As NASCAR’s top-three series graduate into the middle portion of the season and inch closer and closer to setting their respective playoff fields, the NASCAR Cup Series starts to move into its annual “silly season” portion of the year, which in recent years has shown to be intense and somewhat peculiar, often leaving the majority of seats filled at NASCAR’s top-level before the checkered flag drops on the current season in November.
With rumors and rumblings already flying around like mosquitos at a campfire, it appears that this year’s edition of silly season will be no exception to the rule, and may, in fact, be dramatized by the massive changes coming to the NASCAR Cup Series ahead of the 2022 season, with the implementation of the Next Gen car.
To follow along with what has the potential to be one of the most chaotic and confusing silly seasons in a while, visit TobyChristie.com’s 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Driver | Team Chart:
Trackhouse Racing: On The Right Track(house)
Last week, Justin Marks and Trackhouse Racing shocked the world, when the first-year operation announced that they had entered an agreement to purchase Chip Ganassi Racing’s NASCAR Cup Series program, following the conclusion of the season at Phoenix in November.
The move allows the up-and-coming organization to focus on putting their best foot forward, when it comes to the debut of the Next Gen car next February at Daytona International Speedway, instead of scrambling in the off-season to purchase | lease a charter, or two.
Daniel Suarez will remain the driver of the organization’s No. 99 Chevrolet Camaro in 2022, but the decision-making process isn’t over for the star-studded ownership group, as with the acquisition, comes a pair of charters, and the opportunity for Trackhouse Racing to expand into a two-car operation.
So, who could end up piloting the second entry for Trackhouse Racing next season? From the announcement itself, a pair of front-runners emerge, in the form of Kurt Busch and Ross Chastain, the current drivers at Chip Ganassi Racing. Busch says that he was already having discussions with Trackhouse Racing before the announcement of the Ganassi acquisition, likely placing him as the ‘leading contender’ to take the ride.
The team does have some other options. A veteran, like Ryan Newman or Aric Almriola, could help bring some stability and experience to the younger team, while a driver selection of Ryan Preece, Noah Gragson or Kaz Grala, could bring a younger, long-term success to the cutting-edge operation.
One thing is for sure, you cannot underestimate Justin Marks’ ability to make bold and surprising moves, which could lead to the hiring of a driver like Josh Berry, who has shown himself to be a talented prospect in his Xfinity Series tenure this year. Who knows, maybe Marks embraces his roots and hires a road course driver to pilot the team’s second entry, maybe someone like seven-time Trans Am Champion, Ernie Francis Jr?
I hope you aren’t tired of hearing about charters, because they’re going to be playing an enormous role in silly season for the NASCAR Cup Series ahead of next season, as multiple teams – both existing and non-existing — look to secure a charter and compete full-time at NASCAR’s top-level.
For those unfamiliar, the charter system – implemented in 2016 — allows the holder of each charter to be locked into every NASCAR Cup Series event in a season, while also obtaining certain financial benefits that open teams – teams without a charter — do not receive. These charters, just like any asset a company holds, can be purchased, sold, or leased – although only once every five years.
With only 36 charters available, the demand to obtain one far exceeds the number of charters that are available to the teams looking to enter the series. Kaulig Racing was able to purchase a pair of charter from Spire Motorsports, while Trackhouse Racing – who leased one of those two Spire Motorsports charters this season — decided to acquire Chip Ganassi Racing and their two charters.
Barring an extreme move or a surprise departure from the NASCAR Cup Series, the battle to obtain a charter looks to mostly be narrowed down to Rick Ware Racing, as well as another mid-pack team that could elect to shed their charter at seasons end, according to recent rumors.
Both JR Motorsports and 23XI Racing have been transparent about their intentions to secure a charter ahead of next season, and the obstacles that they’ve faced in doing so. When it comes to 23XI Racing, Denny Hamlin has openly stated that the organization could just run their second entry without a charter. However, for Dale Earnhardt Jr – co-owner of JR Motorsports — the current market rate of obtaining a charter – said to be around $10-million — is currently too high for the organization to consider a jump into the NASCAR Cup Series.
GMS Racing has already announced their intentions to run in the NASCAR Cup Series next season, although haven’t determined the capacity in which they’ll do so. The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series powerhouse team could be in the hunt for a charter next season, if they elect to run full-time.
Outside of purchasing or leasing a charter from another organization, there is one other option for teams looking to break into the Cup Series. The Petty Ware Racing No. 51 has been in the bottom-three of chartered entries in the last two seasons, meaning if they do so for a third consecutive season, NASCAR has the right to revolk and reassign the charter.
