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Friday 5: Matt Kenseth’s return is only the beginning for Roush Fenway Racing

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Matt Kenseth’s return to Cup today at Kansas Speedway is a feel-good story his fans hope will continue throughout the season.

But let’s get one thing clear.

He won’t be any type of savior for Roush Fenway Racing. Kenseth can help make the team stronger but it will be up to every person in the organization to make that happen. This is not a one-person job.

“Probably as much as anything I’m as excited about Matt interacting with us about is what’s most important on the car because there’s 100 things that go on behind the steering wheel — from conditions of how the car is handling to how they react in traffic to all the stuff that goes on on pit road,’’ Tommy Wheeler, operations director at Roush Fenway Racing, said April 25 after the announcement of Kenseth’s return.

“We have enough resources to fix any number of things, but what is very difficult to discern with a young driver lineup like we have is what is most important. What is going to be the most impactful today to make the car faster?’’

Kenseth will be in the car for the next five weeks, including three events in a row at a 1.5-mile track (Kansas, All-Star Race at Charlotte and Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte). The team has stated it needs to be better at such tracks. Kenseth’s input will be valuable.

Wheeler knows what Kenseth can provide. Wheeler joined Roush in 2010 as an engineering manager and saw the impact Kenseth had then.

“His feedback of telling us what direction to go with the race cars of ‘Hey if you fix this, I will run faster,’ that direct link and having the credentials and the ability to back that up can’t be overstated,’’ Wheeler said.

Anything that Kenseth can state and the team can adjust could help Ricky Stenhouse Jr. make the playoffs for a second year in a row.

Stenhouse enters this weekend two points behind Chase Elliott for what would be the final playoff spot at this time. With 15 races left until the playoffs begin, there is time to move into a playoff spot but the competition won’t be easy.

Stenhouse trails a Hendrick Motorsports driver for that last playoff spot and is just ahead of a Joe Gibbs Racing driver (Daniel Suarez) and another Hendrick driver (William Byron) in the points. 

2. NASCAR is watching you …

Since teams were informed before Bristol that NASCAR would call uncontrolled tire penalties more closely, such penalties have increased significantly.

NASCAR has called 18 uncontrolled tire penalties in the last four Cup races — more than double the number of those penalties called in the first seven races.

The change happened after NASCAR admitted it should have penalized Kevin Harvick’s team for an uncontrolled tire on a late pit stop at Texas. Instead, Harvick went on to finish second in that race.

Kyle Larson’s pit crew has been penalized for an uncontrolled tire twice in the last four races. So has Matt DiBenedetto’s team and AJ Allmendinger’s team.

NASCAR called six uncontrolled tire penalties at both Bristol and Richmond. There were five last weekend at Dover. 

3. Youth tryout

NASCAR announced this week the formation of a youth esports racing series catered to “attract and identify young talent.’’

This column brought up the topic in February but focused more on what a manufacturer or team could do to gauge the ability of youngsters. Such a program would give those who begin racing at an early age a way to display their talent who wouldn’t be able to otherwise for whatever reason. William Byron didn’t race a car until he was 15 years old. Five years later, he’s with one of the sport’s top teams in Hendrick Motorsports.

Said Jack Irving, director of team and support services for Toyota Racing Development, on finding talented youngsters through sim racing: “That is something that is of interest and something we’ve spent some time on.’’

For more of the story, go here.

4. Working hard

On Thursday’s NASCAR America, Parker Kligerman noted that while testing Wednesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway for Gaunt Brothers Racing — the team he will drive for in the Coca-Cola 600 — he shared the track with manufacturers doing a wheel-force test.

Wheel-force testing can be mundane and time-consuming. But Kligerman noted that the Chevrolet wheel-force car was driven by Jimmie Johnson. Kligerman said that Johnson told him that no one was going to outwork him as he seeks to return to winning races for Hendrick Motorsports. 

5. To the front 

Stewart-Haas Racing has had at least one of its cars finish in the top three in seven of the first 11 races this season. SHR took the top two spots last weekend with Kevin Harvick winning at Dover and Clint Bowyer placing second.

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Austin Dillon’s car fails pre-race inspection, will start from rear

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Bristol, Tenn. — Austin Dillon‘s No. 3 Chevrolet failed pre-race inspection three times Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Dillon will start from the rear and his car chief, Greg Ebert, has been ejected from the event.

Dillon had qualified 18th.

Dillon will have to serve a 30-minute practice hold in two weeks at Darlington Raceway.

