Only 19 days remain until Daytona Speed Weeks officially begin. Beginning the day with Daytona 500 qualifying and ending with the first daily fantasy slate of the season, The Clash, Feb. 9 is primed for excitement. Meanwhile, the excitement is brewing here at Awesemo for another great season of fantasy NASCAR content, including better race sheets with even more info to help build better lineups. However, before we begin, letâs take a stroll down the offseason and recap what happened during âSilly Season.â
If youâre unfamiliar with NASCAR lingo, Silly Season is the term long associated with the NASCAR offseason. Why is the offseason silly? Well, because of driver, manufacturer and/or sponsors contracts, we can see a lot of movement. It made no sense in 1991 when I first started watching NASCAR. 19 years later, itâs still murky. Just know cash rules everything.
For the sake of order, this rundown will go numerically in car numbers from 00 to 99. Furthermore, several drivers inked one-year extensions like Erik Jones, Aric AlmirolaÂ and Clint Bowyer to stay with their respective teams. These extensions will not be mentioned as weâre only worried about drivers who moved.
After two years of piloting the 00 for StarCom Racing, Landon Cassill yields his seat to Quin Houff. While still unsure of just what his role is, StarCom announced that Cassill would still remain with the team. However, driving a secondary car appears to be out of the realm for Cassill. Whatever the role, keeping Landon around the garage to help Houff would be beneficial. Houff split time between Spire Motorsports and Jay Robinson last season making just seventeen combined starts.
That lack of experience should be the biggest difference between the 00 in 2019 and 2020. While the results probably wonât be that dramatically off, Landon brought consistency to this low-budget ride. In a full season last year, Cassill failed to finish the race just four times. For StarCom to be profitable, they need the 00 to finish races. For their sake, hopefully Houff understands his role as a bus driver and not a hotshot trying to get noticed.
After spot starts for Richard Childress last season, the two-time reigning Xfinity Champion makes his debut as a full-time Cup driver. Daniel Hemric showed promise driving for RCR last season with an average finish of 22.5. However, promise was never going to be enough to get Daniel a second year at RCR. Perhaps, if Tyler Reddick hadnât have made the decision so easy for Richard Childress to promote him. Even then, Hemric still may have lost his ride to Daniel SuĂĄrez and his sponsors.
The ascent of Reddick has been a spectacle to watch the past two seasons. Going from wreck enthusiast at JR Motorsports to bona fide contender at RCR was a roller coaster. Reddick was always a promising talent, even all the way back to 2015 as a 19-year-old driving in the Truck Series. That talent finally culminated last season with six wins in the Xfinity Series and a second championship. Granted, Reddick had the upper hand that most drivers could exploit in Xfinity: an owner with a real budget. Being in the 09 and 02 respectively put Reddick in elite company. However, Reddick did what others hadnât: turn that opportunity into wins and consecutive titles.
When Reddick flips the ignition switch at Daytona, that cheat code will be gone. Like Hemric before him, heâll be one of several drivers in a good but not great ride fighting for a top 10. However, results in Xfinity point to Reddick making the jump quicker than Hemric did.
Rarely will we see a driverâs seat remain static in lower-tier rides. Teams are always looking for an infusion of new talent, not to mention new sponsorships, to help keep teams like Premium running. That scenario is no different in the 15 this season as Brennan Poole will replace Ross Chastain. While we may see Chastain from time to time in the Cup Series, his focus will be driving full time in the Xfinity Series for Kaulig Motorsports. Had Chip Ganassi been able to retain his Xfinity team last season, that is probably where we would see Chastain today.
Speaking of Ganassi and his defunct Xfinity team, that is the last place we saw Poole in full-time action. Poole was the perfect example of talent not meshing with a top ride in the Xfinity Series. In two seasons, Poole managed just eight top-five finishes and led 25 laps combined. He was subsequently released by Ganassi as he filled the 42 seat with a combination of drivers in 2018. Chastain was slated to inherit the 42 in a full-time role before itâs chief sponsor, DC Solar, was shut down by the feds.
Thus, the circle is complete as Poole takes the 15 ride from Chastain. Chastainâs best finish of the year came in last yearâs Daytona 500 (10th) only to finish in the top 15 one other time (Fall Talladega). Similar results should be expected of Poole, however, this learning curve may be steep. Pooleâs start at Daytona will be his first ever Cup race.
