Matt Kenseth is officially a free agent after the 2017 season. Can Kenseth, age 45, still land a top-level ride? Should he accept a mid-tier offer if the power teams don’t come calling?
Bryan Gable: Absolutely. Just because Kenseth is not in his prime anymore does not mean he has no value to NASCAR’s best teams. Remember that Joe Gibbs Racing brought him on in the first place to be a leader and because of his chassis expertise. Kenseth knows how to put together winning teams, and you could not ask for a better mentor for a young driver. Not to mention that he can still be one of the finest racers on the circuit if given the chance. As for what level team he might choose, it really depends on whether hewants to race in the Monster Energy Series or just race. He always has the option of running late models in Wisconsin if he wants. But I think he will wind up with another strong organization in 2018.
Amy Henderson: I think he can land a top-tier ride, especially if he’s willing to do a one-year deal, maybe two, to keep a seat warm for a youngster. There’s been some speculation that he’ll do exactly that by holding down the fort in the No. 88 until William Byron can gain a little more experience. The key will be getting a sponsor to believe in him in the short term. As for a mid-tier team, if that’s all that comes calling and Kenseth wants another year or two, he’d be a good catch for an organization like Richard Petty Motorsports, especially if they decide to use their second charter next year.
Vito Pugliese: Absolutely, he can still land a top-tier ride. You can rattle off a number of teams that would benefit from his experience and elevate whatever program he becomes a part of. The No. 20 has shown the flashes of brilliance that had him as a contender for the championship in 2015, prior to his dust ups with Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. As far as joining a mid-tier team … no. Kenseth is a championship winning driver with a pair of Daytona 500 wins to boot. He’s not a washed up wheel man. He’s simply the victim of a sponsorship decision and a team limit that has JGR in a pickle. Ultimately, it’s a loss for Joe Gibbs Racing, as well Toyota.
Mark Howell: Matt Kenseth can certainly still run with the top dogs. He’s always been a consistent and steady driver, and such skills haven’t faded despite his “senior citizen” status at the age of 45 (Ugh! That number’s been in my rear-view mirror for quite some time). He has the talent and experience necessary to not only win races, but to contend for another title. He could drive for a mid-tier team, no doubt, and he’d likely be that operation’s best chance of parking a car in Victory Lane. No need for Matt to stay on the porch.
The Cup and XFINITY Series head to New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend. The track will use the tire dragon and TrackBite to try and bring in another racing groove. Will that be enough to bring the fans an exciting race?
Henderson: I don’t know. Loudon is so flat a second groove will be hard to come by. That said, there have been some very good races there, especially if you consider racing throughout the field, not just for the lead, a good race, as I do. I remember one race that many fans would have considered boring if you just considered the margin of victory, but watching Dale Earnhardt work through the field in the late going was astonishing. He just ran out of time to make a run for the win. But will there suddenly be side-by-side action for 300 miles this weekend? Not a chance, and that’s an unrealistic expectation at any track.
Pugliese: New Hampshire has improved in recent years and provided some great finishes. With regards to the traction compound and tire dragging, it all depends where they apply it. Last weekend at Kentucky, everyone was scratching their heads as to why they were just doing it around the bottom. New Hampshire can get the outside grove working, so one would hope that is where the attention is focused on track preparation this weekend.
Michael Massie: I’m not a fan of the Tire Dragon. I enjoy races that start out as one groove and the drivers develop the second groove as more rubber gets laid down during the race. Also, I think it makes for better racing when the track surface has less grip, leaving cars sliding around while they search for grip. The Tire Dragon was used last week at Kentucky Speedway and that race was more single file than the the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, so it seems like a bust.
Gable: From what we have seen this year, it is not really conclusive that either the tire dragon or TrackBite produces better racing. In fact, we have only seen TrackBite used at venues with high banking. We do not know how it will work on a flat track. Additionally, creating a second viable groove at New Hampshire will not necessarily make that groove the preferred lane.
NASCAR has states that they have several things on the table for upcoming seasons, including bringing new manufacturers into the sport and a redesigned racecar. What should be the first priority in bringing the fans a better experience whereto they’re watching the race on television or in person at the track?
