirement. If true, these rumors could be an excellent backup options for Jones if negotiations with Joe Gibbs Racing were to fall apart.
MATT DIBENEDETTO, AUSTIN CINDRIC LEADING CONTENDERS FOR KESELOWSKI’S RIDE?
This is an intriguing story to follow, because it all depends on whether or not Brad Keselowski is retained in the No. 2 Ford Mustang for Team Penske.
If Keselowski were to move on from the team that he has been with for over a decade, the biggest rumors of who will land the coveted No. 2 ride seem to point toward Wood Brothers Racing’s Matt Diebendetto or Team Penske’s NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Austin Cindric.
Obviously, with Cindric’s father being Team Penske president Tim Cindric, it seems as though the writing on the wall points to Cindric — who has two career NASCAR Xfinity Series wins — eventually finding his way into a NASCAR Cup Series ride for Team Penske.
However, do they feel like he is totally ready for the leap?
Arguably, Cindric hasn’t been as dominant as “the big three” (Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick & Christopher Bell) were in 2019, but Cindric has shown a significant amount of improvement on all different types of race tracks, as well as a astronomical improvement in his race-craft. While the question “Is Austin Cindric ready for Cup?” doesn’t exactly have a cut and dry answer, many could argue that there could be a case made for Cindric moving to Cup in 2021.
If he isn’t, the stopgap very well could be Matt DiBenedetto who has performed very admirably for Wood Brothers Racing. So far this season, DiBenedetto sits 14th in the championship standings and has scored a second-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. DiBenedetto has accumulated four top-ten efforts through the first 15 races of the year and has been knocking on the door of a first career win since driving for Leavine Family Racing last season.
KYLE LARSON DRIVING FOR STEWART-HAAS RACING IN 2021?
Kyle Larson went from one of the brightest rising stars in the NASCAR Cup Series to being suspended from the sport after uttering a racial slur during an iRacing event back in April. Larson, who had racked up six wins in his young career was fired from Chip Ganassi Racing after the sponsorship implications following the controversy.
Since then, Larson has been allowed to run on the dirt, and has been mighty impressive over the last couple of months.
In his last 17 starts, which includes races in two different types of vehicles and multiple different race series, Larson has scored 10 wins, and has only finished outside the top-two once (a third place effort).
Larson’s incredible run has fueled speculation that perhaps he is popping back on the radar for competitive NASCAR Cup Series organizations, and Larson has already indicated that he would relish the chance to return to Cup someday if the opportunity ever arose.
Well, according to Racer’s Robin Miller, AJ Foyt has disclosed that he believes Tony Stewart is going to hire Larson.
Miller, who was answering a reader’s question in his mail bag feature said, “I called A.J. several weeks ago and told him to hire Larson, but he seemed to think Tony Stewart was going to do it. I asked Stew a couple weeks ago, and he said he’d like to, but nothing to report yet. Larson belongs in the Indy 500.”
Rumors have already been persistent since last year that Clint Bowyer could be eyeing retirement. If Bowyer bows out following 2020, don’t be surprised if Kyle Larson’s name leads the list of those who could hop behind the wheel of the No. 14 in 2021.
DENNY HAMLIN AN UNEXPECTED CONTENDER FOR THE NO. 48?
This rumor was starting to gain traction even before Denny Hamlin was spotted in a boat with Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon, but an Instagram picture post of the three hanging out in their free time really escalated things.
Following his win at Pocono this past Sunday, Hamlin was asked about the boat ride with Hendrick and Gordon, and he basically shrugged it off as just a friendly hang out. “They called and wanted to see if I wanted to go on a boat ride,” Hamlin explained. “I said yes. I had nothing else to do. It was fun to say the least. I was nervous. I’ll be honest with you, I was a little nervous. I think 60 is the fastest I’ve ever gone on water. Blew that out of the water.”
Whether you believe it was just an innocent get together or not, it could be a reason to pay attention to Hamlin’s contract negotiations. Many seem to believe that Hamlin, who has 41-career wins in the NASCAR Cup Series could truly be preparing to leave the only team he’s ever raced for in the NASCAR Cup Series – Joe Gibbs Racing.
It’s a contract year for Hamlin, and he is showing out. The No. 11 Toyota Camry has won four of the first 15 races in 2020. Martin Truex Jr. is the only other JGR driver who has visited victory lane to start the season.
Would Hamlin really leave JGR after scoring 10 wins in his last 51 starts? I mean, stranger things have happened.
That being said, even with the boat ride evidence, this one seems far-fetched (for now) at the very least. Hamlin and Gibbs have been openly loyal to each other since day one, and equally FedEx has been just as loyal. If I were to foster a guess, I would expect Hamlin back with JGR in 2021, but the longer in the year he goes without a contract in place, the stronger these rumors will become.
CHRISTOPHER BELL MOVING TO JOE GIBBS RACING FOR 2021?
Looking ahead to the 2021 season, the story line of Christopher Bell is an intriguing one, in the way that Bell’s situation – despite being seemingly huge — more than likely will not be one of the first big moves that are made, but rather will be a part of the reaction from the moves that come before it.
While it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that Bell could be a candidate for a ride with another team and/or manufacturer, Bell has not given anybody any indication that he will flee from the big plans that Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota have lined up for the 25-year old from Oklahoma.
Through the first 15 races of the season, Bell has scored a top-five and four top-tens, the most of the ROTY contenders. However, the 25-year old currently sits 25th in point standings heading into Indianapolis, in large part due to the five consecutive finishes of 20th or worse to start the season, along with the ten-point penalty assessed to Leavine Family Racing at Las Vegas in February.
Bell’s performance this season, has been rather inconsistent, but the 25-year old has shown that if in the right situation, that he can produce great results. However, it appears as though the performance of the No. 95 this season will not be the leading factor in the decision of what car Bell drives in 2021, but rather the performance of others, like Erik Jones – who’s contract with Joe Gibbs Racing is set to expire at the end of 2020 — will have more of an affect on where Bell goes, than what Bell does himself.
If Christopher Bell is not to return to Leavine Family Racing in 2021, there is absolutely ZERO evidence or reasoning to believe that Bell will be anywhere but in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry in 2021.
However, crazier things have happened before.