AVONDALE, Ariz. – It’s still only March but, hey, let the 2021 NASCAR Silly Season begin.
The first in-season domino fell Friday at Phoenix Raceway, as Team Penske announced it had signed impending free agent Ryan Blaney to a multi-year extension nearly a full year before his current contract was set to expire.
“I was really happy with where I was at. I love the people I am around and working with all the teams,” Blaney said. “I feel like I owe so much to Roger (Penske) for what he has done for me. I just didn’t really see myself, right now, anywhere else.
“There are a couple doors open, a couple seats open with other teams but I didn’t talk with any other teams. If I was approached by another team I don’t even know if I would want to talk to them because I am so happy with where I am at and so loyal to Roger. My mindset was if they would have me back, I would love to be back. It was great that both of our minds were set on that.”
It’s hard to find fault with Blaney’s reasoning for wanting to stay at Penske – he’s the current NASCAR Cup Series points leader and there’s a certain degree of familiarity that comes along with having all of his national series starts since 2013 come with the team or a Penske affiliate. That sense of security simply can’t be replicated if he were to get behind the wheel of another car in 2021.
However, what makes it interesting that this deal was completed in March, months ahead of when it technically needed to be, is that these potentially open rides aren’t run-of-the-mill opportunities Blaney wasn’t interested in hearing about. They’re among some of the best in the sport, and things are about to ramp up to full silliness, and soon.
There’s a significant possibility there will be some sort of shake-up among superstar drivers and well-funded cars along the likes of Blaney’s teammate Brad Keselowski (No. 2 Ford, free agent), Aric Almirola (No. 10 Ford, free agent), Clint Bowyer (No. 14 Ford, free agent), Erik Jones (No. 20 Toyota, free agent), Corey LaJoie (No. 32 Ford, free agent), Kyle Larson (No. 42 Chevrolet, free agent), Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Chevrolet, retiring), Alex Bowman (No. 88 Chevrolet, free agent) and Christopher Bell (No. 95 Toyota, potential free agent).
Things could potentially ramp up in a significant way over the coming months, and Blaney’s just happy he won’t be a part of the madness.
“There are a lot of great seats open. A lot of things up in the air with drivers retiring or their deal being up. There is always that silly season and rumors and stuff like that,” he said. “It is nice to have our deal so that I am out of that conversation. It will be nice not to have to answer questions about it and save them for those guys.
“If something comes out I will be like, ‘Oh, that is neat.’ But I am not going to pry. That is their personal business.”
The three-time Cup winner isn’t interested, either, in prying for info on even his teammate’s situation, saying, “I don’t know anything about it. It is his deal, not mine.”
For context, Keselowski’s last extension was announced toward the end of July 2017, so don’t expect this overall story to be resolved any time soon – but do expect the pressure to mount on these drivers to prove themselves over the coming months.
So many more shoes still need to drop (including one of the “super” variety).
The biggest questions yet to be answered? Glad you asked.
- Brad Keselowski
- Has never raced full time at the Cup level for any owner other than Team Penske; would he leave the organization he won a championship with after nearly a decade and double-digit wins?
- A former JR Motorsports product who ran a handful of Cup races for Hendrick, is he the favorite to land Johnson’s vaunted No. 48?
- Aric Almirola
- The No. 10 Ford is easily the best car he’s driven at the Cup level, why would he leave on his own volition unless a better option opened up?
- How much better does he need to perform in 2020 than 2019 (17.0 average finish) to secure his spot?
- Clint Bowyer
- If Chase Briscoe runs the gamut at the Xfinity Series level this year, could it potentially push Bowyer out of the No. 14 if he underperforms in 2020?
- Would the 40-year-old hang up the fire suit if a comparable ride doesn’t open for him?
- Erik Jones
- Does Jones need to match the performance of his JGR cohorts – all of whom made the Championship 4 in 2019 – to keep his ride?
- Was his 2019 Southern 500 victory enough to prove himself?
- Corey LaJoie
- Is “Supershoe” a legitimate candidate for the No. 48 and did the letter to Rick Hendrick gain him points with the boss man?
- If he overperforms in the No. 32, would a mid-tier ride open up for him?
- Kyle Larson
- Another potential favorite to hop into the No. 48, would Larson’s insistence on continuing to run dirt races be a deal-breaker at Hendrick?
- Has a great relationship with longtime owner Chip Ganassi – is it worth jeopardizing that and what they’ve built together as the team feels like it’s rounding into form and showing signs of improvement?
- Larson also has a relationship with Tony Stewart and is a former winner at Eldora Speedway. Is Stewart-Haas Racing an option?
- Jimmie Johnson
- Will Johnson have a say in who replaces him?
- Has the No. 48 Chevrolet re-established itself as a premier ride?
- Will he make any one-off NASCAR starts in 2021?
- Alex Bowman
- There’s no denying he wants to stay in the No. 88, but is it up to him?
- Was the win at Fontana enough to secure his spot? If not, how many wins would lock that down?
- Where would he go if his contact isn’t extended?
- Christopher Bell
- Would Toyota move Bell over to the No. 20 Toyota if Jones underperforms?
- Does Toyota view Bell (25 years old) or Jones (23 years old) as the better prospect?