Mark McCarter: NASCAR's silly season never ends now

Mark McCarter: NASCAR's silly season never ends now

July 27th, 2017 by Mark McCarter in Sports - Nascar

NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe are remaining with Team Penske, moves that were shaped by other decisions and will shape other decisions about who races for whom in the Cup Series next season.

Photo by Matt Slocum

Once upon a time, boredom and gossip on the NASCAR circuit created the "silly season" during the summer doldrums.

There was innocent silliness one July when a journalist from a large media outlet pranked a fellow writer who was obsessed with minutiae. Conspiring with a team owner helped start the buzz that the owner would be signing the preeminent Formula One racer of the day to bring him to NASCAR — just to see if the writer would take the bait. Before he printed fake news — before fake news was a thing — the joke was revealed.

"Silly season," more specifically as a reference to the time of rumors and reports of job-swapping, has become a year-round thing now. The summer doldrums — marked by this past Sunday's often unwatchable Brickyard 400 in front of 35,000 fans — remain.

(The race was perfectly summed up by Matt Kenseth: "It was kind of ridiculous. It was just a restart and a wreck and a restart and a wreck and a restart and a wreck — just kept repeating.")

There is much speculation and, in the past week, there has been much clarity:

On the dotted line

* Brad Keselowski announced he has signed a multi-year extension to remain at Team Penske after crew chief Paul Wolfe announced earlier he would stay at Penske. Keselowski has blogged about the extension, but reading between the lines, it seems he was waiting on Hendrick Motorsports' decision on the No. 88 Chevrolet before re-upping.

* Ryan Blaney will move over to Team Penske next season, it was announced Wednesday. He'll join Keselowski and Joey Logano on a three-car team.

* Alex Bowman was named Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s replacement driver in the No. 88 starting next year, when Earnhardt will be retired from full-time Cup Series competition. Hendrick was pleased with Bowman's performance last year — three top-10 finishes and a pole position in 10 starts subbing for Junior — but don't minimize the economics. He comes cheaper than an experienced guy.

* Paul Menard is moving from Richard Childress Racing to Wood Brothers Racing to replace Blaney. Perhaps that opens the door for Childress to bring aboard his other grandson, Ty Dillon, to join Austin.

* Earnhardt has signed with NBC. But expect more than the TV network using him for the race-day banality that comes from many former drivers. NBC hinted it will use Junior's personality on a much broader scale, perhaps even on other sports, which would be a very wise move.

Up in the air

* Kasey Kahne's future is reportedly shaky at Hendrick Motorsports. He is signed through 2018, but there are some sponsors jumping ship. He made a brilliant run late in the Brickyard to end his 102-race winless streak, but owner Rick Hendrick would not address Kahne's future after the win. Smart move. Logic, finances and body of work should make the decision, not the emotions of a victory.

* Matt Kenseth is out at Joe Gibbs Racing, with Erik Jones moving into the No. 20 Toyota next year. Kenseth is 45 years old, and he seems sadly destined to become the next incarnation of Bobby Labonte, a good guy and former champ who hangs on and rides things out in poor equipment for low-budget teams.

* Aric Almirola's contract at Petty Motorsports expires at year's end. You suspect they're looking closely at his performance after the wreck that cost him seven races. Does it become a coin toss between him and Bubba Wallace, who replaced him?

* Kurt Busch said he's not worried about whether Stewart-Haas Racing will pick up the option on his contract, which expires this year. But if a more marketable, cheaper, lower-maintenance driver like Bubba Wallace or Kenseth is available, you have to wonder.

* Danica Patrick is the real decision for Stewart-Haas. The contract will be up, sponsors aren't beating down the doors any more and she's winless in 174 Cup Series starts. Does NBC have any more money after paying Junior?

On to this week's wrap-up:

* Last race: Kahne survived the carnage to win under caution. Will it salvage his job at Hendrick after rumors of his impending departure?

* Next race: Overton's 400, Pocono Raceway, 3 p.m. Sunday, NBC Sports TV.

* Pick to win: The last two Pocono races have had first-time winners, and the trend will continue with Erik Jones.

* Fast Five: 1. Kyle Larson, 2. Martin Truex Jr., 3. Kevin Harvick, 4. Denny Hamlin, 5. Keselowski.

* What they're saying: "Second sucks, but there's 38 other spots worse than that." — Brickyard 400 runner-up Brad Keselowski.

Contact Mark McCarter at markfmccarter@gmail.com.