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.

Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

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Hailie Deegan announced Tuesday that she will make her Xfinity Series debut Oct. 15 Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBC and Peacock.

The 21-year-old Deegan is in her second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. She finished a career-high sixth in that series last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

She will drive the No. 07 car for SS Green Light Racing with Jeff Lefcourt.

 

 

Alex Bowman to miss Charlotte Roval race

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Alex Bowman announced Tuesday night on social media that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval.

Bowman said on social media: “I am continuing to make strides in my recovery to make sure I can return to competition at 100%.”

This will be the second consecutive race he will have missed because of concussion-like symptoms after his crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

Noah Gragson will drive the No. 48 car this weekend for Bowman.

“Alex’s health is our first priority,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “We’re focused on supporting his recovery and seeing him back in his race car when the time is right. Alex has a long career ahead of him, so we will invest the necessary time and take our guidance from medical experts. We’re putting no pressure on him to return before he’s 100% ready.”

Bowman will be one of the four drivers eliminated from title contention Sunday.

Also Tuesday, Cody Ware announced that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered at Texas.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.