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?

Rick Hendrick says he had Alex Bowman in mind all along

One intriguing news nugget to come out of Alex Bowman’s ascension to Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 88 car is the team signed him to a three-year deal last October.

But Rick Hendrick said Sunday morning in a news conference that the contract came with no promises of a job other than his current position: Driving the Chevrolet simulator and testing in the Chevy wheel force car on behalf of the team.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen, and we were very careful not to guarantee him anything other than if opportunities arose, he would have a shot,” Hendrick said. “I can’t make all the decisions — sponsors have to be involved. But in my mind, Alex was going to be the next up.”

It was interesting to hear Hendrick say he was pretty much looking to Bowman all along if everything lined up. The Hall of Fame team owner said Bowman was “in the back of our mind for whatever opportunity we had.”

“So it wasn’t much of a decision at all,” he said. “Alex was the guy.”

That doesn’t mean Bowman was the only driver considered. Hendrick was specifically asked about Matt Kenseth — who is available — and said, “I love Matt Kenseth.”

But he said the two had spoken in the past and mutually agreed that “sometimes things just don’t line up at the right times.”

As for Bowman, he just had to be ultra patient — which included turning down “solid opportunities” for this season with other teams.

“There was nothing set in stone,” he said. “It was a big leap of faith.”

Why was he willing to do that? Bowman said it’s because he grew up as a Jeff Gordon fan and wanted to drive for Hendrick his entire life. That was always the dream.

Plus, he said, even being a simulator driver for Hendrick was better than running 35th every week — as he did during his first years in the Cup Series.

“To get the opportunity to stay this year in whatever capacity, I was very happy to take that,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen from there. … I took a chance with it, and I’m very glad it all worked out. “

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: Erik Jones to drive the No. 20 car

What happened: Joe Gibbs Racing made a long-speculated move official on Tuesday, announcing Erik Jones will return to the team after a one-year loan to affiliate Furniture Row Racing. Jones, a Cup rookie this season, has been a JGR development driver and will replace former Cup champion Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 car.

What it means: The NASCAR youth movement continues. As Kenseth has said, he does not intend to retire despite being 45 years old. It appears he essentially got pushed out of JGR by the desire to give one of NASCAR’s top young drivers a home with the team.

News value (scale of 1-10): Two. This is not a surprise at all, but it is noteworthy in that it’s a driver change at one of the top teams.

Questions: What happens to the No. 77 team at Furniture Row Racing? Will Kenseth be able to land at another top organization? How quickly can Jones become a regular winner at JGR?

News Analysis: Matt Kenseth says return to Joe Gibbs Racing is unlikely

What happened: Matt Kenseth, responding to a question about his 2018 plans from ESPN.com’s Bob Pockrass during a media availability at Kentucky Speedway, said he likely will not be back at Joe Gibbs Racing after this season. “I don’t think I will have the option to return to race for JGR next year, unfortunately,” he said.

What it means: Kenseth’s contract was up at the end of this season, which was why his name was floated for the No. 88 car opening in the past couple months. The 2003 Cup champ has said several times he does not intend to retire. Meanwhile, it’s been known JGR would like to get driver Erik Jones back in house from a one-year deal at affiliate Furniture Row Racing. With Suarez, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin all locked in, that did not appear to leave room for the 45-year-old Kenseth; now we have some degree of confirmation.

News value (scale of 1-10): Six. Though this is not a surprise given Kenseth’s expiring contract and age, it is unusual to hear a straight answer like that during a news conference. Also, this will serve as an unofficial kickoff to Silly Season in the public eye because now one domino is obvious to everyone.

Questions: Where will Kenseth end up next season? If Jones leaves the No. 77 car, who fills that very attractive ride? Will we have to wait until August before the first actual move is announced?

News Analysis: Chase Elliott gets contract extension through 2022

What happened: Hendrick Motorsports signed Chase Elliott to a contract extension through 2022, adding four years to his current deal. He originally had a three-year contract, which would have expired after next season.

What it means: As expected, Elliott is going to be at Hendrick for a long time. Though Jimmie Johnson has indicated he’ll be around for a few more seasons, this sets up Elliott to become the face of Hendrick as the next decade approaches. It’s easy to picture Elliott spending his entire career with the team if circumstances allow.

News value (scale of 1-10): Three. It’s not at all surprising Elliott would remain in the No. 24 car, given how quickly he’s shown talent at the Cup level — along with his popularity, sponsor friendliness and relationship with the team. But as with Joey Logano — who signed a long-term deal with Team Penske in February — the news is notable in part due to the length of the contract (since drivers typically sign up for three years at a time).

Questions: Will the security of a long-term deal change anything in terms of the pressure Elliott puts on himself? How many wins will Elliott and the No. 24 team get during this contract? Who will Elliott’s teammates be in 2022?