Livescore Sunday, April 21

This is the time of year when NASCAR teams begin strategizing their plans for the following season, specifically which drivers they will employ and who’s available to fill a potential hole. And just as team owners are assessing what moves they need to make to improve their organizations, drivers are too as they seek a better alignment with their career goals.

As things currently stand, this year’s free agency market, known in NASCAR as “Silly Season,” appears fairly mundane compared to recent years that saw a seismic shift as numerous star drivers change teams. But just because things are quiet now doesn’t mean it will stay that way.

Here’s a look at where things currently stand based on conversations with people across the NASCAR industry. Let’s begin with the team that likely will be the biggest player this year in NASCAR’s version of musical chairs.

Stewart‐Haas Racing

Already, SHR made the first notable move of Silly Season by working on finalizing a contract with Xfinity Series standout Josh Berry that is expected to be completed in the coming weeks. As The Athletic reported last week, Berry is being signed to replace the retiring Kevin Harvick on SHR’s Cup roster, filling the one known vacancy SHR has.

Signing Berry is a smart move by team co‐owners Tony Stewart and Gene Haas. They’re not only getting one of the top talents in NASCAR’s second‐tier division but also a driver who pairs well with ace crew chief Rodney Childers, who like Berry traces his roots back to racing Late Models across the Mid‐Atlantic region.

Coming into the season, which driver SHR landed to replace Harvick was the biggest question in free agency. Now that the answer is known, that means the organization’s 2024 driver lineup is set.

Ah, not quite.

After Aric Almirola announced in January 2022 that he would run one season and then retire, he later reversed course and returned as the driver of the No. 10 SHR Ford. But barring another change of heart, it’s widely expected that the 39‐year‐old will indeed step away after the 2023 season. When The Athletic asked Almirola whether he was planning to return on May 20, he was noncommittal.

“I’m not sure,” Almirola said.

The expected departure of Almirola would create an opening with no clear-cut favorite. Initially, the names mentioned most frequently as potential replacements were (in alphabetical order): Harrison Burton, Todd Gilliland, Riley Herbst, Erik Jones, Corey LaJoie, Ty Majeski, Michael McDowell, Chandler Smith, Sammy Smith, Zane Smith and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

This list has since been paired down due to various factors, including some candidates having existing multi‐year contracts with their current teams and/or being happy with their respective situations.

The name that continues to get linked with SHR is Zane Smith, even though he is under contract with Front Row Motorsports. The 23‐year‐old is regarded as one of NASCAR’s very top prospects and is on the radar for quite a few Cup teams. In three full seasons in the Truck Series, Smith has won a championship and twice finished runner‐up. This season through 11 races, he has a pair of wins and sits third in points. And he’s impressed while making spot Cup starts — including a 13th‐place finish in the Daytona 500 in February and a 10th last week at Charlotte.

Should SHR decide that Smith is who they want to replace Almirola, it would necessitate negotiating with FRM to buy out his contract. It helps that both organizations are aligned with Ford and the manufacturer is committed to keeping Smith in its camp, preferably with an upper-echelon team.

But just because SHR covets Smith doesn’t guarantee it will get him. FRM also recognizes that Smith is a talent, the kind of driver a team can build around for many, many years. The team also has Smith under contract, meaning any team that wants him better be willing to meet their asking price. Something to keep in mind: FRM has had two crew chiefs poached by bigger organizations each of the past two years, which hasn’t sat well with some folks within the organization.

If Smith does not end up joining SHR, which direction the team then goes is uncertain. Pivoting toward a bridge option, a veteran who could come in and deliver solid results while giving the team a protracted runway to determine a long-term solution, would seem to make the most sense.

In that case, McDowell is one name to watch. The 2021 Daytona 500 winner continues to overdeliver for FRM, leading a lot of folks in the garage to think he could be a consistent winner if he joined an organization that had deeper resources. McDowell is also a pending free agent, so SHR would not need to be concerned about negotiating a buyout.