Kyle Larson seeks turnaround at ‘by far my favorite racetrack’

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – With his team in a mini-slump in midsummer, Kyle Larson is back in his happy place, and the Chip Ganassi Racing driver wouldn’t mind returning more often.

“I love racing here,” Larson said Thursday at Bristol Motor Speedway. “I wish we could race here weekly. I think our sport would be in a good spot if we could.

“I didn’t watch a ton of NASCAR growing up, but I’d never miss a Bristol race. If you were to ask me what Bristol race stands out, I couldn’t tell you. I just loved watching Bristol. It was always a lot of fun. Ever since they added the progressive banking, it’s been a lot better, too, as far as style of racing goes. It’s by far my favorite NASCAR track.”

The love of Bristol grew only stronger Friday night as he won the Food City 300 and scored his first victory in 18 Cup and Xfinity starts at the 0.533-mile oval.

Larson will be trying for his first win in NASCAR’s premier series at the track – and his first in Cup this season – while starting from the pole position in tonight’s race.

A victory would be a welcome result for Larson’s team, which is virtually locked into the playoffs but has only two top 10s in six races since his memorable runner-up finish to Kyle Busch at Chicagoland Speedway.

While Chevrolet teams Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing seem to have gotten faster in recent weeks, Larson’s No. 42 Camaro seems to have tailed off slightly after easily being the best Chevy in the first half of the season.

“I don’t know where we might be off,” he said. “Nobody really honestly knows where other teams have gotten speed from, so we’re working on all areas, really, I’m pretty sure, to try and get faster. We have moments where we’re really fast, but I would say we’re just a little inconsistent from track to track.

“You look at last year, we were good everywhere. This year, we’re good at our good tracks. Not as good at the tracks that we have struggled at years prior.”

But what about starting and finishing 17th last Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, where he won three consecutive races from 2016-17?

A loose wheel after his first pit stop mired Larson in traffic and out of sequence, and then contact on a restart hampered into using an older set of tires for the last run of the race.

“It just snowballed into a bad run where I felt like we were going to have a shot to run top 3 or 5, but it just doesn’t show for it, and other people look at it as we just ran bad all day,” he said. “If you look at lap times, we were running some of the fastest laps of the race, just buried in traffic. I feel like we’re not that bad. We just had a little bit of a bad luck that cost us finishes we deserved the last few weeks.”

The urgency to maximize his speed stems more from being well positioned in the playoffs than making the 16-driver field. Larson is one of three provisionally qualified who have no playoff points yet.

“That part is a little frustrating,” he said. “It makes you more nervous when it comes to the playoffs, but the good thing is there’s been three guys taking up all the playoff points, so the other ones don’t have a whole lot, either, but every point matters.

“You look at it as you need to win some stages and win a race, but I also view Bristol as being my best opportunity to get some playoff points. I feel like we can win both stages and win the race. Not easily but this is our best shot. That five to seven points would be huge.”

And after getting bumped from the lead by race winner Kyle Busch at Bristol in April, Larson has earned some leeway in playing rough – not that he plans to use it.

He prefers the “options” afforded by the 2007 addition of progressive banking (which was retrofitted in 2012 in a manner that often makes the top groove the fastest).

“If there was progressive banking 20 years ago, the racing would have been a lot better back then,” he said. “I’m not a fan of the bump and run. I’m just a fan of Bristol.

“I’d much rather see two to three wide racing at Bristol than single file. I think the racing is really good, and that’s why I love coming here to race.”

Staff picks for Bristol night race

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Here’s who NBC’s NASCAR writers think will triumph tonight under the lights at Bristol Motor Speedway (6:46 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Dustin Long

Ryan Blaney gets the win he should have had at this track in April.

Nate Ryan

Kyle Larson. On Thursday, he told reporters he was convinced he could sweep both stages and win. On Friday, he took a big step toward convincing the rest of us.

Daniel McFadin

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wins in his last good shot to get into the playoffs with a victory.

Dan Beaver

Really? I’m the only one going with Kyle Busch? I just hope everyone in my fantasy NASCAR league ignores him as well.

Trophy for Charlotte Roval race revealed

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — The trophy for the Sept. 30 Cup race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval was revealed Saturday prior to the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The trophy is inspired by Bank of America, which sponsors the 400-kilometer race.

It is designed to resemble the Bank of America building in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina.

The track also announced a Sammy Hagar concert the night before the race. The “Rock the ROVAL” concert will be held at 9 p.m. ET on pit road.

 

Photo: Daniel McFadin
(Photo by Davis Turner/Getty Images)