The silly season picture is starting to come together now that Bubba Wallace has announced his collaboration with Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin, and Chip Ganassi named Ross Chastain as the driver of the #42. Joe Gibbs Racing predictably named Christopher Bell as the replacement to Erik Jones in the #20 Toyota.
That leaves a slew of drivers unsigned for 2021, including Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Ty Dillon, Corey Lajoie, Ryan Preece, Clint Bowyer and Matt DiBenedetto. Suspended driver Kyle Larson is eyeing a return to the Cup Series, and Xfinity drivers Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric have displayed enough skill to advance to NASCAR’s top level.
The problem is that there are not many quality rides left. Wood Brother Racing currently employs DiBenedetto, who has had a solid season, but has come short of victory lane. This team is closely aligned with Team Penske, which employs Austin Cindric’s father Tim as the President of Team Penske. Cindric’s performance in 2020 does justify a Cup ride. Unless Penske adds a fourth team, Cindric could land the #21 ride leaving DiBenedetto without a ride.
Rumors were swirling that Larson would be headed to Hendrick Motorsports to replace seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. However, Hendrick announced that Alex Bowman would transfer from the #88 team to the #48 team fully sponsored by Ally. This clearly indicates that Ally wasn’t ready to take a chance on Larson this soon despite his superior talents.
This could mean that Larson takes over the #88 with patchwork sponsorship similar to how it was arranged this season. Hendrick could bet on Larson’s talents to lure sponsorship.
After Larson, Jones is arguably the most talented free agent. But unless Hendrick chooses Jones over Larson and Junior Motorsports driver Noah Gragson, or Stewart Haas Racing chooses him over Bowyer or Briscoe, the best ride available is Richard Petty Motorsports. It’s highly unlikely the Wood Brothers would have anyone other than DiBenedetto or Cindric driving for them in 2021.
Another option for Jones is JTG Daugherty Racing. It’s doesn’t appear that Preece will be returning to the #37. Suarez is looking for fourth team in five years. He performed admirably while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart Haas Racing, but was usually the weakest link within the driver lineup.
A darkhorse ride could emerge in Go Fas Racing. They are aligned with Stewart Haas Racing, and the alliance could become closer if Stewart-Haas keeps Bowyer for another year and puts Briscoe in that ride. Bowyer still wants to race, though I think he is the perfect replacement for Darrell Waltrip in the Fox booth. Jeff Gordon and Mike Joy need a malcontent to mix things up.
Ty Dillon is also available after Germain Racing leaves the sport following the season. Dillon is the grandson of Richard Childress, but it appears he will not be handed a ride with Richard Childress Racing. However, Richard Petty Motorsports has a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, so that could play into Dillon’s advantage.
Corey Lajoie and Ryan Preece are also looking for rides.
Here is how I think it’s going to play out:
Kyle Larson to the #88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Ty Dillon to the #43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet
Erik Jones to the #37 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet
Clint Bowyer stays in the #14 Stewart Haas Racing Ford
Chase Briscoe to the #32 Go FAS Racing Ford
Matt DiBenedetto stays in the #21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford
Corey Lajoie and Daniel Suarez land backmarker rides.
Austin Cindric stays in the Xfinity Series for another season until he replaces either Brad Keselowski or Matt DiBenedetto in 2022.