Silly season for the 2023 NASCAR season unofficially kicked off last weekend.
When Kyle Busch was asked about the status of a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing and he left open the possibility that he could leave the team, it opened the floodgates to the NASCAR Cup Series rumor mill.
Everyone and their grandma has an opinion on what Busch is going to do next and how the dominoes will fall after that.
.@KyleBusch’s team is still on the search for a new sponsor as Mars Chocolate departs at the end of the season.
— Noah Lewis (NASCAR) (@Noah_Lewis1) April 23, 2022
But the most significant thing about Busch’s comments is that it has now identified him as the biggest piece of the silly season puzzle. He’s now the musical chairs player after whom, when he finds his seat, everyone else will sort out the rest for themselves.
I get it; we’re only 10 races into 2022, so why are we even talking about 2023 already? But NASCAR silly season starts extremely early every year. There’s even been times where we knew who would take over a car the following year before the Daytona 500 (Chase Elliott for Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer for Tony Stewart).
There’s typically one major silly season move every year that sets everything off like that. Last year, it was Brad Keselowski forming RFK Racing. The year before, it was Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan starting 23XI Racing. And now we wait to see what the 60-time Cup winner decides to do next.
Prior to the Busch comments, the biggest piece of the silly season puzzle was the No. 10 at Stewart-Haas Racing, as Aric Almirola will be stepping away from full-time competition (not retiring) at the end of 2022. Maybe those two silly season rumors go hand in hand?
The most likely scenario is that Busch re-signs with JGR. But if he were to leave, there are really only a few destinations that would be realistic or even possible for him.
The No. 10 is the only one that truly makes sense. It’s the only car from a major team that has an opening, and SHR is the only big team that seems to have a knack for hiring established veterans (Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Bowyer, Almirola).
If I’m Ford, then I’m trying to do everything I can to get Busch in that No. 10. Because then the Blue Ovals would not only get a two-time Cup champion, but they’d also be getting his Camping World Truck Series team. Ford currently only has Front Row Motorsports and David Gilliland Racing for developing talent in Trucks, so getting Kyle Busch Motorsports to switch would really step up their development program.
The only other teams that Busch would probably even consider are Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske. Hendrick is full and probably not going to make a lineup change anytime soon. William Byron‘s contract is up after this year, but there’s no way he leaves with sponsor Liberty University signed through 2026.
As for Penske, Ryan Blaney‘s contract may be up after this season. He signed a multi-year extension in March 2020, but the year that deal ends was never revealed. Maybe Blaney tests the waters of free agency?
If Blaney returns, Penske could theoretically start a fourth car for Busch, but it would need a sponsor and charter in order for that to happen. The big problem at JGR is that Mars, Inc. is leaving Busch at the end of the season, so if he can find a new sponsor, he may as well stay put. Plus, Busch doesn’t exactly fit the Penske mold, which is similar to the Hendrick mold that Busch didn’t fit either.
Newer organizations Trackhouse Racing Team and 23XI could also make a play for Busch, but they would also need to get another charter. At least at 23XI, Busch and KBM could stay linked with Toyota.
If Busch does leave JGR, it seems logical that Ty Gibbs would step in the No. 18 Cup car. Then maybe John Hunter Nemechek or Chandler Smith fill Gibbs’ NASCAR Xfinity Series seat. Gibbs is bound for Cup sooner than later, and Busch leaving would help with the Toyota Racing Development talent logjam. If JGR fails to find sponsor dollars at the level Mars was giving, then moving to Gibbs would also save the team a lot of money, as his salary would be less than Busch’s.
Another thing to consider is that Busch may want to try his hand at Cup ownership. With as competitive as Busch is, I get the vibe that watching JGR teammate Hamlin and rival Keselowski get ownership in teams has to be making Busch feel a little jealous.
Maybe Busch could buy into a team like JTG Daugherty Racing or Front Row? Busch could theoretically buy into the team, switch it to Toyota and drive for it. He certainly wouldn’t be the first future Hall of Famer to become an owner/driver in their prime.
But if Busch stays — and I think he does — or goes to a team other than SHR, who would take over the SHR No. 10?
A lot of that comes down to sponsorship. It’s unknown at this point whether current sponsor Smithfield is returning or not following Almirola’s departure. And I would imagine if Almirola does run a part-time schedule next year (I could see him doing that with SHR alliance team Rick Ware Racing), he would have Smithfield back him. That would likely take away some of its support on the No. 10 even if the company does stick around.
SHR co-owner Gene Haas could also step up and foot the bill, as he has done many times on SHR cars with his company Haas Automation. But Haas is already the primary sponsor for Cole Custer (five of 10 races so far this year), so Haas may not want to sponsor two cars.
If sponsorship isn’t an issue, Ryan Preece seems like the guy for the No. 10. Preece is currently SHR’s reserve driver, and the organization is putting him in 12 races across the top three NASCAR series this season. Given his current status with the team, Harvick’s company KHI Management representing him and his three years of Cup experience already, there’s probably quite the push to get him in that car.
If Smithfield and Haas don’t put money toward the No. 10 and sponsorship is an issue, the team could turn to one of three drivers who bring sponsorship with them: Harrison Burton, Riley Herbst or Ricky Stenhouse Jr. All three drivers are represented by KHI, and three of the five drivers the talent agency represents are currently with SHR.
Burton is in his rookie year with Wood Brothers Racing and hasn’t been doing that well (3oth in points), but he’s showed he can get the job done in NXS and has backing from DEX Imaging.
Herbst is in his second year in NXS with SHR, and he’s shown improvement this year, upping his average finish 4.5 spots over last year so far. Plus, he has backing from Monster Energy. If Herbst were to take the role, I could see Preece or Hailie Deegan getting the NXS No. 98 (this is the sentence that will set off you commenters, isn’t it?).
Signing Stenhouse would actually be very similar to SHR bringing in Almirola in 2018. He would be a veteran presence who has won no superspeedways but has never really had a shot in top-notch equipment. He also has support from NOS Energy Drink, which wouldn’t clash with Monster as they are owned by the same people.
Should Blaney leave Penske then, like Busch, the No. 10 would be his best option performance-wise. Plus, Blaney has a tattoo of the No. 10 to honor his grandfather Lou Blaney, so getting that number has to be attractive to him. And sponsors seem to love Blaney, so getting Smithfield or another sponsor on board with him probably wouldn’t be an issue.
I expect Blaney to stay at Penske, like I expect Busch to stay at JGR. But crazier things have happened in silly season.
Regardless of what Busch and SHR decide to do, those two moves will set off a game a musical chairs that will keep us silly season lovers entertained up until the start of the 2023 season.
About the author
Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.