The Year of Unrestricted Free Agents
Last season the biggest story in free agency was where was Kyle Busch going to sign after M&Ms announced that they were no longer going to be sponsoring the #18 Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing. He ended up with Richard Childress Racing in the #8 and has set the series on fire so far. There is something flying under the radar this year on the business end of NASCAR. There are going to be 12 unrestricted free agents at the end of the 2023 season. Here is the list of those drivers (https://www.spotrac.com/nascar/).
· Todd Gilliland (FRM)
· Michael McDowell (FRM)
· Denny Hamlin (JGR)
· Martin Truex, Jr. (JGR)
· Justin Haley (Kaulig)
· Noah Gragson (Legacy)
· Ty Dillon (Spire)
· Corey LaJoie (Spire)
· Aric Almirola (SHR)
· Kevin Harvick (SHR)
· Ryan Preece (SHR)
· Harrison Burton (Wood Brothers)
A few of these are just formalities. FedEx announced recently that they are close to an agreement on their continued sponsorship of the #11 car for Denny Hamlin. Ryan Preece was on a 1-year contract to prove he could compete, and he has earned at least another year in the #41 at SHR. If Almirola decides to come back next year the seat would be his, but after his retirement and then unretirement I don’t know what he’ll do.
The other nine spots could potentially be up for grabs at the end of the season. Martin Truex will have a seat at JGR as long as he wants. Bass Pro Shops loves Truex and has been a loyal sponsor for NASCAR, but Truex has been very vocal about his dislike for the new car and is on the backend of his career. He may make one last run at a second championship and then hang it up. That was of course before he had 2 wins and leading the points this season.
Harvick is retiring at the end of the season and going to the FOX booth to do commentary on the races. That is a guaranteed spot to be open for one of these drivers or somebody in a lower series to get their break into the Cup Series. I will talk about who I believe should get a shot next season in the Cup Series in my next blog. Let’s talk about possible scenarios for the rest of the drivers on the list.
Todd Gilliland is in his second year in the Cup Series and has made big improvements this season. His average finish at 20th is up 3 positions from last season only one position behind his teammate Michael McDowell and already has more top 10 finishes than he did last season. Gilliland has earned another year in that car.
FRM’s conundrum is that they have Zane Smith waiting in the wings driving in the Craftsman Truck Series. They have had Smith racing part-time in selected races in the Cup Series, so the plan is to obviously bring him up. The problem is that they only have 2 charters. Michael McDowell is a solid racecar driver and a Dayton 500 champion. However, if FRM honestly believes Zane Smith is the future of their company, they need to bring him up full time next year and move on from McDowell. While McDowell may bring experience to the team, they need to fully invest in their younger talent and look towards the future.
Noah Gragson shouldn’t be concerned at all. While Gragson has had some bad luck and made some dumb decisions on the track this season, he definitely has championship winning talent. Even if Legacy weren’t to sign him back, which I think he will sign another 1-year contract with the team, he would be able to find a ride at another team regardless of manufacturer.
Justin Haley could have a big concern on his hands with the addition of Chandler Smith at Kaulig Racing. Chandler fought Zane Smith for the Craftsman Truck championship with KBM last season and then moved to Kaulig Racing this season to compete in the Xfinity Series. Chandler has the potential to be one of the best of this new generation and Haley has had a mediocre Cup Series run so far.
His one win came in 2019 at Daytona for Spire Motorsports and has an average finish of just under 18th this season. Chris Rice does not strike me as somebody who is complacent with middle of the pack finishes. If Haley misses the playoffs again this season, I expect him to be replaced with Chandler Smith next season.
Ty Dillon and Harrison Burton will not be signed back at the end of the season. Burton is young and was moved up to quickly to the Cup Series. He has been running in the same position that he was last season in his rookie year and only has 1 top 10 finish in the first half of the season this year. That will just not cut it in a Penske alliance car.
Burton needs to go back to the Xfinity series and refine his craft a little bit more similar to what John Hunter Nemechek has done. Ty Dillon is just a below average racecar driver for the Cup Series, and it would benefit Spire Motorsports to give a young driver a shot and find a replacement for Corey LaJoie.
Lastly, Corey LaJoie needs to sign with Stewart-Haas to take over for Kevin Harvick. Corey has given Spire enough chances to show that they can win a championship and that just isn’t going to happen. LaJoie is one of the most popular drivers in the series right now and has the talent to win races, maybe even compete for a championship one day. He has not had a shot in a top tier car and as of right now, Harvick is the only driver on that team that seems to be able to compete for the championship. The desire LaJoie has shown for wanting to be a winner and a champion of the series would be a perfect match-up with SHR.
There are a lot of free agents this year and while most of the big names may not be making a lot of noise this year, there are a lot of changes that can happen in the garage at the end of the season. There are some veterans that will be gone into retirement and possibly some who are just out of time. However, that will bring us new young talent and opportunity for those who have patiently for it. Some will get another opportunity and for some it may be their last. It will be interesting to see where all these drivers end up by the start of the 2024 season.