Race Weekend Central

Friday Faceoff: Which Rookie Is Top of the Class?

In the days leading up to Matt Kenseth’s announcement of a six-race sponsorship deal with Circle K Wednesday, some speculated that the announcement would concern the driver’s imminent retirement. He may not be stepping aside any time soon, but realistically, how much time does Kenseth have?

Matteo Marcheschi: Matt Kenseth doesn’t have long. While he has earned plenty of wins in the last few years, (14 from 2013 to 2016), he’s showing signs of age, especially this year. Kenseth hasn’t led a single lap so far in 2017, has wrecked in three out of the seven races and has just one top five. Best case scenario, he wins a race or two this year, but his prospects aren’t exactly positive. This is his last year of his contract, and I can’t see JGR signing a contract extension with the 45-year-old Kenseth. And while he might move teams, he’s unlikely to see much success with another organization.

Amy Henderson: This is a tough one because there are so many factors, including the races still unsold for the No. 20.  If Kenseth wins races and keeps his sponsors happy, an extension could be in the works.  Despite some terrible luck this year, Kenseth is still a threat to win races.  But if 5-hour Energy or another company were to decide to spring for a full season for Erik Jones, Kenseth could be in trouble at JGR, so his future depends on whether he’ll take a mid-tier ride down the road or step aside when the contending rides dry up.

Michael Massie: My rule of thumb is that a driver typically gets about 20 years in the car of being competitive. There are exceptions to that; Mark Martin and Harry Gant kept winning into their 50s, while Dale Jarrett and Greg Biffle were only good for about 15 years, but their careers had late starts. Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are currently in their 18th Cup seasons, and both have been competitive since the start, so I say they each have two more years. They both will probably win a few more times, but the writing is on the wall. They are the last remnants of the 2000 rookie class and before. You know who else was in Kenseth and Earnhardt’s rookie class? Dave Blaney. Blaney got a late start in NASCAR, but still, that has to make them feel old that they are now competing against his son.

Matt Kenseth doesn’t have immediate retirement plans, but are his days in the Cup Series numbered? (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

Tom Bowles: Kenseth has an uphill climb with JGR. Jones is waiting in the wings and sits in playoff position while Kenseth has slumped outside the top 20. He’s got three DNFs in seven races, has failed to lead a lap and sits with the worst average finish (21.4) of his Cup career to this point. But the biggest issue dogging Kenseth is why Wednesday’s announcement was so important: cold, hard cash. Without a firm sponsor in Dollar General backing him, JGR has had to make patchwork deals in hopes someone will step up and back a mid-40s driver with limited marketing potential. I hate that we’re talking about an athlete in terms of a brand, but folks, welcome to NASCAR in 2017. That is reality, and the other reality is Jones could be challenging deep into the playoffs this year with a team in Furniture Row Racing that seems to be better than its big brother (JGR) at this point. I still expect Kenseth to turn it around, win a race and make the playoffs. But his future beyond 2017 is an open question, particularly since the other JGR guys are signed to long-term deals. A sponsor is going to need to step up in the next few months to calm all speculation.

NASCAR has indicated it has looked into the logistics of adding midweek races in its national touring series but has no immediate plans to add any to the schedule.  Would midweek races be a viable plan going forward, and at which tracks would these races make sense?

Henderson: It could be a great idea if it was done right. More than once or twice a year wouldn’t be viable, and it would have to be at tracks close to home base for teams, so that would mean before or after a Charlotte Motor Speedway race with the midweek race at Martinsville Speedway(a Wednesday night race there does have some serious appeal) or Bristol Motor Speedway, maybe Richmond International Raceway or Atlanta Motor Speedway. The biggest issue is the turnaround time—you’re looking at a two-day window on one end or the other, even with a Sunday off on one end.  While that’s no big thing for the big teams, it would be detrimental to the small ones, especially if they have to turn around the same car, which is reality for some teams.  Would it boost ratings?  Probably not, but it would be a treat for fans.

Massie: I love the idea of midweek races. Since attendance is constantly on the decline and therefore no longer an issue, the most logical destinations would be former tracks on the circuit, like Rockingham and North Wilkesboro speedways. My idea would be to have midweek races all season long, until the playoffs start. Then the sole focus is on the the race on Sunday.

Bowles: A single midweek race would be a grand experiment for 2018, to see if the idea could carry over long-term. It’s disappointing NASCAR, for all the changes it’s thrown out in recent years, won’t consider the possibility. Bristol would be a prime candidate; what better way to spice up the spring race than to make it a midweek show? We already do that with the Truck Series here, running it Wednesday night over the summer with great success.

Marcheschi: With NASCAR struggling for attendance, it’s hard to believe midweek races are the best way to go. NASCAR needs to sell tickets. While I’d love it, it’s just impractical, and NASCAR loses two weekend races in the process. It works for the Truck Series because of its small venues, such as Eldora Speedway. NASCAR depends on high attendance for its Cup races, which it just won’t get on a weeknight. It may work at small venues, but at any big tracks, they won’t fill near enough seats. If Cup were to go to Eldora, Gateway Motorsports Park or Iowa Speedway, they might make it work, but not at any current venues.

Give the rookie class a progress report.  Who’s best in class, and does everyone earn a passing grade?

