News Analysis: Reports say William Byron to drive Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 car

What happened: William Byron, age 19, will be named as the driver of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 car starting in 2018, according to (in order of reporting) SportsBusiness Journal, SBNation.com and Motorsport.com. The team has not officially announced the move (and I haven’t personally confirmed it, but I don’t doubt those who have). Byron, who grew up playing NASCAR video games but did not start racing until five years ago, will replace Kasey Kahne, whose departure from Hendrick was announced Monday. The racing prodigy is currently a rookie in the Xfinity Series, where he is second in points with three wins for JR Motorsports — this following his seven wins last season for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series.

What it means: The face of Hendrick Motorsports has been dramatically altered in the last few years. Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne (combined 137 Cup victories) have been replaced with Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and Byron (combined zero Cup victories), who have an average age of 21.3. Byron will now be a full-time Cup driver after just one year each in Trucks and Xfinity — and that seems like an awfully quick move, similar to the rapid ascents of Joey Logano and Kyle Larson. Byron is unquestionably talented, but it would have been nice to see him run another full season of Xfinity before getting promoted to Cup — something even Jimmie Johnson indicated last month. “At his age, I just don’t want to be in too big of a hurry to move him up,” Johnson told a small group of reporters at New Hampshire. “If you look back at past history, like a Joey Logano scenario, it just takes time. I feel so lucky I didn’t get my Cup start until I was 25. … I think I was just in a better place than the position some of these young guys are put in. They’re super talented, it’s just a lot of pressure to put on those guys.”

News value (scale of 1-10): Eight. Even if Byron was the likely replacement after the team said Kahne was out, it’s still quite noteworthy that Hendrick continues to use young and relatively inexperienced drivers to fill its seasons considering veteran drivers like Matt Kenseth are on the free agent market. It wasn’t long ago that Hendrick was the most sought-after destination for established drivers who had already won many races. Now the seats are being snatched up by drivers who are unproven at the Cup level. Dale Earnhardt Jr. shed some light on why this might be the case for Silly Season in general, and it makes sense again in this scenario.

Three questions: Can Byron continue to immediately adapt and win at the next level, as he has done in each series along the way up the ladder? Since it turned out OK for Logano and Larson in the long run, what are the real risks of moving him up too soon? Who will replace Byron at JRM now that he will be vacating a championship-caliber seat in the Xfinity Series?

Related: Here are my 12 Questions interviews with Byron from 2016 and from 2017.

 

News Analysis: Kasey Kahne out at Hendrick Motorsports

What happened: Kasey Kahne will not return to Hendrick Motorsports in 2018, the team announced Monday morning. Though Kahne had a contract with Hendrick through next year, the team chose to release the Brickyard 400 winner and go with a yet-to-be-determined driver for the No. 5 car next season. Kahne is now a free agent and can sign with another team for 2018.

What it means: This is the inevitable divorce of a marriage that had been on the rocks for some time. When Kahne arrived at Hendrick, both he and the team had sky-high hopes. The driver, who once won six races in a season, even spent a year at Red Bull waiting for Mark Martin to vacate the No. 5. But despite two wins in each of his first two seasons at Hendrick, Kahne never found his footing there. He had just three top-five finishes in each of the last three years and missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. And as it turned out, his recent Indianapolis win and subsequent playoff berth this season wasn’t enough to save his job at Hendrick. But you know what? That’s not a bad thing. Kahne has long needed a fresh start with a team that believes in him — and vice versa — to give him a chance to regularly win again in the Cup Series. It’s been hard to watch Kahne struggle so much in the last few years, but perhaps this means there are brighter days ahead. After all, he’s only 37 and drivers don’t seem to start declining until their early 40s. Kahne is still capable of racking up a few wins per season if he finds the right team.

News value (scale of 1-10): Five. Fitting, right? But seriously, this lands as about average news because it’s something most people anticipated but is still noteworthy when it actually went down. If Kahne’s replacement had been named in the same announcement, it would have been much higher on the scale.