Front Row Motorsports

With Smith and McDowell both candidates to replace Almirola, it feels like FRM and SHR are intrinsically linked. And there is a good reason for that, as any decision by either team could directly impact the other. Should FRM decide to keep Smith and let McDowell go, then McDowell becomes a top candidate at SHR. Or if FRM allows Smith to exit, then it signals that the team plans to bring back one or both of McDowell and Gilliland — also a pending free agent — for the 2024 season.

The conundrum for FRM is that it has three talented drivers in the fold, but only two full‐time cars, with no plans to add a third. It’s a good problem to have, but it’s also one that needs a clear resolution. Keeping Smith in the Truck Series for another season isn’t tenable, nor is having McDowell or Gilliland drop down.

This puzzle also means FRM may have to deviate from how it typically sets course for the following season. Most years, team owner Bob Jenkins often waits until later in the year to finalize his driver lineup. This normally works because there often is no domino effect, with other teams waiting on FRM to make decisions. That isn’t the case this year.

All three of FRM’s current drivers have piqued the interest of other teams, and depending how things shake out elsewhere, they could have tangible options.

What happens with McDowell is particularly interesting. The veteran has shown loyalty to the team while delivering FRM’s most sustained success on the track. He isn’t easily replaceable. That would seem to be worth a multi-year commitment, but FRM hasn’t done that as McDowell has been on one‐year deals for the past few seasons. Would a multi-year offer and a chance to win on a consistent basis be worth him leaving the comforts of a team where he’s considered a lynchpin?

“He’d be a nice fit over there (at Stewart‐Haas),” noted one NASCAR team analyst, who requested anonymity because his team was not involved. “He’d deliver results for them while Stewart‐Haas gets a hungry driver who wants to show he can win. FRM has a puzzle on its hands it’s going to have to figure out soon.”

Gilliland has enjoyed a bit of a breakout season in his sophomore year, making few mistakes while maximizing every ounce of performance out of a car that doesn’t have a ton of speed. In fact, he’s actually outperforming his veteran teammate McDowell with an average finish that’s one position better while also posting two additional top 10s.

Such results haven’t gone unnoticed, especially considering a lack of sponsorship prompted FRM to unseat Gilliland out of his normal car full-time in favor of Smith. Through it all, Gilliland hasn’t publicly lamented his uncertain status, choosing instead to focus on maximizing what opportunities he does have.

“I think for me, I can feel confident right now that I’m happy with what I’ve done,” Gilliland said. “I feel like I’ve put in work and we’ve gotten the right people around us and, honestly, I’m very happy with how we’ve started this season. So at the end of it, it depends on how we finish the season, but if it ended right now, I’d have no regrets. If I have a ride or I don’t, I feel like I’ve done everything I can this year.”

The 23‐year‐old Gilliland has proven deserving of a full‐time ride at the Cup level. Whether he gets that chance at FRM or elsewhere remains to be seen. He said contract negotiations with FRM have not begun.

“Now, it probably starts sooner rather than later just with the whole situation that everyone is in; I think at this point there’s probably three guys for two seats,” Gilliland said. “But I would hope to start those (talks) probably sooner than later.”

Martin Truex Jr.

For the second consecutive year, Martin Truex Jr. is among the key figures in how Silly Season unfolds. This go-round, his status appears to have a little more clarity than it did at this time last year when the 2017 Cup champion was very much on the fence about whether to retire.

Now, all signs point toward Truex returning for a sixth year with Joe Gibbs Racing. He’s both running well and having fun, two “big” factors he said that will go a long way to impacting his decision to return or not.

“I’m having a blast,” Truex said. “The team is awesome and doing a really good job and we’ve been fast, and we’ve been in position to win some races, so it’s been good.”

A lot can change, obviously, but at this juncture, it should be considered shocking if Truex isn’t again driving the No. 19 JGR Toyota in 2024.

Denny Hamlin

The only reason Hamlin finds himself mentioned here is because his contract with JGR is up at the end of the season. All parties involved are working toward him inking an extension, but until that contract is signed, there is going to be some degree of doubt — after all, last spring it would’ve been near heresy to suggest that Kyle Busch would ever leave JGR and yet that’s exactly what happened.