Massie: Jones is the obvious choice for top rookie, but Ty Dillon has exceeded expectations. Last year, Casey Mears finished 28th in the final standings. Dillon is currently 24th in points in that car. The team is the top running Richard Childress Racing satellite, as AJ Allmendinger and Chris Buescher are 25th and 27th, respectively. Considering his equipment, Dillon is doing great. Daniel Suarez is underwhelming, but give him time. If Corey LaJoie and Gray Gaulding want better cars at BK Racing, then maybe they should stop wrecking them so much.

With only one top 10 for Erik Jones, consistency has been there for the No. 77. (Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

Bowles: Everyone in the rookie class has struggled more than expected to start the year; yes, I’m even talking about Jones, who has shown great promise and sits in playoff position but could have finished far better at a couple of tracks (Atlanta, Las Vegas, even Martinsville). That’ll make him a longshot threat to win heading into the summer months. Everyone else needs to step up in order to catch Jones. Dillon has been better than the man he replaced, but his results have shown Germain Racing can only grow so much. Suarez? We’ve found out exactly why Gibbs was trying to keep him in XFINITY another year, though the loss of crew chief Dave Rogers has hurt. As for Lajoie? I’d say he’s lucky to still be employed; instead, an awful start that included wrecks in each race over the season’s first month. His goal should simply be a solid, top-20 finish at Bristol in order to get back on track. Wait, is there someone else? Gaulding? Who’s that? Though he’s shown more of a knack of finishing races with BK.

Marcheschi: Jones has been impressive so far this year. He only has one DNF this year, at Daytona International Speedway, and has only one other finish outside of the top 20. With a best finish of eighth, he has run consistently well thus far and is 14th in points. A win wouldn’t be shocking for Jones this year, but for some other rookies it’s near-impossible. Dillon has been all right this year, for his equipment. Suarez may be an even longer shot, though, with only two top-10 finishes, plus three finishes off the lead lap. As for Gaulding and LaJoie, well, what did you expect from two rookies in BK Racing equipment?

Henderson: I’ve been pretty impressed with Jones. Yes, he’s had some issues, but he’s a rookie and his team is a brand-new expansion for Furniture Row Racing.  Right now, he’s in playoff contention.  On the flip side, Suarez is really struggling, but he may be the most talented driver in this group, at the very least on par with Jones.  He got rushed to Cup at least a year too early, and he’s had growing pains.  If you measure Dillon against the No. 13’s performance last year, he looks better on paper, but I think it’s a bit deceiving, because it’s a pretty good bet that Richard Childress is throwing everything including the kitchen sink at the No. 13 this year. Given that, Dillon hasn’t been as impressive as at first glance, and he’s outclassed talent-wise by both Jones and Suarez, just as he was in XFINITY. LaJoie and Gaulding were tossed into an impossible situation as inexperienced drivers with an underfunded team and are running exactly where I expected.

The XFINITY Series is in action at Bristol.  Which team most needs a good showing Saturday?

Bowles: Cole Custer sits 12th in points, the son of one of the key figures within Stewart-Haas Racing but without the results to back up his ride. After a rollercoaster time in the Truck Series, a tenure that ended without a playoff appearance, Custer’s had the same yo-yo effect in XFINITY. Yet to lead a lap, he’s crashed out twice, though a fifth-place run at Texas Motor Speedway proves promising for his intermediate track future. Bristol is a place where a guy like Custer could get back on track. Can SHR’s new second-tier team turn it around? Honorable mention goes to Michael Annett, but Annett has shown through years of struggle he doesn’t have top-tier talent. We’ve been sold on the promise Custer has it. Now’s the time to step up and produce.

Marcheschi: Annett is hurting bad. He’s in a JR Motorsports machine, yet he has only one top-10 finish and hasn’t led a lap. He was far off the pace at Texas, three laps down, and that’s just miserable for a JRM team. His teammates Elliott Sadler and William Byron are first and second in points, and Justin Allgaier has a win and sits fifth in points. Annett, meanwhile, has no wins and is 10th in points.

Henderson: The three names that come to mind immediately are Darrell Wallace Jr., who has actually been strong this year but needs backing (why he doesn’t have it is a mystery); Ryan Reed, who, despite his Daytona win, needs to prove he can contend anywhere else; and Annett, who’s in top equipment but just isn’t getting it done.

Massie: Wallace has been having a great season, but it was reported on Wednesday that he does not have enough sponsorship to run the rest of the season. He desperately needs to win Bristol or one of the upcoming races to attract sponsorship. 2016 Chasers Brendan Gaughan, Brandon Jones and Ryan Sieg are all on the outside looking in at the top 12 spots and need some consistently strong finishes.

About the author

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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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Bill B

The only way they could make a midweek race work for TV is if they could run it in under 3 hours (8:30 to 11:30 EST) and even then they will lose west coast viewers for the first part of the race and east coast viewers for the end of the race. Attendance at the track would suffer regardless because it would involve taking two days off of work for most people which just adds to the cost of attending a race (which is already an issue for many).

Sol Shine

Kenseth’s troubles this year are largely not of his doing. He’s been wrecked by other people and Gibbs’ entire team is in turmoil due to the coming change in ownership from south of the border. Neither of these things are anything he can control. He can still win at any track in the series, IF someone doesn’t wreck him, his team performs and the equipment is capable. So far, those things haven’t fallen into place for him. As for the money, I guess time will tell.


The most logical place to try a midweek race would be the All Star Race. Either move the current event to the Wednesday before the 600, or move the race to the Wednesday after the MLB All Star Game. There are no sports outside the ESPYs on TV that night. NASCAR could have that night to themselves. Run it at Martinsville under the lights, it would be a home run.

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