Now that former champion Matt Kenseth has officially kicked over the first domino, NASCAR’s annual “silly season” can begin in earnest.
On Friday, at Kentucky Speedway, the 2003 NASCAR champion said he wouldn’t return for a sixth season in the No. 20 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s unclear whether the 45-year-old Wisconsin native was told to make the announcement, or whether he did it without asking permission. In either case, he’s leaving JGR after five seasons that produced 11 poles, 14 victories, and three top-10 points seasons, including being the championship runner-up in his seven-victory season of 2013.
Kenseth’s resume will help him find another ride. He was successful (19 poles, 38 victories and the 2003 title) in 13 full seasons with Roush Fenway Racing, then proved himself again at JGR. Except for his rare meltdown at Martinsville in the fall of 2015 –remember how he intentionally wrecked Joey Logano as payback for an incident two weeks earlier in Kansas? – Kenseth has usually carried himself well. He’s quiet, low-key, generally unobtrusive and level-headed unless he’s treated unfairly. (Ask Brad Keselowski about their post-race, behind-the-haulers scrap at Charlotte in 2014).
Later on Friday afternoon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said what many in the garage were already thinking. “Matt is going to have a job (in 2018),” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I don’t think he’s got to worry about that. I think it’s smart for him to let everybody know early what his plans are or the lack thereof. He’s a talented guy who is just a couple of races removed from being a winner. He could show up any week and get to victory lane.
“I think the situation with (JGR), from an outsider looking in, is that there’s just not enough room. The (Erik) Jones kid is probably going to come in there and take that ride, or there was some agreement beforehand that that was going to happen. I don’t know why they couldn’t move Matt over to the No. 77 (Jones’ ride this year with owner Barney Visser) or whatever the plan is. But Matt will get a job. He’s so good and so talented that he’ll be in a great car with a great opportunity next year… no less than what he has this year.”
He’s a 45-year-old former champion with absolutely nothing to prove to anyone. He’s struggling in the final year of a multiyear contract, running so poorly at times that he knows …
It was coincidental – or was it? – that Earnhardt was speaking so well of Kenseth on Friday. Even as Junior was in the Media Center, a number of sources in the nearby garage were saying Kenseth will drive the No. 88 Chevrolet when Junior retires next year. It’ll be a “placeholder” deal for no more than two years while 19-year-old Xfinity Series driver/Liberty University student William Byron prepares to move to Cup in Chevrolets from Hendrick Motorsports. It’s easy to picture “old man Kenseth” racing hard and playing mentor/coach to Byron.
It’s also reasonable to imagine team owner Joe Gibbs bringing in Jones to drive the No. 20 Toyota when Kenseth leaves. If that happens, Visser and Furniture Row will not lack for drivers who want the No. 77 car. But what about Alex Bowman, who subbed while Earnhardt dealt with concussion issues last year? Hendrick’s No. 5 car will be available if, as expected. Kasey Kahne is cut loose. If that happens, the Hendrick lineup will be veterans Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson and youngsters Chase Elliott and Bowman.
Team Penske seems set going forward with Logano and Brad Keselowski in Fords. Penske and Ford Performance “own” Ryan Blaney, who recently gave Wood Brothers Racing its 99th all-time Cup victory. The Woods would love to have him for a third full season, but they know Penske reserves the right to take him in-house. If the Woods lose Blaney, Ford will deliver someone for the family company that’s been around NASCAR since 1948.
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Stewart-Haas Racing will return former champions Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick, and the always-interesting Clint Bowyer in the company’s Fords. After five consecutive poor seasons and sponsorship an ongoing concern, Danica Patrick seems on the way out. A few in the garage think Aric Almirola will replace her, while a dwindling number think Carl Edwards (expensive, but always a Ford favorite) might come back after his one-year break. If Almirola leaves Richard Petty Motorsports, the King will likely have to settle for a lesser talent.
Ford-based Roush Fenway seems set with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne. Likewise, Ganassi-Sabates Racing will stick with Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray in its Chevrolets. The only change at Richard Childress Racing – if there is a change at all – would be rookie Ty Dillon coming from Geico/Germain Racing to join his brother, Austin (they are RC’s grandsons), and Ryan Newman and Paul Menard in RCR’s Chevrolets. And a handful of low-profile drivers and underfunded teams must settle on 2018 in the next few months, too.
It’ll be fun to see what happens between now and Labor Day … which once was the traditional start of the “silly season.” Thanks to Kenseth, we don’t have to wait that long this year.
NASCAR silly season: Dale Earnhardt’s car might be a 2018 target for Matt Kenseth have 934 words, post on autoweek.com at 2017-07-08 14:20:38. This is cached page on Auto Breaking News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.