Again, though, there is little chance Hamlin actually leaves the only team he’s ever driven for. The big difference between his situation and the one Busch was going through last year is that Hamlin also owns a Toyota‐backed Cup team, so departing JGR means his only realistic alternative is to drive for 23XI Racing, which is not in position to add a third full‐time car, unless 23XI were to change manufacturers.

Is Hamlin, 42, open to a one-year contract or would he prefer long‐term security like what prompted Busch to leave the Toyota family and sign with Chevrolet‐supported Richard Childress Racing?

“I’m not sure, we got to work out all those details,” Hamlin said on May 13. “There’s just too much hinging on other things, other factors that links it all together, puts it all together. A lot of factors have to get worked out.

“I mean, it could be a zero‐year (deal) through a five‐year, for sure.”

If Hamlin or Truex surprise us and don’t return to JGR, John Hunter Nemechek is considered one of the leading options to fill either spot.

Corey LaJoie

After years of grinding away, Corey LaJoie finally gets his first shot with a premier organization when he gets to drive the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for the suspended Chase Elliott this weekend at Gateway. It’s a deserving opportunity for a driver who’s enjoying a career‐best season.

So is LaJoie auditioning for bigger things, or is this a mere one‐off? A little bit of both, but only because of the potential openings for 2024, there doesn’t appear to be an ideal fit. As it stands presently, LaJoie’s best option may be to sign a one‐year extension with Spire Motorsports, then reevaluate the free agency landscape next summer when more opportunities could exist for him to take the next step up.

Two things to watch for, though, that could change LaJoie’s prospects for the better. The first is what happens with Harrison Burton and Wood Brothers Racing (see below). The second is if Trackhouse Racing decides to expand to three full‐time cars, which multiple sources involved in the discussions told The Athletic they have considered, with LaJoie among the leading candidates to drive for the Justin Marks‐owned team. But while Trackhouse has had exploratory talks about expanding, those plans have since cooled, so this avenue at the moment appears closed.

Harrison Burton

When the Wood Brothers brought Harrison Burton on last season, everyone involved knew there would be growing pains. In his 2022 rookie season, Burton ranked 27th in points and seven times didn’t finish races due to crashes. And through the early part of this season, the results haven’t been much better — he’s 29th in points with an average finish that’s one position higher.

But there are indications that Burton is starting to figure things out. Over the past five races, he was in contention for the win at Talladega before being taken out in an accident not of his own doing and finished sixth at Darlington.

Although more is still needed from Burton, 22, such results may be enough to buy him another season with the Wood Brothers. His chances of returning are estimated at 50/50 but that number is trending upward, according to multiple people involved with the situation.

“If I do my job these next few weeks and continue to show the speed that we have, I think we’re in a good spot,” Burton said on May 20. “But I have to earn the spot, and that’s how it should be.”

Justin Haley

Kaulig Racing wants to keep Justin Haley, with Kaulig president Chris Rice telling The Athletic that the team “loves Justin,” viewing him as someone the team can build around. And Haley, 24, wants to return to Kaulig for a third full season.

What’s the holdup then? Like most things in NASCAR, it boils down to sponsorship. Before any deal with Haley is solidified, Kaulig must first determine its 2024 budget and what degree of sponsorship it has.

Ideally, Rice said Kaulig wants to have its 2024 driver lineup in place by mid‐August. As for the odds Haley is again driving the No. 31 Chevrolet?

“High,” Rice said.

And how does Haley feel?

“I would love to stay with Kaulig,” he said. “It’s where I’ve grown up basically and stayed with forever, but obviously there’s a big part of the business to the sport and all the sponsorship that is needed. So, I feel confident of my position in the sport and feel like there’s no reason that we can’t get a deal done. Matt Kaulig and Chris Rice have been good to me for a long time.”

Other names to watch: Cole Custer, Riley Herbst, Austin Hill, Carson Hocevar, Ty Majeski

(Top photo of Corey LaJoie: James Gilbert / Getty Images)

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