Race Weekend Central

Friday Faceoff: Will Matt Kenseth Turn it Around?

Matt Kenseth, who entered the season as a title favorite, has yet to score a top-10 finish through three races.  Is it time for the No. 20 team to hit the panic button, or is the slow start just a bump in the road?

Dustin Albino, Contributor: Matt Kenseth has had an opportunity to win each of the first three races in 2016. The No. 20 team has speed, which is something you cannot take away. Obviously, the finishes are not where he would want them to be, but that all changes with a win. A win is in his near future, but the start of his season is similar to his teammate Carl Edwards last year. No need to panic.

Michael Finley, Contributor: It would be time to panic if Kenseth was riding around in 25th for most of the race, but that’s just not the case. It’s all just bumps in the road. Just look at both champions so far with this Chase format. Kevin Harvick struggled for much of early 2014 as his new team grew before finding his way and ultimately winning the championship. Kyle Busch couldn’t even stand up.

Phil Allaway, Newsletter Editor: We’re three weeks into the season and Kenseth has been right at the front of the pack all three weeks, so I’m not concerned in the least.  All he needs to do is make it through a race without getting wrecked and everything will be just fine.  Besides, with this Looney Tunes Chase format, Kenseth could win Sunday’s Good Sam 500k and it’ll be like none of this ever happened.

Summer Bedgood, Senior Editor: No, not at all. Matt Kenseth will get to Victory Lane, and that’s all he has to do to make the Chase. Plus, I think it’s easy to forget we’re only three races into the season. He could easily improve over the rest of the year and become the same championship contender he could have been last year.

Aaron Bearden, Assistant Editor: Matt Kenseth fans, do me a favor. As a Chicago Bears fan, this hurts me to say, but Aaron Rodgers has some advice for you: Relax. R-E-L-A-X. Relax. Under the old points system, it would be time to panic, but with the current win-and-you’re-in Chase format, all the No. 20 team needs to do is put together one solid week and win. With the speed they’ve shown, that’s bound to happen sometime before September. Kenseth’s going to be just fine.

Furniture Row Racing considered (and ultimately dropped) an appeal of a post-Atlanta penalty involving a second roof flap violation  this season.  The basis of the appeal was that the violation had to do with a safety feature of the car and did not give the team a competitive advantage.  Going forward, is this a valid argument for having a penalty overturned, and should violations that don’t give an advantage be dealt with differently?

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)
Martin Truex, Jr. will be without Cole Pearn this weekend in Phoenix. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: If they’re dealt with differently, that’s only because the penalty for a safety violation should be harsher.  One race was too light; the roof flap is designed to keep a car from getting airborne, not just for the driver’s safety but for the fans’ safety; fans have ended up in the hospital from an airborne car tearing into the catch fence. FRR’s argument was a terrible one and I’m glad it dropped the appeal.

Finley: A slap-on-the-wrist penalty should only really be used for violations that don’t give an advantage. Nine times out of 10 it’s just a mistake by the team or even outside forces such as the car manufacturer. A small, non-appealable fine would be the way to go.

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: The Daytona penalty was a bit bogus, mainly because Chase Elliott‘s flap was sticking up on his qualifying lap for all of TV land to see, and nobody even mentioned it. I’m not as taken aback by the infraction as I am the absolutely stupid defense used. Like NASCAR encourages violating safety devices. Hey, dump in some 112-octane and soften the tires up too while you’re at it. Next time I get pulled over going 90 mph, I’ll take my seal belt off first, and just ask for a ticket for that instead.

Clayton Caldwell, Contributor: A violation of a safety feature is dangerous for the driver and other drivers on the racetrack. Sure, something that minor may not make an impact on whether or not a car flips upside down, but you never know. NASCAR put these safety rules in for a reason and for maximum safety they need to enforce the rules.

Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Safety needs to be a top priority in all forms of motorsports, and NASCAR has gone to great lengths to ensure that drivers are as safe as they can be when traveling nose-to-tail at high speeds. Roof flaps are set pieces that you drop in, affix to the car, and that’s that. If a piece of safety-related equipment appears to be tampered with, any and all penalties should stick. The flap at Daytona could have been an aerodynamic advantage, but the bigger issue is that the piece needs to work in the event of trouble. If it’s not compliant, there’s a chance that safety could be compromised.

Sean Fesko, Staff Writer: It’s not a valid argument for overturning a penalty due to the fact that it was a safety issue. I’d say that’s almost worse than a performance penalty because it puts driver and spectator safety more at risk than an illegal engine would. Should such violations be dealt with differently? Sure, especially if they are caught before the car takes to the track. Maybe a large fine and probation, but no point penalty. Save that for actual cheating.

Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott have each scored top 10s and ran well in recent weeks. Could one of these rookies make the Chase? 

