Ryan: Matt Kenseth deserves to call the shots on how his career ends

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In the end, and this truly could have an extra measure of finality, it wasn’t up to Matt Kenseth whether he would compete for a Cup championship.

When his pit crew inexplicably broke its own carefully mapped out protocols and dispatched an extra man over the wall at Kansas Speedway to fix his No. 20 Toyota (which seemed repairable), NASCAR responded in kind by literally taking the wheel from the Joe Gibbs Racing driver – eliminating Kenseth from playoff title contention in what might be his last season on the premier circuit.

The feeling of powerlessness had to be familiar.

If there is a recurring theme in Kenseth’s career, it’s that too often his Hall of Fame brilliance has been blunted by forces entirely beyond his control.

The most obvious example is unfolding in real time: The cold realization that the Cambridge, Wisconsin, native is winding down what most likely will be the four remaining races of his 18th and final year in Cup.

That also isn’t Kenseth’s decision.

He remains highly competitive and in peak physical condition at 45, but the whims of corporate sponsorship and economics of team ownership are denying him an exit from NASCAR on his own terms.

Though there are whispers he could remain in a competitive ride if willing to compromise on the at-track conveniences and salary commanded by someone of his accomplishment and experience, the fact remains that Kenseth is in a unique situation when compared to retiring peers Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – none of whom were forced into facing such hard choices beyond choosing the year of their last go-round.

Kenseth, who always has faced the incessant and tough questions (even if his answers weren’t necessarily as pithy and quotable as many wanted to hear), simply deserves better in being appreciated for what he has delivered during one of the more unheralded careers in NASCAR.

It isn’t just the 38 career wins (third among active drivers) or the 13 playoff appearances in 14 attempts (second only to Jimmie Johnson). It’s the overlooked stand-up style of a star whose laconic nature belies his lead-by-example methods that can be quietly forceful when things aren’t going right. Joe Gibbs Racing likely won’t miss a beat in performance when Erik Jones replaces Kenseth in 2018, but a veteran presence certainly will be lacking in its Tuesday debriefs.

Yet there are some who might complain Kenseth hasn’t been outspoken enough, which misses an important point about the last truly blue-collar driver in Cup.

Hailing from a state known for its dichotomy of fiercely independent politics built on firebrand flourishes of expression and hard-working labor constructed on head-down agriculture and manufacturing, Kenseth rarely diverts from the task at hand (in this instance, racing).

But yet when he has something to say, he always does – and often with the deadpan wit that can make a sharp point while simultaneously defusing the most emotionally charged controversy (NASCAR officials should have thanked him for his post-Richmond ambulance tweet).

That wonderfully droll sense of humor also has a veiled crossover appeal. He hardly gets mentioned when compared to his transcendent counterparts, but the funniest bit involving a NASCAR driver on National Public Radio was Matt Kenseth as the straight man who turned Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me into a laugh riot.

It was hilarious in part because it was such an unlikely stage for Kenseth, who never bothers concealing disdain for self-aggrandizement. He can’t help it if he isn’t the sort who toots his own horn – just as he can’t help having any say over many events in the past two decades that precluded him getting his due.

When he found the spotlight, first in the Xfinity Series in 1998 and then again in Cup in 2000, Kenseth couldn’t have controlled being caught in the shadow of a 14-time most popular (but less successful) driver for the entirety of his career.

When he won the 2003 championship with the most workmanlike of efforts, it wasn’t Kenseth’s call to change the title format (he memorably wasn’t even consulted before NASCAR chairman Brian France announced the change) – though it forever (and unfairly) became linked to his greatest achievement.

When he took Johnson to the wire for the 2013 title, it wasn’t Kenseth who committed the comedy of errors at Phoenix International Raceway that doomed what probably will be remembered as his last great bid at the championship. Just like last Sunday at Kansas, it was his team that cost him the shot.

Kenseth merits at least one more opportunity.

He doesn’t have the power to make that happen. But someone does – and should.

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Put aside the debate over whether NASCAR needs to eradicate the echoes of “Office Space” that have seeped into its officiating (“We noticed you’re having trouble with restarts … did you not get that memo about the apron, inside lane and white line and why it’s OK to do something illegal if someone else does it first?”), there’s no question that communication needs to be improved about the rules.

It is a problem when drivers meetings – which are decked out with enormous red carpets, omnipresent countdown clocks and ear-splittingly high-volume warmup music that would make Nickelback shudder – are held up as some sort of sacrosanct forum for discussing the rules and their game-changing applications that could determine the course of a championship.

