Matt Kenseth’s Return to Racing
Last season, Joe Gibbs Racing announced Erik Jones would move from his Furniture Row Racing ride to pilot the No. 20 Toyota for the organization this season, leaving 2003 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth looking for a place to continue racing in 2018. Despite snagging an emotional victory at ISM Raceway last November, Kenseth was left to sit on the sidelines after the checkered flag flew over Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Fast forward to this weekend and the 46-year-old is macking his return to NASCAR with Roush Fenway Racing where he spent the first 13 years of his Cup career. Piloting the No. 6 Wyndham Rewards Ford, Kenseth will run more than 10 races including “the next five in a row (starting with Kansas) plus all of the Wyndham races that they announced.”
“There’s more on top of that,” he continued during his media availability Friday at Kansas Speedway. “They didn’t want to announce the entire schedule we were running, but those are the ones that we can talk about right now and the rest of it we’re still kind of working on.”
While many have talked about their expectations for Kenseth’s return to racing, he “came into this weekend pretty much with no expectations.”
“I don’t feel like I have anything to prove to anybody either,” he explained. “Short-term, I hope to help the organization. That’s kind of why (team owner) Jack (Roush) and I decided to do this. They needed to get their performance up. He’s hoping I can help with that, I’m hoping I can help with that.”
He’s definitely going to have his work cut out for him this weekend. He ran 28th-quickest during the single extended practice session on Friday and didn’t even get a chance to attempt to qualify the car when it didn’t make it through pre-qualifying inspection in time to get on the track to make a run. He’ll line up 35th for the KC Masterpiece 400.
Cleared tech but unable to get on track for a lap. pic.twitter.com/wWeHDaqE7v
— No. 6 Team (@Roush6Team) May 11, 2018
Though many think the veteran should just hop into the No. 6 Ford and suddenly the ride will turn itself around, you have to remember just how that team has performed all season. Trevor Bayne, who normally pilots the car, has just five top-20 results, including a season-high 12th at Texas. But perhaps what’s more telling is that he has four finishes of 30th or worse, and with zero laps led all season, he’s steadily dropped in the championship standings since opening the year with a respectable 13th at Daytona.
The bottom line is everyone needs to be realistic about Kenseth’s return. Sure, he can probably hop right into the car and get comfortable behind the wheel, but part of the reason he’s coming back is in an attempt to diagnose the problems and move the needle in the right direction for the No. 6 team. And that’s going to take some patience.
Aric Almirola One Year Later
One year ago this weekend, Aric Almirola left Kansas Speedway by way of helicopter when he was airlifted after a horrific crash that saw him pile into Joey Logano after he and Danica Patrick got together.
Almirola ended up missing seven races with a compression fracture to his T5 vertebra, but the injury isn’t on his mind as he returns to the race that sidelined him a year ago.
“I show up to the race track every weekend and just go and focus on trying to get my car handling the way I want it to and fast and ready to go for that weekend,” Almirola explained. “When I came back here in the fall, it was probably a little bit more top of mind coming back here just a few months after breaking my back here in May when we came back in October.
“But then to go through that weekend, we really ran well, and I think we finished ninth. To come back here and get somewhat of redemption on the race track and sort of put that to bed, I think it’s a non-issue. I don’t even really think about it.”
Fast-forward to this weekend and Almirola is approaching it with more confidence and optimism.
“I’d say last year, not that I didn’t have confidence, but I was always unsure what I was going to get,” he said. “Last year, life was like a box of chocolates; you never knew what you were going to get from week to week. This year I know what I’m gonna get.
“We have the product; we have the potential to have a race-winning car each and every week, and we can see it internally amongst our teammates.”
For Almirola, jumping into the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford has almost revitalized his career. He’s already got four top-10 finishes, compared to six during the entirety of 2017, he nearly won the Daytona 500 and he’s currently 11th in the point standings. Plus, with the exception of a crash at Texas Motor Speedway last month, Almirola has finished inside the top 20 all season.
“The future looks bright for us, and we’re off to a good start,” he said. “Even these first 11 weeks we’re just a few points out of 10th. We’ve had four top 10s, so we’re doing thins well, but we see that there’s so much more potential out there for us.”
This team is one that’s building momentum where there was very little in previous years. Even for this weekend, Almirola was seventh-quickest in the lone practice session on Friday before qualifying fourth, his best starting position this year.
One lap at a time, one race at a time, Almirola is evolving from an also-ran to a weekly contender.
Kevin Harvick v. Kyle Busch
Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have clearly established their strength this season, combining to win seven of 11 races so far, and it seems as though when one is winning the other isn’t far behind. But which one is better this year?
Side-by-side, their stats are nearly identical. Both drivers set off a string of three wins in a row, though Harvick holds the edge there with the victory at Dover. In fact, the only places Busch has Harvick beat on paper is poles and average finish, but even then, both have run eerily similar seasons.