Perhaps the biggest Silly Season news to break came well before the season ever finished. On Sept. 25, Roush Fenway announced that long-time Roush driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. would not return to the 17 in 2020. After spending nine seasons with Roush, including two Xfinity championships, the news came as a bit of a shock. However, after nine seasons behind the wheel of the 17, all Stenhouse had to show were two wins in plate races, 15 top fives and 34 top 10s in 256 races with one playoff appearance.
Filling Stenhouseâs seat will be another former Xfinity champion, Chris Buescher (2015). Consequently, Buescher won his title racing for Jack Roush too. Regardless, Buescher had spent the past few seasons racing the 37 for JTG Daugherty. It is not quite racing for Premium but not racing for RCR either. Buescherâs career results reflect a driver in an upper-lower-tier vehicle. However, his results last year showed growth and finally propelled him into the spotlight for Roush. With nine top-15 finishes, including back-to-back fifths at Daytona, Buescherâs trajectory was upward while Stenhouse was stagnant.
Buescher has been a sponge soaking up knowledge in his path as heâs become a better driver. No further proof is needed than to look at his results at plate races and road courses â two venues where former teammate A.J. Allmendinger excelled. Perhaps, with veteran Ryan Newman at his side, Buescher can round off some of his rough edges and become what Stenhouse was always supposed to be.
After nearly two decades in the Cup Series, Paul Menard announced his impending retirement last summer. Consequently, Menard announced that fan-favorite Matt DiBenedetto would be replacing him in the 21 in 2020. Now, as one career fades into the record books, one may be finally beginning.
DiBenedetto has always been willing to publicly bet that his talent has been better than the car heâs wheeled. He famously took that bet a year ago, waiting for the newly vacated ride at Leavine Family Racing (No. 95). After sinking with Kasey Kahne in 2018, LFR took a chance on Matt looking to capitalize on their new partnership with Joe Gibbs. While expectations were nowhere near reasonable, the same problem that hurt the 95 with Kahne, DiBenedetto did manage to give LFR some of their best finishes including three top fives, seven top 10s and a near win at Darlington.
When LFR announced DiBenedetto would not be back, DiBenedetto once again publicly announced he would not settle for a demotion. His public bet looked like a loser as rides failed to open up save for Front Row (David Ragan). However, DiBenedetto had earned the respect of Paul Menard and Menard started pulling strings to ensure when he stepped down that DiBenedetto would get his ride. While this move may be more horizontal than vertical, he now gets a chance to work with a historically well-ran team (Wood Brothers) who happens to have a technical alliance with Penske. DiBenedettoâs deal is for 2020 only so the pressure will be on from the start. That said, betting on DiBenedetto to make the most of this season should be a winning bet.
Should Matt Tifft never see another mile in a Cup, Xfinity or Truck race, it will be a shame. Tifft had all the markings of a talented driver but would always have to overcome his health. He overcame it once before in 2017 (brain cancer) and it looks like heâll have to do it once more after being unable to finish the final four races of the 2019 season for Front Row Motorsports. Tifft is officially stepping away to focus on his health but the sad fact is he was on his way out the door after just six lead-lap finishes in 32 races, all in a third car for a team that was accustomed to just running two vehicles. Tifft was going to have to force Front Row to continue running the third team by his results, results that never panned out.
However, 2020 is seeing Front Row retract back to a two-car operation. Tifftâs car will see no replacement driver. The driver (John Hunter Nemechek) that filled in for him during his absence will replace the retiring David Ragan. Ragan too is stepping away from full-time driving. However, Raganâs departure seems to be more about a man ready to be at home instead of at the track.
Regardless, after finding his way into a Cup ride via bad circumstances, Nemechek managed to stick with that same crew via other. In Nemechekâs three starts for Tifft, he finished 21st, 27th and 23rd â admirable for a 22-year-old making his first Cup starts. Whether in the Truck or Xfinity Series, Nemechekâs results point to an above-average driver. However, now that Nemechek wonât have the benefit of dad or sponsors giving him an above-average ride, will the results follow?
