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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Don’t Call It a Comeback

How will Matt Kenseth’s return go?

After nearly a third of the season, Matt Kenseth is finally back in a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car.

The 2003 series champion returns to stock car racing with the same team he won that championship with, Roush Fenway Racing. Back when Roush was at its peak as a team in the mid-2000s, Kenseth was one of five championship-capable drivers.

Now, he rejoins the team 10 years after that peak with just one teammate, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The driver Kenseth is sharing the No. 6 with, Trevor Bayne, leaves full-time Cup racing 29th in points after 11 races. Although Stenhouse won two restrictor plate races last year, those are still crapshoots. Roush last won a non-plate race when Carl Edwards won his final race for the team in 2014 at Sonoma Raceway.

Kenseth’s performance in the No. 6 will be interesting to watch over the rest of this season. He has two wins at Kansas Speedway, one of which was his final win to date for Roush back in 2012. But he also only has one top-five finish there since 2013, and he’s also coming off a six-month break.

When Jeff Gordon came back in 2016, he ran well, usually hanging around 10th or so, but it seemed like he never got into fourth gear to be able to run near the front. The cars change so much even without a big aero change, to the point where spending that long out of the car will definitely hurt any driver. And Gordon was in much better equipment than Kenseth will be in.

It’ll be a huge success if Kenseth can come back and run better than his teammate. Even better if he can compete for top fives every week. Either way, we’re about to find out if the problem at Roush is the drivers or the equipment.

Who will show interest in buying NASCAR?

The reported interest the France family has in selling off NASCAR is the biggest news story of the year thus far, by far.

The big story from last week, NASCAR acquiring ARCA, now makes a lot more sense. With that move, a prospective buyer would have control of all major stock car racing in North America, the biggest sports car series in the U.S. in IMSA and, if they pay enough, probably the France family’s stakes in International Speedway Corporation.

So who could be lined up as buyers? Outside of the remote chance of some eccentric billionaire like Elon Musk coming in and single-handedly buying everything up, odds are that a buyer would be a media company. For instance, it was reported in January that Comcast could be a prospective buyer if the sanctioning body were put up for sale. But with the news coming out this week that Comcast may swipe the 20th Century FOX/Disney deal out of Disney’s hands, it’s unclear if Comcast would also go for NASCAR after making such a gigantic purchase.

Fox seems like it could be in the market. Whomever buys 20th Century Fox will leave Rupurt Murdoch’s empire with just its broadcast channel, sports division, news division and literal truckloads of money to reinvest. With the market for new live sports to acquire the rights to beginning to dwindle, buying NASCAR would be a logical step to take.

Another interesting factor in all of this would be the Race Team Alliance. I’m sure the owners would love to all have a vested stake in NASCAR as do teams in other sports, but it’s doubtful they alone could combine to make a bid. Chances are that such a bid would need the owners to bring in partners, take on debt or both. It would also be interesting to see if richer owners like Roger Penske would be willing to put more money in than, say, Jay Robinson, but also cede equal power.

Where will Aric Almirola finish on the anniversary of his wreck?

This weekend marks one year since a horrible crash left Aric Almirola temporarily sidelined.

Almirola, at the time racing for Richard Petty Motorsports at Kansas Speedway, had to be cut out of his car after a terrible hit. He was transported out of the track on a stretcher and had suffered a compression fracture of his T5 vertebra.

After missing seven points races over the early summer, Almirola returned at the first New Hampshire Motor Speedway weekend of last year in mid-July.

It’s a bit ironic that Almirola was injured at Kansas, as the 1.5 mile track is also one of his best statistically. Although none of his numbers have been truly outstanding, that was also with mid-tier equipment at RPM. Case in point: he finished ninth in the fall race last year, one of just six top 10s for Almirola all year. It’ll be fun to watch how fast he could be here now that he’s with Stewart-Haas Racing.

Who will come out on top at Kansas?

Martin Truex Jr. won the 2017 Cup Series championship partially due to just how great he was at mile-and-a-halves. But Kansas was something else.

Truex enters this weekend looking for three in a row after sweeping both races last year. He’ll also be looking to reestablish that dominance after being upstaged by Kevin Harvick for much of the beginning of the year.

Look out for Ryan Blaney this weekend, too. Blaney finished fourth and third last year in the spring and fall races, respectively. Blaney won the first stage and took the lead on a late-race restart in the first race before being passed by Truex, who led the final 19 laps en route to Victory Lane. It’s strange that as good as Ford has been to start the season, Team Penske has just one win. Expect that to change soon.

Finally, if you’re looking for a cheap driver to round out your fantasy team, Chris Buescher is a viable option. Buescher finished sixth in the fall race at Kansas last year, tied for his best result of 2017.

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