Harvick: one pole, four wins, eight top fives, nine top 10s, 741 laps led, 8.5 average finish
Busch: two poles, three wins, seven top fives, eight top 10s, 498 laps led, 8.4 average finish
“From what we see on the team side I think Kevin (Harvick) has a lot of speed especially over the run,” William Byron said when asked to compare the two. “I feel like both of those guys are just really smart in knowing what they need in a race car and knowing how to get that out of their team. That is where you see their leadership come into play. That is how you see them be so competitive every week.
“Obviously, they are very talented in the car, but I think their leadership outside of the car and describing what they need in the car to be fast. Their team just molds themselves around that and they have a lot of smart people on their teams. So, I think that Kevin seems to be by far the fastest right now, but Kyle is always very consistent and that is just how he is.”
But for his part, Harvick doesn’t look at each week in comparison to Busch.
“It wasn’t a response to anything,” Harvick said when asked about the Dover win. “We go to the race track every week with the same approach of trying to lead laps and win the race. I feel like we’re good at pushing ourselves and trying to get better throughout the year, and I feel like the experience of the team is what pushes us.”
It’s hard to say that Harvick or Busch comes out on top when you compare the two this season. Harvick struck the first blows with three straight wins, and Busch hit back with three of his own. And coming into Saturday night’s race the two are pretty closely matched. Harvick led the lone practice session, while Busch ran third-quickest, and the pair will start first and third, respectively in the race.
The only thing I’m really sure of is that if they keep up for the remainder of the season, the pair will be incredibly interesting to watch.
William Byron Back Where it All Began
When the Camping World Truck Series rolled into Kansas Speedway for the 2016 race, rookie William Byron walked in with momentum off of a third-place finish at Martinsville Speedway in the prior race. But by the time the checkered flag flew, he’d led 34 laps en route to his first win.
Little did he know at the time that his first career victory would trigger a whirlwind year-and-a-half that would conclude with him landing a ride in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series by 2018.
“This place is always special to me,” Byron said Friday during his media availability. “I kind of remember going through what I did in the Truck Series and really up to that point I hadn’t really run for a win it was my fifth truck start. I was just really excited to come here and felt like we were going to have a good day and then the truck drove well in practice and then I just remember racing with (Matt) Crafton for the lead for 30 or 40 laps and then passing them and having Kyle Busch kind of coach me through that and some of the things we talked about there was really cool.
“It was just a special night. I was still in high school and still trying to figure out if I was going to race for a living and see if that made sense for me or if I could do it, had the talent to and that was my big breakthrough to have that. It was a lot of fun and I definitely hold a special place in my heart for this place.”
Fast-forward to the 2018 season, and moving to the Cup Series has been a bit of a learning curve for the 20-year-old. Trying to live up to what amounts to unreasonable expectations as he jumps into the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Byron has been a non-factor for most of the season.
“The first few races are a big shock for anyone that I feel like is coming in the Cup Series,” he explained. “It’s a relatively new team for us so we are all trying to figure each other out. You have one test session that is so different from the race track and the Cup Series is so competitive, so tight.
How I describe it is in the other series you have one or two cars from each organization that are going to be competitive and then here you have four. If you have four of those guys then you are going to be that much below that if you miss it. It’s just exponentially that much harder, but I feel like when you do have good days that shows just like it would in any other series. I think that I’m learning that process.”
But with two finishes inside the top 15 in the last three races, Byron is heading in the right direction, especially given the struggles the Chevrolet teams, in general, have faced since switching to the Camaro body.
I’m not here to declare Byron will visit Victory Lane in the very near future, but after running 14th in practice and qualifying 13th, it’s clear the No. 24 team is headed in the right direction. It’s how the team proceeds that determines Byron’s long-term success in the car.
Can Martin Truex Jr. Make it Three in a Row?
Last season, Martin Truex Jr. walked away with a pair of victories at Kansas Speedway, leading 104 laps in the Spring and 91 in the Fall. And twice before he’s led 170-plus laps but come up short when the checkered flag flew, so needless to say he’s excited to be back at the mile-and-a-half track that’s been so good to him.
“Obviously last year, winning both races was really cool for our team,” Truex said Friday. “This track for whatever reason has been one that we’ve been really successful at over the years. Not sure why, but it seems like I am comfortable here and I like the track. And for whatever reason, the way I like to drive my car around it usually produces some speed.”
But despite last year’s success, he doesn’t take it for granted.
“I don’t think you ever forget the ones that got away. No matter what. We won both races here last year and I still remember those other ones that got away just as much. When you think about it, you’re still like, man, I’d like to have those. It’s hard to make up for lost time.”
After a dream season in 2017 that ended with Truex winning the championship, things seem a little off with the No. 78 team, however, it’s really not that bad. Truex led 125 laps at Auto Club Speedway en route to Victory Lane, and he held the top spot for 121 circuits at Richmond before settling for a 14th-place finish. But other than that, he’s led just single-digit laps in five other races this season.
Instead, Truex is actually just being overshadowed by the success and dominance Harvick and Kyle Busch have shown already this season. But with that being said, the Cup Series is coming into a stretch of mile-and-a-half races that were so kind to the No. 78 team last year. He lines up seventh on the grid for the KC Masterpiece 400, and it wouldn’t be at all unexpected to see him return to that familiar Truex dominance everyone became accustomed to last year.
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