Matt Kenseth laughs off retirement rumors; says racing in 2018 is ‘always my hope’

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CHARLOTTE – News alert: When Matt Kenseth officially does decide to leave NASCAR, he won’t be sending out an advisory.

He also won’t be holding a news conference similar to Wednesday afternoon’s announcement at the NASCAR Hall of Fame that Circle K will sponsor his No. 20 Toyota in six races this season.

So how would the Joe Gibbs Racing driver handle retirement?

“I probably just wouldn’t show up at Daytona and just everybody say was Matt racing this week? Or I’d send out like a four-word tweet.

“I don’t know if I’d announce it all.”

In other words, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver hasn’t considered the proposition?

“Not really.”

Kenseth, 45, spent much of Wednesday laughing off the scourge of social media — a clickbait special that spread like wildfire Tuesday night, “reporting” that Kenseth would be stepping aside for a former teammate (we won’t dignify it with further details, but you probably can guess whom).

“I’m just glad I’m still driving tomorrow,” he said. “I wasn’t sure after all the reports on the Internet all weekend. People blowing me up during my Easter vacation, so I appreciate that. Whoever didn’t have anything else to do in their basement this weekend.”

How many more years does the 2003 champion plan to race?

“Fifteen to 20,” he said with typical deadpan. “If Tom Brady can play football at 40 and still win Super Bowls, I think 45 is pretty young to try to win races.”

Still, it’s notable that neither Kenseth nor team owner Joe Gibbs definitively said he would be in the No. 20 in 2018. Kenseth’s future has been the subject of some speculation since Furniture Row Racing announced its signing of Erik Jones last summer with the caveat that it was only for 2017.

Jones remains under contract to JGR beyond this season, though Carl Edwards’ surprise departure has clouded that picture (it was expected Daniel Suarez could slide into Jones’ seat if he returned to Gibbs).

Gibbs said the Circle K deal is multiyear, so does that mean Kenseth will be with the team in 2018?

“I mean, I hope so,” Keneseth said. “That’s always my hope. The details of the sponsorship I mostly don’t know. That would have to come from Coach or somebody there. I don’t know any real details except the races they’re on the car this year.”

Gibbs said that having Kenseth return next year is “certainly what we hope. That’s what we’re working toward” and noted the driver’s renewed interest in long-distance cycling.

“Right now, he’s on that bike all the time now,” Gibbs said of Kenseth. “He’s probably in as good a shape as he has been in his life, and I know he has a burning desire to keep driving. Our hope is he’s with us, and we continue into the future. That’s our game plan.”

The short-term plan is for JGR to improve on a winless 2017. In a NASCAR America interview Wednesday, Kenseth said he couldn’t recall a worse start in his career (22nd in the points standings, three top 10s in seven races). Gibbs said the organization has “isolated five different things we need to work on and improve” (he didn’t identify them).

Aside from struggling, Kenseth also took “the two hardest hits back to back for sure” in his career at Phoenix and Fontana (where he hopes a poor wall angle will be corrected as a result).

“We just haven’t run very well, really,” he said. “Some of that causes some of your problems. Phoenix, we ran really bad and ended up blowing a right-front. California, we ran bad and got wrecked. Some things are circumstances, but if we can run better, that cures a lot of your problems.”

Though JGR has rebounded from slumps in the past (winning 26 of 72 races in 2015-16 after only two wins in 2014), Kenseth said he was concerned by his lack of speed at Martinsville Speedway (where he still finished ninth).

“Martinsville has been one of our strongest tracks on performance since I’ve come to JGR,” he said. “We ran really, really bad the last time there. We ran bad at tracks we historically run good at, which for me is a concern, and really the only time for me that I’m not concerned about it is as soon as we turn it around.”

Check out Southern 500 paint schemes for Erik Jones, David Ragan and Landon Cassill

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Monday saw the reveal of three paint schemes for the Sept. 3 Southern 500 (on NBCSN). Here’s a look at the cars for Furniture Row Racing’s Erik Jones and Front Row Motorsports’ David Ragan and Landon Cassill.

Jones, who is in contention for the Rookie of the Year award in the Cup Series, will honor previous winners of the award with his paint scheme. Specifically, the No. 77 Toyota will pay tribute to the Rookie of the Year recipients from 1984-89.

The scheme will feature pictures of Rusty Wallace (1984), Ken Schrader (1985), Alan Kulwicki (1986), Davey Allision (1987), Ken Bouchard (1988) and Dick Trickle (1989).

Ragan’s No. 38 Ford will be sponsored by Good Sam. Ragan’s paint scheme is an ode to the RV company’s early days. It was founded in 1966.

Cassill’s paint scheme probably looks familiar. It’s the same one the team used for the last Southern 500 when Chris Buescher drove the N0. 34. The team had to call an audible after Michael McDowell and Leavine Family Racing beat them to the punch on a Kulwicki tribute scheme. Fortunately, Cassill was cool with it.