For the third straight season, the 41 will have a different driver behind the wheel for Stewart-Haas. Each transition has seen the experience level decrease and now a rookie will wield the wheel. Although, this rookie has more than enough experience with three years in the Xfinity Series with back-to-back runner-ups in the championship standings.
For me, and for most, the jury was stuck in deliberation on how good Cole Custer was. He felt like a silver spoon brat who was racing because his dad worked for Gene Haas. And through three years in the Xfinity Series, he only had two wins to show for his effort. However, this past season, Custer strung seven wins together at a variety of tracks from Loudon to Pocono and Las Vegas.
Had Suarez and his team been able to reach an agreement with Stewart-Haas, chances are we would have seen Custer replace Corey Lajoie in the 32 now that Go Fas has an alliance with SHR. Yet, as the story goes, contract negotiations broke down. Lajoie remains in the 32, which is a great story in of itself, while Custer gets to skip starting off in the technical alliance car unlike fellow rookie Christopher Bell. Just what is Custerâs potential is to be seen. He sits on the cusp of the 2020 season much like Tyler Reddick, a talented driver who we have yet to see compete with a field that is just as talented with equipment either equal or better than their own.
Last season, Ryan Preece drove the 47 but he moves down to the 37 for 2020. Implications are zilch, however, the featured driver for JTG-Daugherty has typically driven the 47. After Buescherâs departure, the new featured driver for the 47 is the aforementioned Stenhouse. Essentially, Buescher and Stenhouse swapped seats at the diner and Stenhouse came away with the wobbly chair.
In case you glossed over it, both of these drivers were summed up in the No. 17. The main take away I have is if Stenhouseâs numbers were subpar driving for Roush, what will they look like in inferior equipment? Plus, this is the first time Stenhouse will drive something besides a Ford in his NASCAR career. How quickly can Stenhouse learn to translate his driving style into a manufacturer heâs never raced for before?
It was only a matter of time before Bell came up to the Cup series. After seven wins in the 2018 Xfinity Series, Bell could have easily had any lower-tier ride he wanted. However, after eight more wins the following season, everyone knew Bell was racing on Sundays come 2020. The only question was how could a Toyota-dedicated driver finagle his way into the Joe Gibbs stable, a stable full of uber-talented drivers under contract? The answer was clear when Leavine announced the departure of DiBenedetto. This all but marked the path for Bell with yellow bricks to the Cup Series.
With 22 combined Truck and Xfinity wins, not to mention the myriad of other wins heâs accumulated such as multiple Chili Bowl titles, Bell may be the best prospect to enter the Cup Series since Kyle Busch. Expectations will be strong for Bell especially given the stronger alliance JGR inked with Leavine during the offseason all but making the 95 the new Furniture Row ride. Expectations have always been high at the 95 but they may finally have the driver to match the car that Leavine has always envisioned.
Donât be surprised if next Silly Season weâre talking about Bell in the 20. Erik Jones returned to JGR on a one-year extension. However, Bell feels destined for one of Gibbs cars and the 20 is the easiest path.
The final Silly Season entry is also the last as weâve waited all winter for this news to be finalized. The career path of SuĂĄrez has been an odd one and it looks to be dictated by the desires of his sponsors now. Suarez is a good racer in his own right. However, the key to Suarez is his financial backing. Thus, it appears his sponsors are pulling the strings of his path and somehow it settled on a team that didnât run a full-time schedule last season.
To be honest, SuĂĄrez has talent (Xfinity champion in 2016) but heâs been on the bad end of decisions too. He lost his ride in the 19 because Furniture Row decided it was too expensive to keep running the 78 full time. As I said before, SuĂĄrez possibly remains in the 41 for this season if not for Custer waiting in the wings. Now heâs driving the 96 because his only options were this or returning to the Xfinity Series. His sponsors wanted a full-time ride under the brightest lights. The 96 seems to be the only suitors who could provide both.
Gauging the 96 with SuĂĄrez behind the wheel is tough. In fact, I donât think weâll have a good picture of this teamâs potential until California or later. Gaunt ran just 14 races last year with their best finishes coming at Daytona and Talladega (15th) with Parker Kligerman behind the wheel. Consequently, SuĂĄrez has been a dreadful plate racer in his career. Thus, I think weâre going to need to see a string of short and intermediate tracks to get a real feel for what this team can do.