We are just four races away from knowing who the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion will be. The focus, like every year, is on where will some of NASCAR's top stars be driving in 2018? Huge names like Danica Patrick, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, and Aric Almirola still do not have ink on paper for the 2018 season.
Perhaps the worst kept secret in the garage after sponsor Smithfield left Richard Petty Motorsports for Stewart Haas Racing was that driver Aric Almirola will follow, replacing Danica Patrick in the no. 10 car next season. Another spark on that ever growing fire was that Biagi DenBeste Racing, an Xfinity team with the no. 98 car, would be merging with SHR next season, making the no. 00 with Cole Custer and no. 98 with an all star lineup the two SHR cars in the Xfinity series in 2018. This team was also previously aligned with RPM, meaning there is an even greater chance we see Aric Almirola in the no. 10 in 2018 with Smithfield. If this does not happen, and we get blindsided with another driver announcement, it will certainly be the biggest surprise in this year's silly season.
The next candidate is Danica Patrick, who has certainly underwhelmed with her performance in her five seasons with Stewart Haas Racing. There are many different paths Patrick could take for the 2018 season. On the "Door Bumper Clear" podcast on Dirty Mo Radio, spotter Brett Griffin mentioned that Danica would be back in 2018, and that her car number would end in a "7". That made all eyes point to Richard Childress Racing, and the no. 27 car that Paul Menard will be vacating for the Wood Brothers next season. That is Patrick's most likely landing spot if she was to drive in 2018. Another possibility is that Roush Fenway Racing, who will be getting their charter back from the no. 37 JTG team after this year, could go back to three cars in 2018. Patrick would become teammates with her longtime boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driving the no. 97 in this theory, since it feeds into Brett Griffin's theory of the car number ending in "7". This option is not as likely as the RCR move, but we know for sure the charter will he headed back to RFR either for use or it will be sold off by the team. The third option, and in my opinion what will end up happening, is that these four races will be the last that we see of Danica Patrick, as she will opt for retirement and a possible family with Stenhouse. All three of these possibilities are in play, but we will see which of these three, if any, will occur. This silly season has been full of surprises, why would Danica's next move not be a possible surprise.
While it was widely reported that SHR and Kurt Busch did not re-up their deal just so they could restructure the deal, we have not heard any progress or any news regarding that since the announcement was made that Busch's option would not be picked up. While it is entirely possible, and likely in fact, that Busch will be back in his no. 41 Ford in 2018, it is worth keeping an eye on every development in this story in the coming weeks. If Busch were not to return to the team, look for Matt Kenseth to slide right into that seat next season. Other candidates would be Landon Cassill and Bubba Wallace if indeed this circumstance were to occur. Look for Busch to be back in the no. 41 next year barring a major hiccup in the negotiations.
The next driver, and perhaps the worst story of all of this, is Matt Kenseth. Kenseth, one of the most widely liked drivers in the garage area, with his dry sense of humor and incredible skills on the track, will be leaving Joe Gibbs Racing after this season. There is really no place for Kenseth to land in 2018 unless he wants to downgrade in equipment from where he is right now. Those rides would include the no. 43, no. 27, and even Front Row Motorsports. The Front Row Motorsports rumors are where things get really juicy for Kenseth in 2018. The rumor is that FRM, who will get their third charter back from the no. 72 team in 2018, will use that charter and re-expand back to three cars in 2018. Kenseth would drive one of those cars. This of course will mean that FRM will leave Ford and form a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, swapping to Toyota in 2018. There is certainly reason to believe that this could happen, with FRM cutting ties with current driver of the no. 34 Landon Cassill, leaving their flagship car open for 2018. Free agent Michael McDowell is also very much in the hunt for one of those three cars, with current driver David Ragan staying in his no. 38 car. This is still very much in the rumor stage, but the pieces are starting to move that point to this being a possibility for Kenseth in 2018. If this does not happen, it looks like Kenseth will hang it up after this season, completing a Hall of Fame career that spanned over twenty years.
Moves that have been completed already include Erik Jones taking over Matt Kenseth's no. 20 JGR Toyota, Paul Menard taking over Ryan Blaney's no. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, Blaney moving to Penske Racing officially driving a third car, the no. 12. Kasey Kahne will go from the no. 5 Hendrick car to the no. 95 Leavine Family Racing car. Alex Bowman will replace Dale Earnhardt Jr in the no. 88, while William Byron will drive the iconic no. 24 for Hendrick Motorsports next year. Chase Elliott will stay with Hendrick for the future, driving the new no. 9 car, in honor of his father Bill Elliott. Other moves include Brad Keselowski, Ty Dillon and Chris Buescher staying with their respective teams for years to come. Furniture Row Racing will return to one car with Martin Truex Jr, shuttering the no. 77 team with Erik Jones' departure. Current free agents not yet mentioned include Landon Cassill, Michael McDowell, and Bubba Wallace. There are clearly a ton of dominoes still to fall in this already very chaotic silly season, and I cannot wait to see what happens next.