MORE: Retro Rundown of 2017 Southern 500 paint schemes.

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Bump & Run: Taking stock of the NASCAR season

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What has surprised you the most about this season?

Jeff Burton: My biggest surprise is that there really hasn’t been a flaw in the new stage racing format. I believed that something would happen that revealed a flaw that no one had anticipated but we have yet to see it.

Nate Ryan: Martin Truex Jr.’s emergence as the championship favorite. It was expected he would run well and be a playoff contender and winner, but Furniture Row Racing regularly outrunning Joe Gibbs Racing as the best-in-class Toyota team has been a surprise – as has Truex’s runaway lead in the playoff points standings. He and crew chief Cole Pearn have become the crew chief-driver combination that is setting the pace in every way possible, whether it’s lap speeds, setup decisions or strategy calls.

Dustin Long: That there have been 14 different Cup winners (13 eligible for the playoffs) at this point in the season, which is already the most number of winners in an entire Cup season since 2013.

What driver has impressed you the most this season?

Jeff Burton: Martin Truex Jr. Speed and consistency is hard to achieve. He has been the guy that seems to be in the battle every single week. 

Nate Ryan: William Byron. His promotion to the Cup Series is well deserved, because he has proven the past two years to be an absolute prodigy with his acclimation to Xfinity and trucks. It makes one wonder if he already would have been a Cup winner if he had started his racing career in earnest before becoming a teenager.

Dustin Long: I’m amazed what William Byron has done for his relative lack of experience compared to drivers who started before they hit first grade. His ability to handle pressure situations has been noteworthy. While the challenges will increase next year, I’m already interested to see how he will do in Cup.

What storyline most intrigues you for the coming weeks?

Jeff Burton: I’m intrigued about the playoffs. There will be a big time driver and team that doesn’t advance into the playoffs. Watching who can take control and who can’t step up will be very interesting to witness.

Nate Ryan: The impact of playoff points on the championship race and how it affects who advances in each round. The suspicion here is that there will be much second-guessing and re-examination of decisions made during the regular season that had unanticipated repercussions months later.

Dustin Long: I’m intrigued to see if Kyle Busch and his team can finally eliminate the mistakes that have plagued them throughout the season and prevented Busch from possibly an epic season. With two wins in the last four races, he’s on the verge of a breakout that will lead to a dominating title run. Will it happen?

SunnyD extends sponsorship deal with Roush Fenway Racing

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SunnyD has extended its contract with Roush Fenway Racing to sponsor Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s team through the 2019 season, the organization announced Tuesday.

SunnyD will add races as primary sponsor each season, although how many was not announced.

The company has been the primary sponsor of Stenhouse’s car in three races this season – Atlanta, spring Bristol and Indianapolis. SunnyD will next sponsor Stenhouse in October at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“We’ve had a great time partnering with SunnyD the last two years,” Stenhouse in a statement from the team. “It’s one of the coolest paint schemes on the track, and we’ve had a lot of fun promoting their classic brand. I’m excited that we have extended our relationship, and I can’t wait to see how much fun we can have with SunnyD in victory lane.”

“We are very excited to announce that we tore up the old contract and signed a new one that extends for another season and adds additional races with Ricky and Roush Fenway,” said Henk Hartong, Chairman of Harvest Hill Beverage Company, owners of the SunnyD brand, in a statement. “I’m very proud of our relationship with Jack Roush, Steve Newmark and the entire Roush Fenway team. It is something that we wanted to lock in for the foreseeable future. Ricky is one of the rising young stars in NASCAR and we have seen great response to the program from the passionate NASCAR fans.  We are pleased to bolster our association with him and Roush Fenway.”

Stenhouse has two wins this year and will be in next month’s playoffs.

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Martin Truex Jr. continues to dominate NASCAR Cup playoff grid

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Martin Truex Jr. continues to dominate the weekly NASCAR Cup playoff standings.

Truex did not gain any extra points during Saturday night’s Bristol Night Race, so he remains with 35 points, but that’s still a large spread over those chasing him.

Bristol winner Kyle Busch jumped from fifth to second place in the standings with 20 playoff points.

Kyle Larson fell back to third place (18 points), Jimmie Johnson fell to fourth (16) and Brad Keselowski is fifth (14).

As for the playoff bubble, Chase Elliott is 69 points ahead of the cut-off line, followed by Matt Kenseth (+61) and Jamie McMurray (+58) with two races left until the playoffs.

Outside the playoff cut line is Clint Bowyer, who dropped from 31 to 58 points down and Joey Logano from -98 to -117. Erik Jones climbed from -130 to -127, and Daniel Suarez dropped from -139 to -163.

 

Here’s this week’s playoff standings grid: