Matt Kenseth glad Erik Jones news is out so he doesn’t ‘have to pretend anymore’

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LOUDON, N.H. – In the wake of the news he won’t be returning to Joe Gibbs Racing, Matt Kenseth had a busy week – which didn’t involve fretting about his NASCAR future.

Kenseth spent his week hanging in Wisconsin with childhood friends from his hometown of Cambridge, traveling to Detroit to take in a Metallica concert Tuesday at Comerica Park. Though he read Tuesday’s release from JGR announcing Erik Jones as his replacement in the No. 20 Toyota, Kenseth said he mostly had been disconnected and had “nothing new to report there at the moment” when asked if he’d been contacted by prospective teams.

“I hope to race next year,” he said Friday before practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “I still enjoy racing. I still feel like I could be an asset to somebody, so I hope so.”

The 2003 champion, said he had “a pretty good indication” about his impending departure from Gibbs for “about the last 12 or 13 months.” He said there was no firm timetable for finding a ride after breaking the news he didn’t have anything for 2018 last weekend at Kentucky Speedway.

“I probably have some personal cutoff times, maybe to some point,” he said. “But not really. It’s only July. I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m really not that concerned about it. I’m OK. Everything’s fine.

“I’m just glad they finally put it out so you don’t have to pretend anymore. Everyone asked Erik about it last week, and it was, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. Nobody’s told me.’ It’s just better to get it over with, get it done. Everybody can ask you about it, everybody can move on and get back to racing.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. predicted last week that Kenseth would land another ride, and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson echoed that sentiment this morning. Hendrick’s No. 88 Chevrolet, which is being vacated by Earnhardt, would seem among the best options for Kenseth.

“I don’t think he’ll be left out in the cold,” Johnson said Friday. “I know Junior had a similar response last week. Matt’s just too good. The guy can win races and win championships, and that won’t be overlooked, but I do feel like Matt’s at a point in his career where he’s not going to take just any ride.”

With indications that JGR’s choice of Jones was sponsorship-driven, Kenseth said he wasn’t taking the move personally.

“It’s a business,” he said. “They’ve got their reasons. It doesn’t necessarily mean I understand it necessarily or agree with it. But yet I’m not the most subjective person because we’re talking about me. It’s been great.”

Kenseth joined Gibbs in 2013, winning a series-high seven races in his first season with the team. He has notched seven more victories in the past three seasons (though none this year).

“When I first went there we had a two-year deal,” he said. “We definitely fulfilled that. I felt like we got the 20 car back to winning again, and be a contender, which it wasn’t for four or five years. We won a whole bunch of races.

“We got two different sponsors to come and renew and be real good sponsors. We got Dewalt to come back there, which Erik will benefit from the next couple of years. Got (Dollar General) to renew that first time and stuff. I feel like we did a lot of great things. I feel like I helped them do what they were trying to accomplish with the car. At the same time, it was a great opportunity for me to go try something different where I was at in my career. I don’t think there’s anything to be bitter about or feel bad about. We’re both living up to the agreements we made.”

Kenseth isn’t expecting his team to be affected by the news, either, which might have been indicative of why he spent the week seeing his favorite band for the first time in 10 years.

“I actually had an incredibly fun week,” said Kenseth, who named one of his cats after Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. “(The concert) actually made me feel 20 again for about four hours, which was pretty fun. I could still hear when I got home, so that was good.”

Grant Enfinger wins Truck pole at Gateway

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With a speed of 138.867 mph, Grant Enfinger scored his second career Camping World Truck Series pole and will lead the field to green tonight for the Eaton 200. His first pole came on the restrictor plate Daytona International Speedway in February 2016.

Noah Gragson set a track record in round two of qualification with a speed of 139.035 mph. He slipped to third in the running order during round three.

Enfinger beat Christian Eckes (138.594 mph) by .064 seconds. Eckes is making only his second start in the Truck series. Last week he started ninth and finished eighth at Iowa Speedway.

Gragson (138.402), Justin Haley (138.325) and Ben Rhodes (138.211) rounded out the top five.