Howell: The top priority for improving NASCAR is, in my opinion, to welcome new manufacturers into the sport, and not just a return of Dodge; I believe NASCAR should explore bringing in makes that fans readily see on roads and highways. That was what made the sport so popular in the first place: watching cars that fans could easily recognize and drive out of a showroom. Given Honda’s long history in motorsports, and the company’s popularity with consumers, I think it makes perfect sense to add the Accord to the NASCAR lineup. Volkswagen, Hyundai, and even Kia would also turn heads and build interest. I know NASCAR nation (and Jimmy Spencer) got hot-and-bothered when Toyota entered NASCAR, but look at how well that affiliation has turned out. The times, they have changed.
Massie: Redesign that car sooner than later. I agree with Brad Keselowski that the current cars are horrible for racing. They are too fragile. Fans want to see some beating and banging, but if you bump someone in a race these days, their day is done. This isn’t IndyCar, this is stock car racing. We need more durable cars that are less aerodynamic. The clean air advantage needs to drop significantly as well. Make the racing great and people will automatically watch.
Gable: Finding a way to make the cars less aero-dependent should be NASCAR’s number one goal. It may not even require redesigning the cars themselves. Getting some new manufacturers would be fantastic. The more companies that want to invest in NASCAR, the better. Personally, I would also like to see some restructuring of the points system that results in more points for higher finishing positions, especially wins. If NASCAR is really about winning, and if the sanctioning body really wants drivers to race hard at the front of the field, then let’s give the race winner something like 20 more points than second place. If NASCAR put a greater emphasis on winning individual races, we would not have to rely on stages or convoluted playoff systems to generate fan interest.
Henderson: I’m going to take a different tack. I think the thing that desperately needs to be addressed is sponsorship and attracting new backers to the sport, not as the “Official Whatever of NASCAR,” but with the race teams to ensure they have solid backing to be at the track every week. If top-level teams can’t find money, they can only run on the owner’s dollars for so long, and the small teams will never improve to become competitive without funding. Hand-in-hand with this is making real cost-cutting measures, including bringing the big teams’ spending into line. It shouldn’t cost $25 million to field a car, and finding sponsors to pony up that amount — even several sponsors — is getting more and more difficult. If costs are brought into line and teams are healthy, the racing can only improve for fans.
NASCAR has plenty of young talent in its regional series, with drivers like Todd Gilliland and Harrison Burton are making headlines. How can NASCAR capitalize on its up-and-coming stars now to get fans excited about the youngsters now?
Howell: The best way to foster new names and new talent is to put them in competitive rides. No fresh face can get attention if they’re strapped inside an under-funded, under-powered race car. Ditch all the smoke, rock music and finger-pointing at the camera — give young drivers good cars and solid crews and they’ll get attention through their results. Look at how a young talent like William Byron has become a recognized name. He did it through his own skill and having a good ride to call home.
Gable: Make sure the young drivers are visible. Help fans learn what they are like away from the track. If fans have some background information about a driver as he or she enters NASCAR’s highest levels, then that driver is more than just another face in the crowd. Relatable drivers will get new fans.
Pugliese: The first thing they can do is abandon whatever cheesy marketing strategy is being used. Every commercial has some over-dramatized set up, with scowling faces, foreboding music, and some over the top narration trying to build drama. Secondly, let these up and coming guys actually be able to race and contend for wins by not having the first 10 positions dominated by Cup Series superstars. Start running at different tracks or limit Cup driver entries to three per year. Seeing established Cup guys clog up a lesser series has lost its luster. If people aren’t tuning in on Sunday, take a wild guess about their opinion of what’s going on Saturday afternoon or Friday night.
Massie: How about we see some highlights of the K&N Pro Series and other regional series during the pre-race shows on FOX and NBC? Just a quick recap of what happened in those races each week would educate viewers on the next generation. One thing that NFL on NBC does is highlight a local high school football team each week during halftime. The Cup race coverage could highlight a local short track that is close to wherever the tour is racing that week and show a couple clips of the most recent race there.