Silly season has sparked a rash of speculation throughout the NASCAR garage.
And Joe Gibbs offered no clarity when asked about the status of his young drivers—Erik Jones and Christopher Bell—for 2020 and beyond.
The Coach did his best to tap dance around JGR’s game plan.
“I wish that things like this would go quicker,” Gibbs told Racin’ Boys. “The only thing I can say is, as quick as we can, we would like to announce something. The problem is there’s so many things that are involved with it. There’s sponsors, so many things that have to get done.
“We’re not there yet, but I’m hoping we’re going to be there pretty quick…Basically, I’m not answering the question because you get quite a few you don’t want to answer. I’m serious. I wish we could just come out and say, but it takes a long time to get it done.”
When asked specifically about Bell’s current sponsor Rheem, Gibbs replied, “I think everything is still in the works. We’’re after it as hard as we can.”
Certainly, the announcement of Matt DiBenedetto’s departure from Leavine Family Racing at season’s end only fueled the frenzy, but several drivers’ seats gained greater clarity last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.
On the other hand, for DiBenedetto, who scored a career-best second-place finish in the Bristol Night Race, the future is anything but clear. The 28-year-old racer has talent but lacks a seven-figure sponsor to grease the wheels.
“I have no irons in the fire per se, yet, but this all just happened this week,” DiBenedetto said on Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway. “I keep everyone posted right on – when I find out something, I tell everybody. I just like to be an open book and I’ll keep everybody posted along the way.
“I don’t want to retire yet because I’m only 28 years old. Just getting started, but I want to win in the Cup Series. That’s what I’ve said, and that’s my goal. I’m here to keep on climbing the ladder, not go backwards.”
Here’s a list of free agents—or drivers who have yet to formally disclose their 2020 status:
1. Matt DiBenedetto: A fifth-year Cup racer, “Guido” has posted solid numbers during the second half of 2019. He boasts three top fives and five top 10s in his last nine starts—more than he had posted in his previous 155 races. He’ll race in a JGR house car this weekend at Road America, but as of Friday doesn’t believe the opportunity would blossom beyond that. “I don’t think there is that opportunity or as of now, there’s not,” DiBenedetto said. “Not that I’m aware of. I’ve talked to the Toyota folks and stuff, and I don’t foresee any opportunities within the camp, I don’t think. Just going to have to really pursue everything, but the main goal is to keep proving myself behind the wheel, which I’ve shown I’m here to win and run up front.”
2. Kurt Busch: Busch has made Ganassi Racing a contender again. Not surprisingly, he expects to remain in the No. 1 Chevrolet with support from Monster. On Friday, when he asked about his deal for next year, Busch replied, “I don’t have anything solid for next year yet.” Still, the 2004 Cup champion stopped Ganassi’s almost two-year winless skid with his Kentucky victory. His teammate Kyle Larson was 0-70 as of Saturday. Busch’s 94 laps led in the first 24 races is more than his predecessor Jamie McMurray posted in the previous four seasons.
3. Clint Bowyer—Bowyer is in the final season of a three-year contract with Stewart-Haas Racing. In 92 starts behind the wheel of the No. 14 Ford, he has posted two wins, no poles, 20 top-fives and 39 top 10s. Despite finishing seventh at Bristol, Bowyer was bumped off the Playoff grid. He now sits two points behind his SHR teammate Daniel Suarez. With just five top-five finishes this season and six DNFs, it’s understandable why the 40-year-old racer feels “snakebit”. But with younger, faster and less expensive options such as Cole Custer waiting in the wings, Bowyer needs to get up on the wheel. His relationship with team owner Tony Stewart—and more important, with Rusty Rush of Rush Truck Centers—could be a game-changer for the veteran driver. “We’ve worked hard with what partners that we had and building those, and we have. We brought a lot of new partners on board. We’re still talking to more partners. It’s hard to sell. You’ve got to be the complete package, and I feel like we still are. We’re still with the right organization, the right manufacturer. All the pieces of the puzzle are there. I’m still having fun. I still enjoy this. I want to race and I think we’re in a good spot, I really do.”