Johnny Sauter (137.358) failed to advance to the final round of qualification and will start 13th.

Camden Murphy and BJ McLeod failed to qualify.

Click here for the complete lineup.

Starting lineup for Sunday’s Cup race at Sonoma

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Kyle Larson won his second consecutive pole at Sonoma and will lead the field to the green flag for Sunday’s Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.

Martin Truex Jr. will line up alongside Larson on the front row.

Chase Elliott qualified third, the best of three Hendrick Motorsports drivers who advanced to the top 12. Jamie McMurray qualified fourth to place both Chip Ganassi Racing on the first two rows.

AJ Allmendinger rounded out the top five.

Click here for full qualification results.

 

Kyle Larson wins pole for Sonoma Cup race

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Kyle Larson posted a lap of 94.597 mph to win the pole for Sunday’s Toyota/SaveMart 350. It was his second consecutive pole at Sonoma and the sixth of his career.

Larson beat Martin Truex Jr. (94.484 mph) by .090 seconds.

Chase Elliott (94.461), Jamie McMurray (94.227) and AJ Allmendinger (93.925) rounded out the top five. He was fastest in round one of qualification with a speed of 94.477 mph.

Hendrick Motorsports placed three of their drivers in the final round. Jimmie Johnson (93.824) qualified seventh. William Byron (93.756) qualified eighth. Alex Bowman (93.267) qualified 17th.

In his first race back since Matt Kenseth took over the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, Trevor Bayne barely missed advancing to the final round. With a speed of 93.455 mph, he qualified 13th.

Clint Bowyer (93.252) was unable to back up his time from Friday’s practice and will roll off the grid 19th.

Click here for full qualification results.

For Clint Bowyer, Sonoma Raceway is a lot like Martinsville

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Clint Bowyer didn’t grow up road racing; he cut his teeth on dirt tracks in the Midwest. And yet, he had an immediate affinity for Sonoma Raceway. In his second start there, while driving for Richard Childress in 2007, he finished fourth.

In fact, Bowyer enters the Toyota/SaveMart 350 with seven top-five finishes in 12 starts that includes a runner-up finish in last year’s Sonoma race. If not for a couple of misfortunes (crash damage in 2010 and an electrical problem in 2016), he might well have swept the top 10 since scoring that first top five as a sophomore.

Perhaps the reason for that immediate success is that he considers Sonoma to be a twisted version of Martinsville Speedway – a track on which he won this March to snap a 190-race winless streak.

“I think you embrace this track and road racing in general just like you do Martinsville,” Bowyer said on Friday before heading out to put his No. 14 Ford at the top of the first practice speed chart. “Nobody shows up at Martinsville and goes to the top of the board and is fast and has success and navigates traffic to win that race right off the bat. It just doesn’t happen and it doesn’t happen here either.”

His Sonoma success has not translated to road courses in general, however.

Yes, Bowyer swept the top five on NASCAR’s two road courses last year, but the fifth-place finish he scored at Watkins Glen International was only the second of his career on a track that many drivers consider to be less technical than Sonoma. In 12 starts there, he has earned only five top 10s.

“Watkins Glen is so fast. It is just dive-bombs and you are really carrying a lot of speed at a place like Watkins Glen.

“Here, it is like that short track. It is like being at Martinsville. Did you see my car at the end of the race last year? It was destroyed. I drove up through and passed the field twice because of mistakes that we made and got spun out once. It was a wild race to be able to finish second. You can’t do that at Watkins Glen. That car wouldn’t have ran in the top 10 at Watkins Glen.”

Nine different drivers have won at Sonoma in the last nine races. Given the dominance of Harvick (who won last year) and Kyle Busch (the 2015 winner), many think they are the most likely to end that streak. But Bowyer also has an opportunity to end the streak of unique winners. He won the 2012 edition of this race by holding off Tony Stewart – the driver with the second-most road course wins in NASCAR history.

“You have to be able to have fun on this race track,” Bowyer said. “It is a challenge. Each and every corner is different. There is no perfect setup or perfect line. It is literally one of the only tracks you go to where you are out there racing and have a smile on your face. You might even get a chuckle.”