With Dale Earnhardt Jr. set to step out of the No. 88 at season’s end, it appears a veteran driver is most likely to replace him.
Brad Keselowski, who is in a contract year with Team Penske, and Matt Kenseth, who might be part of a shakeup at Joe Gibbs Racing, could wind up as the leading candidates to take Earnhardt’s place at Hendrick Motorsports in 2018, The Associated Press reports. Either driver would bring immediate legitimacy to the team in both sponsorship and competition.
That’s important, since the No. 88 has been the most financially lucrative ride in NASCAR with Earnhardt behind the wheel. Alex Bowman filled the seat part time during Earnhardt’s absence last season and William Byron has demonstrated potential on the lower national series, but sponsors would rightfully be skeptical of backing either of those young drivers in a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series ride.
But there’s a lot going on all over the sport that will impact who is available for HMS to choose from.
Kasey Kahne also could be on his way out at HMS, according to the AP, while Ryan Blaney likely is headed to Penske from Wood Brothers Racing at some point and Kenseth could swap rides with Furniture Row Racing’s Erik Jones, which would keep Kenseth in the Toyota family. And, of course, there’s the ongoing uncertainty at Stewart-Haas Racing, headlined by Danica Patrick’s iffy future.
As the season wears on, the question of who takes Earnhardt’s place will only become more pressing. Historically, NASCAR’s success has been driven by its most popular drivers, and with the sport’s most recognizable face moving on, who takes over in his car is no small matter.
Thumbnail photo via Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY Sports Images
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