They are the NASCAR equivalent of holding school board meetings at Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Yes, it is the responsibility of teams to understand the rules when they are presented to them.

It also is the responsibility of NASCAR for delivering the information in a manner that ensures its absorbtion.

The current dog and pony shows that drivers meetings have evolved into over the years don’t meet that standard.

Either the meetings need to be conducted within an environment and with a purpose conducive to a real discussion about the rules (see the example below from Formula One this past weekend in Austin), or the important ground rules (particularly those changed on the fly during a weekend that are track specific) need to be disseminated in a way that is fair and foolproof.

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Martin Truex Jr. wasn’t tipping his hand much, but the championship favorite had to be good with the trade he essentially got from the competition during his victory at Kansas.

While it seemed that Kyle Busch and then Jimmie Johnson would be the strongest driver eliminated, that it became Kyle Larson was an outcome that could be abided by Truex (or anyone seeking the title).

Busch has been his strongest rival of late in pure speed, and Johnson is the crafty seven-time (and most recent) champion, but Larson is the unquestioned best of the field at Homestead-Miami Speedway (where he led a race-high 132 laps last season).

The path might not necessarily be easier, but it certainly has gotten clearer – for the first time in the four-year history of this playoff structure, it might be less than even money that the series champion also wins the season finale.

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Social media and the myriad digital channels available for drivers to communicate with the world have been hailed as a godsend for showcasing NASCAR’s emerging personalities.

But this week’s episode of the Glass Case of Emotion podcast put forth an intriguing debate (inadvertently, perhaps).

Is there a threshold on how much fans need to know about their heroes? Or is there a generational divide in which the younger set puts no boundaries on the benefits of sharing?

As the Millennial wave begins its takeover of the Cup Series in earnest, that question probably will get answered (perhaps in overly abundant detail).

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Speaking of podcasts, Toyota Racing Development technical director Andy Graves was the guest on the latest NASCAR on NBC episode. Beyond some engrossing tales of life as Jeff Gordon’s roommate for several years (just as both were starting out in NASCAR), Graves also shared some good insight on how he and TRD have gotten Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing to work together so seamlessly.

“To get everyone working together is extremely difficult,” Graves said on the podcast. “It’s fortunate we have so many great people at TRD on the vehicle side and on the engine side, and the teams have great people, but to get them to all click together … everything today is a compromise. In 1991 and ’92, you could find a new part and bolt it on the car and it was worth two 10ths of a second, and it never hurt any other area of the car. Today every decision you make is a gain in one area, and it will hurt two to three other areas. Every decision is, ‘What is the best compromise at this point?’

“We’re making decisions together, and it’s OK if we’re willing to put this part on the car and it’s going to hurt power but help mechanical grip. If it’s faster on the stopwatch, let’s do it and we’ll take it on the chin. Those are very unique situations that don’t happen very often. We have a lot of contributors that just want to win races and are willing to sacrifice individual goals for the good of the team.”

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts by clicking here.

It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

The free subscriptions will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone.

Kevin Harvick penalized time in final Cup practice

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HOMESTEAD, Florida — Title contender Kevin Harvick will miss 15 minutes of Saturday’s final practice because of inspection issues last weekend at Phoenix.

Harvick is the only one among the four title contenders who will miss practice time Saturday.

Final practice is from 1 – 1:50 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

David Starr is the only driver who missed time in Saturday’s first practice. He missed 15 minutes because his team was late to qualifying inspection Friday.

Jimmie Johnson, David Ragan and Michael McDowell will each miss 30 minutes of final practice because their cars failed qualifying inspection three times Friday.

Harvick, Chase Elliott, Cole Whitt and Starr each will miss 15 minutes of final practice because their cars failed inspection twice before last weekend’s Phoenix race.

Austin Dillon and Matt DiBenedetto each will miss 15 minutes of final practice because their cars failed inspection before qualifying twice Friday.

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Justin Allgaier ‘in the best place mentally’ a year after disappointing title finish

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The biggest disappointment of Justin Allgaier‘s NASCAR career has turned into “the best thing that’s ever happened” to it.

It only took “about a week” for the 31-year-old driver to accept that.

The JR Motorsports’ driver is one of the four competing for the Xfinity Series title in today’s Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

It was in this race a year ago that Allgaier was within arm’s reach of a possible championship, his first in NASCAR.

But it was snatched away on the final restart.

With three laps to go, Allgaier restarted in the third row on the outside. In front of him was fellow championship driver Erik Jones. In front of Jones was Cole Whitt in a car normally found toward the back of the pack. Whitt had not pit under the caution because his team had used up its tire allotment.