4. Daniel Suarez: With his second top-10 in the last two races, Suarez valiantly battled his way back into the Playoffs after Bristol. He vaulted over his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer for the 16th spot. The 27-year-old Monterrey, Mexican is in his third Cup season and still searching for his first win. His best result to date was at Pocono Raceway last July when he started from the pole and finished second. Suarez deflected questions on Friday regarding his 2020 status and chose to concentrate on the post-season. “We have a lot of things going on right now with the Playoffs, and there is more important stuff that we have to focus on,” Suarez said. “All I can tell you is that I’m very happy with where I’m at. They have told me many times that they are very happy with everything that I have done so far this year for the team, everything that I bring to the table, and I have mentioned before that I have an option, they have an option, too, but everything is looking pretty good…I really hope we can focus on the racing stuff and everything else will take care of itself.”
5. Aric Almirola—Almirola is the only SHR driver to admit he’s safe for next season. “We’ve had a multi-year agreement from the very beginning,” Almirola said. “So, we’re all good.” Since the 2012 Daytona 500, Smithfield Foods has supported his racing habit. The 35-year-old from Tampa, Florida is in his second season behind the wheel of the No. 10 Ford. He finished a career-high fifth in the standings last year. Almirola has just one win since joining the organization—and one top-five in 24 starts this season. Although Almirola came out swinging under the direction of crew chief Johnny Klausmeier earlier this year, he’s triggered wrecks in the last two races and dropped from ninth in the standings to 13th after Bristol. Still, with a 63-point lead over Suarez, Almirola, should be a lock for the Playoffs.
6. Daniel Hemric—Hemric gets a pass for a lack of consistency in his rookie season, particularly since his veteran teammate Austin Dillon isn't performing any better in the No. 3 Chevrolet. It’s almost a wash between Dillon, 29, who is in his sixth year of Cup racing and the freshman Hemric. Dillon has three top 10s, three poles and an average finish of 21.3. Hemric’s average finish is 21.8 and has two top-10 finishes including Richard Childress Racing’s only top-five finish of the year (Talladega). What’s missing from Hemric’s resume is a win. He climbed the NASCAR ladder sans hardware from the K&N Pro Series to Cup and has never been to Victory Lane. His plans for 2020? “It’s iffy, right?,” he said. “I think I saw this weekend where the 95 (DiBenedetto) was locked in for a two-year deal and he don’t have a ride. So, I’m not sure how much the paperwork means anymore.” If the SHR drivers are shaking in their driving shoes over Custer, imagine what Dillon and Hemric must be feeling after Tyler Reddick collected his fourth win in the NXS Series and his 17th top five in 22 starts. In his first year with RCR, Reddick’s average qualifying effort is 7.2 and his average finish is 5.1. Team owner Childress has already expressed his desire to move the 23-year-old to Cup.
7. Erik Jones—No driver has acquitted himself better than Jones over the second half of the season. The former Toyota Racing Development driver may have been on the hot seat earlier in the year, but since May, Jones has collected nine top 10s in the last 14 races including four-consecutive finishes of fourth or better. He led 23 laps last Saturday at Bristol before hitting the wall after cutting a tire. While no formal announcement has been made, Jones said last Thursday, “We’re very close and I hope we can put something out soon to make it official. I was very comfortable and knew the situation and knew where things were headed. We all had a good plan and I was going to continue to work toward being in the No. 20 car. It never bothered me. I understand why (people ask the questions). I’m a pretty straight-up guy. If I felt I wasn’t going to be back in it, I would have definitely trended more in that way. I probably would have alluded to the fact that I wouldn’t be back. I was always confident that I would be back and still feel that way. I’ve kept saying, ‘We’re getting there,’ ‘We’re getting there,’ and now it’s all but done."