Three questions: Does this mean William Byron will be in the No. 5 next year, or will Hendrick look to a veteran like Matt Kenseth to fill the seat? What are the chances Kahne could end up in another top ride, such as the vacancy at Stewart-Haas Racing or Furniture Row Racing? Will this decision being made public alleviate any pressure on Kahne and allow him to make a run in the playoffs?

News Analysis: Kurt Busch’s contract option will not be picked up

What happened: Kurt Busch’s contract option to race at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018 won’t be picked up by the team, the Daytona 500 winner has been told. The news was first reported by Jerry Jordan of KickinTheTires.net on Sunday, but Lee Spencer of Motorsport.com posted Tuesday that “the expectation is that Busch will not drive the No. 41 Ford for SHR in 2018.” Moments later, NBC’s Nate Ryan also posted Busch’s contract will not be picked up. But shortly after those stories, SHR tweeted a denial: “We don’t comment on contract status, but we expect @KurtBusch back in our @MonsterEnergy / @Haas_Automation Ford in ’18. Just sayin’.” I asked for clarification from SHR on this, but was told to just refer to the tweet.

What it means: Busch is a free agent. Jordan and Spencer both have solid relationships with Busch, so the news his contract option wasn’t picked up is almost certainly accurate. However, that doesn’t mean SHR won’t bring Busch back with a renegotiated deal, which is perhaps why it issued a denial. The Monster Energy piece of this is the big question, because Monster likely was balking at sponsoring both the series and a race team (after all, it got a pretty good bargain on being the Cup title sponsor). We still need more information to understand what’s going on here, but the best guess is SHR told Busch it wasn’t bringing him back under the current deal, freeing him to look elsewhere while also hoping to negotiate a new deal with better terms.

News value (scale of 1-10): 8. The news of Busch’s option not being picked up is about a 5, but I’m rating this so highly because we aren’t actually sure what’s going on here. Media reports said one thing and the team said another thing, which is very unusual in NASCAR. Either way, it’s gotten everyone’s attention today.

Three questions: Um, what the hell? Is Busch really out, or is this confusion driven by Monster’s unorthodox way of conducting business? When will SHR let everyone know what’s going on with its other Silly Season situation — Danica Patrick?

News Analysis: Ryan Blaney to Penske, Paul Menard to Wood Brothers

What happened: Team Penske will bring back its third Cup Series team — the No. 12 car — in a move to get driver Ryan Blaney under the same roof as Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Meanwhile, Paul Menard — who currently drives for Richard Childress Racing — will bring his Menards sponsorship to Wood Brothers Racing’s No. 21 car, where he will replace Blaney. Childress said it will announce its driver lineup for 2018 at a future date.

What it means: Although Blaney drove for the Wood Brothers, he was basically a Team Penske development driver — similar to the Erik Jones situation with Furniture Row Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing. So although Blaney was a potential Silly Season target, Penske wasn’t about to let him get away — thus the creation of a third team. Menard is a downgrade for the No. 21 car, but he brings 22 races worth of Menards sponsorship, which is something the Wood Brothers team can’t exactly pass up. Although the move may seem odd on the surface, Menards is sponsoring Simon Pagenaud’s IndyCar entry for 10 races this season and already has a relationship with Penske. Given the Wood Brothers are a Penske affiliate, this only strengthens that bond and is a healthy move for both parties. And obviously, Menard will have a consistently faster car in the No. 21 than he currently has in the No. 27.

News value (scale of 1-10): Six. Several elements make this situation notable — a new Cup car, an up-and-coming driver and a veteran switching teams. But since this move was anticipated for awhile, the lack of surprise takes a few points off the news value.

Three questions: Will RCR now contract to two cars or will it be able to find sponsorship to keep a third team? Where will Team Penske get its charter for the No. 12 car? Is there any way the typically great-looking No. 21 car will not be painful on the eyes with bright Menards sponsorship on it?

 

News Analysis: Brad Keselowski signs extension with Team Penske

What happened: Brad Keselowski removed himself from the potential free agent market by signing a long-term contract extension with Team Penske, the team announced Tuesday morning. The length of the deal was not released, but the team’s statement said Keselowski would remain driver of the No. 2 car for “well into the future.” In addition, crew chief Paul Wolfe also signed a contract extension.

