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Silly Season heating up

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Keselowski left himself very little wiggle room when asked if he is a candidate to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. next season.

"Roger has given me a lot, and I have no reason to not want to stay with him," Keselowski replied when The Associated Press asked him if Earnhardt's retirement at the end of the season and his open seat at Hendrick Motorsports is holding up a new deal.

As NASCAR hits the long, slow stretch of summer, its "silly season" is certainly heating up and Earnhardt's seat in the #88 Chevrolet the biggest prize of free agency.

Hendrick actually has two potential vacancies. Kasey Kahne has a contract to drive the #5 through next season, but few would be surprised if he's replaced at the end of the year.

That would mean Hendrick needs to scour the market for available drivers, and the top name may very well be Matt Kenseth. The two-time Daytona 500 winner is in a contract year with Joe Gibbs Racing, and what he decides for his future could be the most important domino to fall. Yes, Alex Bowman did an admirable job filling in for Earnhardt last season, but he's young and unproven, and could be a hard sell to sponsors who pay top dollar for Earnhardt's representation.

William Byron probably isn't ready for a Cup ride - he has all of 13 Xfinity Series races on his resume - so Hendrick is going to need a seat filler if he does indeed end up with two empty cars. It wouldn't be surprising to see Bowman in one ride and Kenseth in the other.

But Kenseth could also do a swap with Erik Jones, and he could remain part of the JGR and Toyota pipeline, while Jones gets his spot with the A-team. If that's how it goes down, then anything is possible throughout the rest of the garage.

Ryan Blaney, NASCAR's newest first-time winner, could be pulled inside the Penske camp as a third full-time driver next season. That would leave a vacancy at The Wood Brothers, and Paul Menard could very well be headed there. Menard is sponsored by his father's home improvement stores, and John Menard last year announced an IndyCar deal with Penske.

There's not been much talk about Stewart-Haas Racing, but there could be significant changes there next season. Team co-owner Gene Haas already pays for a portion of Kurt Busch's program, and Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer have sponsorship holes on both of their cars.

Busch is believed to be in a contract year, but Cup title sponsor Monster Energy also helps foot the bill on his car and may decide it doesn't need to be with an individual driver. That doesn't mean Haas will dump Busch - he hired him specifically to put the Haas logos in victory lane - but keeping him could be expensive.

Same goes for Patrick, who said last week said she wants to continue racing. She must really love it, then: After a hard hit Sunday at Michigan, it's starting to seem less and less worth the effort for Patrick.

And then there's Carl Edwards.

He "retired" in January, about six weeks after coming heartbreakingly short of winning his first Cup title, and only he knows if he'll be back in a car next season. If he's in, well, that could solve many of Rick Hendrick's current problems.

-- Associated Press --