ONE: Return of the Matt
This weekend will see the return of a familiar face to Cup racing with a championship resume including 39 wins, 181 top-5’s, 327 top-10’s in 650 starts. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Matt Kenseth makes a welcome comeback in the number six Ford Fusion of Roush Fenway Racing at Kansas this Saturday. Kenseth who stepped away, somewhat unwillingly, at the end of the 2018 when his contract expired, will race for a team for him he ran his first 12 full seasons, a stretch that included his 2003 title.
“This was the right deal at the right time,” said the Wisconsin native. “If this came up a couple of months ago, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I certainly had a really good time the last six months having time off. I’ve been very happy and very content. You worry about leaving that.”
Something tells me that will all be forgotten when he takes the green on Saturday evening. He was at pains to point out he wasn’t retiring after the final race of 2017 and so it’s proved.
“Just because you walk away from the race car for a while doesn’t mean you’re done forever,” said good friend and NASCAR legend Mark Martin at the announcement. I, for one, am delighted he’s back. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that.
TWO: All-Star Plates
After we get done with Kansas, it’s a couple of weeks in the sports home base of Charlotte. First up is the All-Star race and although the announcement was made a month ago, I still needed to look up the format to refresh myself. Stages aside, the thing to watch will be the effect of the restrictor plates – the first time they’ve ever been run either at Charlotte Motor Speedway or in the All-Star race.
“The positive feedback following last year’s Xfinity Series race at Indianapolis gave us the foundation to implement this dynamic package for the All-Star Race,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. We believe the hard work of the entire industry will provide the best race for our passionate fans.”
Given that the longest stage of the race is 30 laps, we’ll only get a bite size sample but it will be fun to watch how the rules package will affect the typically strung out racing at mile-and-a-half circuits.
THREE: Next Up, Kansas
On Saturday night under the lights, we run the first of two races at Kansas Speedway in 2018. The 12th race of the 2018 season marks a third of the way through the calendar and the next race – the Coke 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway will be the half way point to the playoffs.
This will be race number 25 at the one-and-a-half-mile D-shaped oval. Jeff Gordon won the inaugural race in September 2001, while Martin Truex Jr. swept both races in 2017. As is the case most weeks now, Jimmie Johnson holds the active driver track records with the most wins (3), most top-5’s (9), most top-10’s (17) and best average finish of 9.7. After a tough opening to the season, Johnson has bounced back a little with finishes of 3rd, 6th, 12th and 9th in recent weeks and will be looking to augment his stats this weekend.
Kevin Harvick won the first two mile-and-a-half tracks this season at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway with Kyle Busch winning the third at Texas Motor Speedway (Harvick was second). Add this to Truex’s dominance at the venue last year, it’s hard to look away from the triumvirate who have won eight of eleven races this season when you’re picking a winner for Saturday.
FOUR: Toyota didn’t lead a lap at the Monster Mile
At the end of the race, Fox announcer Mike Joy noted that Toyota had failed to lead a lap for the first time since the second race of the 2017 season at Atlanta Motor Speedway; a stretch that runs some 45 races.
Despite this failure, on a day that the Fords again dominated, Toyota still finished with three cars in the top seven – Daniel Suarez (3rd), Martin Truex Jr. (4th) and Denny Hamlin (7th). So, does it really mean anything? Almost certainly not in the grand (and overall) scheme of things but it is still another nod to the fine form of the Blue Oval brigade who won their fifth race in the first eleven.
One other last point to note here. Ford won five of the first ten races in 2010 and finished with just four wins in the remaining 26 races. I’m not suggesting that’s going to happen this season but it does go to show things can change quick in top echelon stock car racing.
FIVE: Hershel McGriff
And finally, a huge shout out to Hershel McGriff who become the oldest driver in NASCAR history at 90 years young. McGriff, who first raced all the way back in 1950, took part in the K&N Pro Series West in Tucson, Arizona, Saturday, starting and finishing last, but just taking part was what really counted. McGriff also played the national anthem on his trombone to kick off proceedings. “Instead of racing young kids at 120 miles per hour, he’s more nervous about playing his trombone,” said Tucson Speedway president John Lashley. “He’s just wound different than you and me.”
McGriff’s son, Herhel Jr, competed in a separate race and performed head wrench duties for his dad, while his granddaughter raced in a third different race this past Saturday. “I’ve had a great life. I wouldn’t backtrack for anything,” said McGriff prior to the race. “I have family that’s with me and behind me, so it’s great.”
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