Caldwell: I think both Ryan Blaney and Elliott can make the Chase. They’re in really fast racecars and have a ton of talent. Elliott has a better chance just because the Wood Brothers will be going to racetracks they haven’t run in awhile, but I still think both drivers will have make the Chase.

Bedgood: Oh, I think they could. Anything is possible with this type of format. I’m not sure I’d bet money on it, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see either one of them at least sneak into the Chase, either via an unexpected win or enough points.

Bryan Gable, Staff Writer: I predicted at the beginning of the season that Elliott would make the Chase and Blaney would not.  It is possible that both could make it, but I have my doubts about whether or not the Wood Brothers can hold up over the long haul.  It is too early to tell what will happen with either of the top rookies, but they will be a great story going forward.

Howell: Right now, my money’s on Ryan Blaney making the Chase. Elliott was everyone’s preseason pick to make the playoffs, but his effort seems bogged down in bad rookie karma. Blaney is breathing new life into the Wood Brothers’ operation, so watch out as we hit the summer months.

(Photo: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP)
Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney are one of the most intriguing rookie duos since Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in 2000, but can they make the Chase? (Photo: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP)

Albino: Each of them have the potential to make the Chase. Raw talent, man. Pre-season, I predicted Elliott to make the Chase by points. He’s had speed as well in each of the first three races but only has one finish to show for it. Three races in I would favor Ryan Blaney because of consistency, but don’t be surprised when the No. 24 team turns its misfortunes around.

Kyle Busch led 199 out of 200 laps in Saturday’s NASCAR XFINITY Series race before winning the third-straight race for Sprint Cup Series regulars. Is it fair for the XFINITY championship hopefuls that Cup drivers are dominating and stealing potential Chase-clinching wins? 

Bearden: It’s not fair for two reasons. First, obviously, Cup drivers have the experience of driving at the top level. Anyone who discredits the important of that needs only to look at the stats for drivers like Austin Dillon before and after they get to the Cup Series. The big disadvantage, however, is the equipment. Many XFINITY regulars just don’t have the funding of the top-tier Cup teams. They don’t have the engineers, championship-caliber pit crews, etc. Ryan Sieg often loses three or four positions on pit road, for example. The equipment is what helps drivers like Erik Jones and Brad Keselowski drive through the field with reckless abandon some weeks. From there, it’s the experience factor that keeps drivers like Busch a step ahead.

Gable: It depends what you mean by fair.  On one hand, NASCAR was bound and determined to have an elimination-style Chase in the XFINITY Series. Everyone knew that Cup regulars would dominate the win column, but NASCAR did not do anything to correct that problem.  I do not think it is fair in the general sense that Cup drivers can compete in the XFINITY Series racing for Cup teams, but those are the rules under which everyone competes at present, so you can’t say it’s totally unfair either.

Fesko: It’s not fair, but the series can’t just kick the Cup drivers out completely. I’m not a fan of interloping at all, but when companion weekends are the norm and tracks use Cup drivers to promote races, excluding them would, in my opinion, cut attendance dramatically. What needs to happen is to get the NXS back to its roots with no more than a third of the season being held in conjunction with Cup. Until then, it also needs to limit Cup driver participation – say, two Cup guys per race, starting last in the field. Have a special knockout qualifying session for all the Cup interlopers and see who makes it in.

Henderson: When NASCAR original tossed the Chase idea around, it was with the idea that Cup drivers would be limited, and I’ll admit I was for it since a cheap championship was the lesser of two evils…but now they have a cheap championship diluted by the Cup teams.  Cup driver/team combinations should have been seriously limited, but well, apparently a few guys need more trophies more than the series needs integrity.

Pugliese: It’s pretty bad. Like, “what’s the point?” bad. Given the new charter system on the Cup side, I’d say if a driver is a declared Cup driver for the year, he can only compete in three races a year. The series is hard to watch outside of plate races, road courses, or stand alone weekends. If the smaller independent teams aren’t welcome in the Cup Series, boxing them out in the lower tiers isn’t very enticing either.

Allaway: Heck no, it’s not fair.  But then again, nothing’s fair in NASCAR.  Kyle Busch is addicted to trophies, and has been since he was a little guy. Yes, he’s better than anyone else in the field; there’s a reason why he’s a Sprint Cup regular, and he ‘sproved his skills.  Am I shocked that we’re three races in and not a one of the regulars has come close to winning?  No.  I fully expected this to happen.  Sure, 12 drivers will make the Chase, but maybe four of them will claim a win this year.  I’ve accepted that.  NASCAR seems to believe that much like the “choose a series rule” for points, introducing the Chase would put more focus on the XFINITY regulars.  Mark my words, it won’t as long as Cup drivers show up and whack the field on a regular basis.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Where’s that 22 car?

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