Elliott Sadler (far right) and Daniel Suarez pull away on the final restart of last year’s Xfinity race at Homestead as Justin Allgaier (red car, middle) boxed in. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

At the green flag, Whitt spun his tires and backed-up the outside lane. That allowed Elliott Sadler and Daniel Suarez to get separation from Allgaier and Jones and race each other for the win and championship, which Suarez claimed.

“We’re sitting here and not standing on that (championship) stage over there like I think all of us would have liked to have been,” Allgaier said after he finished sixth.

Before Allgaier could come to terms with anything positive from the experience, he spent the following week just wanting to be left alone.

“If I could have locked myself in a dark room and not talk(ed) to anyone, I’d have been perfectly okay with that,” Allgaier said Thursday during the NASCAR championship media day in Miami Beach, Florida.

Allgaier got back in touch with those year-old feelings this week when he watched a replay of the race while flying to Florida.

“It still bugs me that we didn’t have a shot because of somebody else’s decision,” Allgaier said.

But Allgaier views the end of the 2016 race through a wiser lens. One where he accepts there’s only so much he can do in a 200-lap race against 39 other drivers.

“What if I had broken a transmission or run into the wall a little bit too hard on one of those times that I got (into) the wall like 37 times in the race last year and cut a tire?” Allgaier said. “What if a meteor fell out of the sky? … There’s so many things that, when you have 40 competitors on the racetrack every week, there’s so many things that can happen that are out of your control.”

His attitude has been helped by the best year of his career. Allgaier enters the championship race with a career-best two wins – including at his home track Chicagoland Speedway.

Allgaier also leads all Xfinity regulars with 497 laps led.

 “I look at 2017 as we have done everything we can do up to this point,” Allgaier said. “We’ve had the best race cars I’ve ever had. We’ve had great pit stops. We’ve got guys that work together on the race team that are incredible. I feel like for me personally I’m in the best shape of my life, on and off the track. I’m in the best place mentally.

“And at the end of the day, no matter what happens on Saturday night, I know that we have the best product on the racetrack and we’re in the best position we can be. And if it doesn’t work, it’s not because we weren’t in the right spot or because we didn’t do things right. It’s because circumstances are out of our control. And that’s taken so much pressure off of me this year.”

MORE: Previewing the Xfinity championship drivers

 

Goodyear signs extension with NASCAR

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HOMESTEAD, Florida — NASCAR announced Saturday a multi-year renewal with Goodyear for the company to be the series’ sole tire supplier. The deal goes through the 2022 season.

The move wasn’t in doubt with NASCAR and Goodyear having previously done tests for the 2018 season. Goodyear has been the exclusive tire supplier for all three of NASCAR’s top series since 1997. Goodyear has been a race tire supplier for NASCAR since 1954.

“We proudly join Goodyear in celebrating our renewed and longstanding partnership,” said Brent Dewar, NASCAR president, in a statement. “For more than half a century, NASCAR and our teams have trusted Goodyear tires. Our partners’ commitment to innovation and excellence plays a key role in our unyielding pursuit to deliver the best racing product in the world.”

Goodyear’s current five-year deal was set to expire after this season.

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Today’s Xfinity race at Miami: Start time, weather, TV/radio info

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The Xfinity season comes to an end this afternoon with the Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier, Daniel Hemric and William Byron will race for title in the 200-lap race, which concludes the 33-race season that began in February at Daytona.

Below is all the vital info you need prior to the race.

(All times are Eastern)

START: Wild Bill Wichrowski from Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” will give the command to start engines at 3:37 p.m. Green flag is scheduled for 3:45 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 200 laps (300 miles) around the 1.5-mile oval.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 45. Stage 2 ends at Lap 90.

PRERACE SCHEDULE: Garage opens at 7:30 a.m. Qualifying is slated for 11:15 a.m. Driver/crew chief meeting is 12:45 p.m. Driver introductions are at 3:05 p.m.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: Jacqie Rivers wil perform the anthem at 3:31 p.m.

TV/RADIO:  Countdown to Green begins at 3 p.m. on NBCSN. NBCSN will air the race at 3:30 p.m. Motor Racing Network will broadcast the race on radio and at mrn.com, starting with its pre-race show at 3 p.m. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com site predicts a temperature of 79 degrees and a four percent chance of rain at race time.

LAST TIME: Daniel Suarez won the race and clinched the series title, beating Ty Dillon and Elliott Sadler. Suarez led 133 laps from the pole to become the first foreign-born driver to win a national NASCAR title.

STARTING LINEUP: Qualifying is scheduled for 11:15 a.m.