Race Weekend Central

NASCAR Mailbox: Is Matt Kenseth Done After 2017?

Seeing the wind is a gift. It’s as rare of a miracle as it gets. Some say Dale Earnhardt could see the draft at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.

His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., also had the gift for the majority of his career. It’s a form of art commonly unseen in modern NASCAR. However, as it pertains to most forms of racing, there are always some exceptions that stand out from the rest.

Understanding the art of drafting at speeds reaching 200 mph is not simple, and it takes an analytical perspective to perfect this technique. For Brad Keselowski, he’s as close to perfection as it gets at NASCAR’s longest, wildest tracks.

While the art of restrictor plate racing still exists, masters of the trade seldom exist anymore. Keselowski is one of the few who now can maneuver through the draft unlike any other.

As NASCAR’s top division was competing in Alabama, the talk around the garage surrounded the future of Richard Childress Racing’s No. 27 team. With Paul Menard’s departure to Wood Brothers Racing in 2018, there are several options to take over this ride, and the team can go in one of multiple directions.

Q: Are the days of restrictor-plate ringers dwindling? – William S. De Pere, Wisconsin

A: Former NASCAR driver and current ESPN analyst Ricky Craven touched on this topic a bit this week, and it’s a major question with Earnhardt’s retirement rapidly approaching.

Keselowski, who earned his fifth win at Talladega this past weekend, now has six plate wins in 35 starts. The mark is unbelievable given the uniqueness of the draft and how frequently luck comes into play. However, it’s his methodical process behind the wheel that causes him to stand out from the pack.

“His movement with the steering suggested his car was edgy, yet he drove with authority, swapping lanes like a rush-hour taxi driver in Manhattan,” Craven said in his column.

While Keselowski is the new master of the draft, there will certainly be more drivers who will do the same.

Kurt Busch, this year’s Daytona 500 champion, is known to be one of the sport’s best plate racers. However, his luck at Daytona and Talladega does not support his consistency and aggression. Before this season, the 2004 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion never earned a trophy at a plate race. While he repeatedly came close to winning some of the most prestigious races the sport offers, he indeed failed to tame plate racing until he reached his 17th full-time season.

Keselowski’s Team Penske teammate Joey Logano, too, understands the art of plate racing. The 2015 Daytona 500 champion has three plate wins (two at Talladega and one at Daytona). While he has a combined eight DNFs due to accidents in 36 plate races, his diligence behind the wheel created a master of the art, something seen Sunday when he led 59 laps in the midst of multiple green-flag stretches.

The art of restrictor plate racing is certainly not dying out. The multitude of strategies, varying from roaring through the pack to hanging in the back and saving up for a late-race charge, makes the art all the more special.

From Denny Hamlin to David Ragan, there are a handful of drivers in the Cup field who understand what it takes to survive at these two racetracks.

It will certainly be interesting to see who steps up to replace Earnhardt as the plate master. With 10 point-paying wins at Daytona and Talladega, his dominance is something that might not ever be replicated. In 71 plate races, Earnhardt has led at least one lap in 52 contests, along with leading at least 50 circuits in 12 of them.

Luck might come into play, but without the necessary skill-set to survive, one cannot tame a plate race.

Q: Is there any new information on the No. 27 car at RCR? Now I heard the driver who just decided to leave Ganassi (Brennan Poole) is taking over that ride. So that would mean Matt Kenseth is done right? There’s nowhere for him to go if he loses out on getting the No. 27 ride at RCR! – Zach Cross

A: It’s not time for Kenseth to hit the panic button just yet, but that time is coming close. The rumor that Poole is moving to RCR is exactly that — a rumor.

“Honestly – honestly – I really don’t know,” Poole told Jeff Gluck on Friday. “I’ve had a great relationship with them over the past several years, but there hasn’t been any talks. So I really just don’t know.”

Poole’s XFINITY Series co-owner, Felix Sabates, denied he was departing the organization, going as far as saying he will likely return next year. As per usual in 2017 NASCAR, everything depends on sponsorship, and Poole is unsure what primary sponsor DC Solar wants to do.

Kenseth is still a viable option for RCR, and so are Danica Patrick, Landon Cassill, Aric Almirola and just about any other free agent who can potentially bring money to the table.

With such few openings left on the Cup circuit, RCR is now in a prime position to set itself up for a successful replacement for Menard. The No. 27 team has struggled, with Menard’s results plateauing from 2015 until now, failing to surpass five top 10s in a season.

Kenseth is surely on the list of potential candidates to replace Menard. Let’s not forget the possibility of RCR even restarting a fourth car in 2018 should funding come along. With short fields, it wouldn’t be the worst gamble for the organization to add Poole as a rookie with a majority of the season covered by DC Solar and having a veteran in Kenseth come over to warm up a seat for Daniel Hemric, who will be at the Cup level sooner rather than later.

At 45 years young, Kenseth remains one of the sport’s most consistent drivers. He has an average finish of 14.6 this year, and while he has failed to win thus far, he has eight top fives and is determined to be a championship contender come November.

If he loses out on the ride at RCR, he, along with the rest of the free agents in the field, have options of going to Front Row Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing in a third car even though the team said it will remain at two entries, Richard Petty Motorsports or even GMS Racing should that team opt to enter into the premier series.

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GMS has already said pretty clearly that they’re not coming to Cup next year.

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