What it means: Keselowski played coy about his future prospects when asked in April, saying he was happy at Penske but had learned to never say no to the possibility of other opportunities. But as Silly Season developed further, it became clear Keselowski was working on staying at his current home and would not be jumping back to Hendrick Motorsports, which was where he made some early Cup starts. Staying put makes sense, because Keselowski has deep ties to the status quo — not just through his time there building a team with Wolfe, but with Penske’s Michigan connection and Ford’s support for the Brad Keselowski Racing team in the Truck Series.

News value (scale of 1-10): Three. This wasn’t a surprise and had become a long-anticipated announcement. Although it’s a big-name driver, it involves staying with the same team — so it’s along the same lines as the Denny Hamlin contract extension news in February.

Questions: After locking up both Keselowski and Joey Logano to long-term deals, is Penske’s next target creating a third team to bring Ryan Blaney back in house? Will Keselowski avoid the post-extension slump being endured by Logano? Does this mean Keselowski, 33, will ultimately finish his career at Penske?

News Analysis: Alex Bowman replaces Dale Earnhardt Jr. in No. 88 car

What happened: After nearly three months of speculation, we now know who Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s replacement will be in Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 88 car next year: Alex Bowman. Earnhardt sponsors Nationwide (19 races) and Axalta (increasing from 13 to 15 races) will back the team for most of the season.

What it means: Bowman, who had received endorsements from both Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson, has now made one of the most unlikely career comebacks in memory. Despite being just 24 years old, Bowman’s chances of making a career in NASCAR appeared to be slim after he was fired by Tommy Baldwin Racing just a month before last season’s Daytona 500. But he ran well with limited opportunities for JR Motorsports and then as Earnhardt’s substitute in the 88, nearly winning last fall’s Phoenix race. He remained a valuable member of Hendrick’s organization this season by continuing to drive the Chevy simulator and help with setups, which strengthened his bond with the team. It also means the most prized seat of Silly Season has been taken.

News value (scale of 1-10): Eight. Although Bowman made the most sense for this position, whoever replaced Earnhardt was going to be pretty big news no matter what. It’s also somewhat surprising and significant Hendrick was able to convince its sponsors to back an unproven driver — three top-10 finishes in 81 Cup starts — after being associated with NASCAR’s biggest stars (Axalta was with Jeff Gordon before Earnhardt).

Three questions: Now that Axalta is sticking with the 88, does that mean there’s less of a reason to rush Axalta-sponsored Xfinity Series rookie William Byron into Cup next season? How long will Bowman get to prove himself if he doesn’t produce results? Can Bowman convince some of Earnhardt’s fans to stay with the 88 and make himself a star driver in the process?

News Analysis: Kyle Larson penalty costs him points lead

What happened: Kyle Larson’s team was hit with a significant penalty on Wednesday after NASCAR discovered an infraction during its post-race teardown following the Kentucky Speedway race. Larson crew chief Chad Johnston was suspended for three races and fined $75,000 while the team lost 35 points — this after NASCAR found the No. 42 team violated a rule that says: “Openings in the rear brake cooling hoses and/or tubes to exhaust air between the inlet and exhaust mounting points will not be permitted.”

What it means: Larson, who was up by one point over Martin Truex Jr. in the standings, is now 34 points out of the lead. That’s a big blow, because the regular season champion gets an additional 15 playoff points while second place gets 10. The difference between the two is the equivalent of a race win.

News value (scale of 1-10): Four. It’s noteworthy in that the penalty affects the regular season points battle, but there’s still enough time (eight races) for Larson to recover — especially with stage points in the mix. It would be a bigger deal if this occurred in the playoffs or if Larson had won the Kentucky race and the encumbered finish meant something.

Three questions: How much did this have to do with Larson’s impressive speed at Kentucky? If this was a performance advantage, will Larson now be slower in upcoming races? Will the points penalty itself turn out to play a role in the playoffs should Larson miss out on those five extra playoff points?

This image from the NASCAR rulebook depicts a proper rear brake cooling assembly. The infraction in question took place in the hoses shown in the upper right (I-2). (Screenshot from NASCAR rulebook)