With many teams looking into securing a charter for next season, it may take some creative moves – like Justin Marks and Trackhouse Racing used — to find themselves locked into the 2022 Daytona 500 when February rolls around.
The Penske Puzzle
We already know that Austin Cindric will be graduating to the NASCAR Cup Series full-time in 2022, but up until a couple of weeks ago, the assumption was he’d be joining Wood Brothers Racing in 2022. However, with the recent news that Brad Keselowski will leave Team Penske at the end of the year, in order to take an ownership role in Roush Fenway Racing, there is now a vacancy within the “mothership”, in the form of the No. 2 Ford Mustang.
Is that where he’ll end up though? While that’s yet to be seen, both him and Matt DiBenedetto – two drivers currently under contract with Team Penske — are the top contenders to fill the vacancy left by Keselowski. DiBenedetto – the current driver for Wood Brothers Racing — has a multi-year contract with Team Penske, which the organization must renew each year.
Both Cindric and DiBenedetto could land in the Team Penske network next season, but the unexpected opening could also provide an opportunity for the organization to make an outside-the-box hire, potentially picking up a driver that has shown promise in the NASCAR Cup Series or NASCAR Xfinity Series.
The Aftermath of the Ganassi Sale
Often times in NASCAR’s “Silly Season”, when there is a major announcement dropped out of the blue, like the sale of Chip Ganassi Racing’s NASCAR Cup Series operation to Justin Makrs and Trackhouse Racing, there is always an aftershock, to the point where said announcement takes the entire landscape of the NASCAR Cup Series and tosses it into a blender. In this case, although the effects are yet to be seen, the chage leaves many questions out in the open, in regards to the organization’s current drivers.
For Ross Chastain and Kurt Busch – Chip Ganassi Racing’s current drivers — the announcement of the team’s sale gives both drivers an opportunity to have discussions with teams and industry memebers in the coming months, in order to understand their options moving forward. In the past, teams have announced this news late in the offseason, sending their drivers into a scramble to re-enter the NASCAR Cup Series and find a ride of solid quality.
Both Busch and Chastain are contenders to fill Trackhouse Racing’s second entry, although with only one available ride and two drivers looking, at least one driver, if not both, will not be retained during the transition. Busch has also reportedly been in talks with 23XI Racing for next season, to pilot the team’s second entry, but mentioned he was waiting to have discussions with Chip Ganassi Racing. With confirmation that the team wont return in 2022, Busch should be starting to dive deeper into discussions with potential options in the coming weeks.
Hypothetically, for Chastain, there are many open rides that he could slip into, but with minimal sponsorship in his corner, it may be difficult to find a natural fit in the NASCAR Cup Series next year. However, one potential option for Chastain could be Kaulig Racing, who he ran full-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for last year, but the team has confirmed that Allmendinger will pilot the second enter on road courses, which means the effort likely wouldn’t be full-time.
On The Haas Seat?
Currently sitting 27th in NASCAR Cup Series point standings, Aric Almirola has faced one of his worst seasons to date in 2021, currently on-track to record the worst full-season points finish of his full-time career at NASCAR’s top-level. However, the one thing that has been consistent in his time at Stewart-Haas Racing, has been the long-standing support of sponsor Smithfield, who has taken on the majority of the primary sponsorship for Almirola’s four-season tenure in the No. 10.
Therefore, it’s likely that Almirola’s future with the organization is mostly dependent on the financial support that Smithfield offers. However, each season, the company has taken a longer time to sign extensions with Stewart-Haas Racing, while also significantly downsizing their representation on Almirola’s Ford Mustang in recent years, downsizing to 25 races this season, from what was once a 33-race sponsorship. If the company chooses not to renew, or continues to downsize their involvement with the team to the point where another major partner is required, Almirola could find himself out of a ride at seasons end, with a new driver sitting in the No. 10 Ford Mustang when Daytona rolls around in February, but who could take over the entry?
While Riley Herbst – SHR’s Xfinity Series driver — has a significant amount of financial support in his corner, the four-car organization has undergone a massive shift in recent years, with the departure of more experienced drivers like Clint Bowyer, Daniel Saurez and Kurt Busch, in favor of Chase Briscoe and Cole Custer, who have put Stewart-Haas Racing in the Rookie of The Year fight in back-to-back years. With this in mind, the team may elect to hire a driver with prior experience in the Cup Series, in order to balance out their lineup.
However, if performance is the deciding factor for Almirola, the Tampa, Florida-native can take comfort in the fact that he isn’t the only driver within the organization struggling this season, as the entire organization has struggled to consistently post top-10 finishes, outside of Kevin Harvick and Rodney Childers.