Happy holiday season! This week, whether it’s Passover, Easter or simply Spring Break for you non-religious folk, everyone seems to be enjoying some hard-earned time off. Just take a look at Twitter and you can see many NASCAR faithful vacationing on some beach somewhere. The Easter bunny provides an opportunity not just for chocolate eggs but a basket of wine and relaxation.
Trust me, the traveling circus will need it. This weekend marks just one of two off weekends the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has all year. In a 40-week stretch from Feb. 18-Nov. 19, the series races 38 times! For crewmen, drivers and other NASCAR principals who have to be at each one, that schedule is grueling.
We media and PR types have it easy by comparison; to some degree, we can pick and choose the races we go to. When I was traveling the series full-time, I would do about 27-30 weekends but have my off weeks sprinkled in perfectly to get a breather. By the sixth race in a row, I was always ready to drop.
Now imagine a crewman who doesn’t have that opportunity. Every Friday, it’s a new city. Every week, regardless of your physical wear and tear, you’re unloading that car and working round the clock. Fontana. Atlanta. Pocono. Zipping all over the country without any signs of stopping.
So yeah, I hope the drivers aren’t the only ones having fun in the sun. Let’s hope even the crewmen for teams that are struggling get a chance to take a break.
They’re going to need it, too.
“I love NASCAR and all, but I don’t get it. Two weeks off in a whole season for Cup? And the Camping World Truck Series has what, eight weeks off between races? Can’t we figure out a better schedule? – Todd Michaelson, Raleigh, North Carolina
Todd, I see your point. The Truck Series is off for eight of nine weekends in the middle of the season. Compare that to Cup, where your only weekends off are now and then in the middle of August.
I do think it’s ridiculous, moving forward, to have that setup and yet have off weeks for all three series on Easter. It would make sense to do a Saturday show for the Trucks at, say, a place like Bristol Motor Speedway or Darlington Speedway. It’s close to home, keeps the series on the radar and gets it some love on a weekend with no other racing distractions. Considering Truck ratings reached a five-year high at Martinsville Speedway, it’s a shame they can’t capitalize on such momentum.
As for Cup? I understand you can’t reduce the schedule at this point. Contraction would help the sport, but it sends the wrong message when the snowball is already rolling downhill. But you’ve got to add at least two more. What about running the All-Star Race midweek in 2018? That would give you one; a second one in June, pushing back the end of the season next year (or moving up the Daytona 500), would suffice. And on every one of those off weekends, the XFINITY Series or Trucks should be running a standalone. That’s just Marketing 101. Give your other series a chance to get out of the Cup shadow.
“So is Matt Kenseth washed up? All of Joe Gibbs Racing is struggling but he seems to be in the worst shape of all. Do you think it’ll be his final season before retirement?” – Frank Schroeder, DeKalb, Illinois
In NASCAR’s modern format, no driver seems to ever be out of playoff contention, Frank. But you’re right, Kenseth is off to a rough start. He’s yet to lead a lap this season, has crashed out three times and sits 22nd in points, 25 behind teammate Denny Hamlin for the final playoff spot.
Kenseth seems to be getting the worst of it with all the turmoil surrounding Joe Gibbs Racing. That’s crazy considering Dave Rogers and Carl Edwards, the two major cards reshuffled there, weren’t a direct link to the No. 20. It is notable Kenseth’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, is entering his fifth season on the pit box. As far as racing marriages go, that one’s aging.
Kenseth’s no spring chicken himself; at 45, he’s the oldest full-time driver on the Cup circuit. But a driver once teamed with Mark Martin is well aware that age is just a number. Keep in mind he was a Phoenix International Raceway wreck away from competing for a championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway last November. In fact, you could make a compelling case Kenseth should have been in the sport’s Final Four two straight years.
Since moving to JGR in 2013, Kenseth has a total of 14 wins in four seasons. He was also 18th in points after Bristol last April and recovered to win at Dover International Speedway just two months later. The driver’s early 2016 season, one that started with a last-lap Daytona 500 loss, was plagued by simple bad luck. 2017, while showing a little less speed, has been more of the same.
So over the long run the No. 20 Toyota team will get it together just like everyone else over there. But will this type of rough start, plus the random luck involved in the playoffs, make Kenseth say, “forget it?”
Hmm. I don’t think he wants to retire anytime soon. The key for him within the organization is going to be sponsorship. Dollar General left at the end of last season, and so far it’s been patchwork deal after patchwork deal to keep the No. 20 team funded. Tide has signed up for a few races, as has Peak, but there’s still a large segment of races unsponsored. Compare that to Erik Jones, who’s paired with 5-Hour Energy and already contending for Furniture Row Racing as a rookie.
Jones, a likely playoff contender, will make it hard for FRR to keep him beyond this one-year partnership at JGR. And with the logjam lifted at Toyota’s top team, it’s easy to see where its prodigy is going to build his career. It’s not at the No. 11; Hamlin signed an extension. Rookie Daniel Suarez and former champion Kyle Busch have long-term deals tied to sponsors.
So Jones is waiting patiently to occupy the seat held by Kenseth. If it were up to owner Joe Gibbs, I think he would let the 45-year-old race as long as he wants. But it’s the boardroom, not the racetrack, that dictates who’s in the driver’s seat, and I don’t think there’s going to be a choice.
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