Column: Free agency heating up for Earnhardt's ride
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By JENNA FRYER
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Brad Keselowski left himself very little wiggle room when asked if he is a candidate to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. next season.
Keselowski is in a contract year with Team Penske, and crew chief Paul Wolfe has already signed a multi-year extension to stay on. Keselowski? Well, there's no signature on his new contract and the delay has left many wondering if he's eyeing Earnhardt's ride or simply using it as leverage in negotiating with Roger Penske.
"Roger has given me a lot, and I have no reason to not want to stay with him," Keselowski replied when The Associated Press asked him if Earnhardt's retirement at the end of the season and his open seat at Hendrick Motorsports is holding up a new deal.
As NASCAR hits the long, slow stretch of summer, its "silly season" is certainly heating up and Earnhardt's seat in the No. 88 Chevrolet the biggest prize of free agency.
Keselowski would be a great fit for the 88. His NASCAR career was launched by Earnhardt, and he spent time as a development driver in the Hendrick system. But he flourished after hooking up with Penske near the end of 2009 and was a Cup champion three years later.
Perhaps Keselowski wants more support for his Truck Series team, which loses money annually but is a starting point for many young NASCAR drivers. It's hard to say what the holdup is, particularly because very few employees ever voluntarily leave teams owned by Roger Penske or Rick Hendrick, but it's a strong bet that Keselowski eventually signs his name to stay right where he is now.
So where does that leave Earnhardt's seat?
Hendrick actually has two potential vacancies. Kasey Kahne has a contract to drive the No. 5 through next season, but few would be surprised if he's replaced at the end of the year.
That would mean Hendrick needs to scour the market for available drivers, and the top name may very well be Matt Kenseth. The two-time Daytona 500 winner is in a contract year with Joe Gibbs Racing, and what he decides for his future could be the most important domino to fall. Yes, Alex Bowman did an admirable job filling in for Earnhardt last season, but he's young and unproven, and could be a hard sell to sponsors who pay top dollar for Earnhardt's representation.
William Byron probably isn't ready for a Cup ride - he has all of 13 Xfinity Series races on his resume - so Hendrick is going to need a seat filler if he does indeed end up with two empty cars. It wouldn't be surprising to see Bowman in one ride and Kenseth in the other.
But Kenseth could also do a swap with Erik Jones, and he could remain part of the JGR and Toyota pipeline, while Jones gets his spot with the A-team. If that's how it goes down, then anything is possible throughout the rest of the garage.
Ryan Blaney, NASCAR's newest first-time winner, could be pulled inside the Penske camp as a third full-time driver next season. That would leave a vacancy at The Wood Brothers, and Paul Menard could very well be headed there. Menard is sponsored by his father's home improvement stores, and John Menard last year announced an IndyCar deal with Penske. That could be expanded into NASCAR, and Penske's strong relationship with the Woods team could factor into a Menard move from Richard Childress Racing.
There's not been much talk about Stewart-Haas Racing, but there could be significant changes there next season. Team co-owner Gene Haas already pays for a portion of Kurt Busch's program, and Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer have sponsorship holes on both of their cars.
Busch is believed to be in a contract year, but Cup title sponsor Monster Energy also helps foot the bill on his car and may decide it doesn't need to be with an individual driver. That doesn't mean Haas will dump Busch - he hired him specifically to put the Haas logos in victory lane - but keeping him could be expensive.
Same goes for Patrick, who said last week said she wants to continue racing. She must really love it, then: After a hard hit Sunday at Michigan, it's starting to seem less and less worth the effort for Patrick.
Her wreck was the fourth in the last eight races - and two have been pretty nasty. She has so many other interests and professional ventures that the time put into NASCAR, where Patrick is currently ranked a career-low 30th, seems sort of silly.
Should sponsorship problems end her time at Stewart-Haas, it is unlikely Patrick will land a ride with another team. Nearly every team has sponsorship holes, and few can afford to sign on a driver and pay for it out of pocket.
And then there's Carl Edwards.
He "retired" in January, about six weeks after coming heartbreakingly short of winning his first Cup title, and only he knows if he'll be back in a car next season. If he's in, well, that could solve many of Rick Hendrick's current problems.
More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org/
Updated June 19, 2017