News Analysis: Circle K to sponsor Matt Kenseth for six races

What happened: Convenience store Circle K will be the primary sponsor of Matt Kenseth’s No. 20 car for six races this season, beginning with Richmond International Raceway next week.

What it means: Word of an unspecified announcement had prompted speculation that Kenseth, 45, was retiring. The team told reporters who asked that it was not a retirement announcement, but that didn’t prevent rumors from running wild on places like Twitter and Reddit. One blatantly fake news story making the rounds Tuesday even said Carl Edwards was coming back to replace Kenseth. The veteran driver sarcastically took a shot at people who ruined his off-weekend with the retirement talk, saying the fake news story was written by someone in their basement. Just as in politics, NASCAR fans will have to be careful and discerning about trusting news sources now that it’s easier than ever for people to create fake news.

News value (scale of 1-10): Three. It’s just a six-race sponsorship, but it’s notable that Circle K had not been a primary sponsor on a car before.

Questions: Even though this wasn’t a retirement announcement, what does the future hold for a driver who is currently the oldest full-time competitor on the circuit? Can JGR get Circle K to expand its sponsorship in the future? Will this prompt Sheetz or Wawa to become primary sponsors of a car?

Survivor Game Changers Power Rankings: Week 7

I’m still trying to digest what happened last week with Zeke and Varner (I wrote more about that here), and it will definitely be hard to just move on with the game like nothing happened.

That said, Zeke was already No. 1 in my power rankings heading into last week, and I’m going to keep him there for now. While I think his story could eventually make him more of a target (“We can’t let him get to the end or he’ll win”), I think his fellow castaways will rally around him for awhile and he won’t be voted off anytime soon.

From the previews, we also know THE MERGE IS HERE — so that will shake things up dramatically.

Here’s how I see the castaways ranked (by best chance of winning) heading into tonight’s episode:

1. Zeke (Last week: 1). The biggest challenge for Zeke will be to shake off what was a traumatic personal moment and refocus on the game. Given his love for Survivor, I think he can do it.

2. Troyzan (Last week: 2). I like the spot Troyzan is in. He has an idol, but he’s also not a target at all right now (why would they vote Troyzan off when they could go after bigger threats like Ozzy or Brad?).

3. Sarah (Last week: 9). She’s good with her old tribe — Zeke, Andrea and Ozzy, at least — AND had that short-lived alliance with Troyzan before the swap (remember that scene?). Having connections on both sides could be a very good thing. Time for the cop to play like a criminal.

4. Hali (Last week: 4). This first merge vote is going to say a lot about where Hali is and reveal much about her chances going forward. I don’t have a great read on it. But for now, I’m leaving her up high because she’s not an obvious threat.

5. Andrea (Last week: 10). Before Varner outed Zeke, he also outed a supposed alliance between Andrea, Zeke and Ozzy. If that’s really the case, those three could do some damage if they can pull in a few others.

6. Cirie (Last week: 3). I’m a little shaky on Cirie now that the merge is here and Sandra is gone. No one looks at Cirie and goes, “Oh, she’s not a threat.” They all know it, and she’s too dangerous to keep around for much longer.

7. Sierra (Last week: 5). It feels like her chances are still too closely tied to Brad’s. She either needs to make her own big moves or she’ll end up without a good enough resume — even if she survives until the end.

8. Aubry (Last week: 6). Who does she have to work with? Brad, yes. Tai, maybe. But she’s seemed to be on the outs of various tribes through the whole game, and people also view her as a threat socially.

9. Brad (last week: 7). I don’t like his chances with the merge because he’ll become too big of a target — although his alliance with Aubry could prove helpful. The only huge physical threats remaining are Brad, Ozzy and maybe Michaela — which means any of them could be a classic “merge boot.”

10. Michaela (Last week: 8). She’s strong in immunity challenges, but she’s not really the type that’s going to keep her head and stay calm for the rest of the game. That’s going to get her in trouble at some point.

11. Tai (Last week: 14). His two idols will keep him safe for awhile, along with people going after bigger targets. But like Debbie, he’s more of a “Let’s bring him to the end” type for the eventual winning player.

12. Ozzy (Last week: 11). Ozzy is in trouble now that the merge is here. His name is going to be brought up frequently as a target, and unless he goes on an individual immunity run, he might be out soon.

13. Debbie (Last week: 13). She’s too volatile and the other players aren’t going to respect her game enough in the end (although I can see someone taking her to the final three). I can’t even see her using her extra vote in a situation where it would help her.

12 Questions with Daniel Suarez

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Daniel Suarez of Joe Gibbs Racing. I spoke with Suarez at Texas Motor Speedway.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I really feel like you need to have some natural ability, but at this point of the sport — in the Xfinity Series and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series — I feel like most of the drivers have the same ability and it all depends on how hard the team and the driver work for every single race.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards have all retired in the last couple years. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

It’s hard to answer that question. I’m just trying to make my way into the sport and trying to be successful. Those are great names of the sport and they’re actually names I grew up looking at. For me, it would be very good if, someday, fans of these guys started to support me.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

For myself, it’s just staying away from family for that long. My family is not in North Carolina or in the United States. And with the schedule we have, it’s difficult to travel every week to Mexico to see my family. That’s maybe one of the toughest parts.

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Yes. Sure, no problem. Actually, I like that. Just 30 minutes ago, I saw a kid walking from the parking lot and he had a Suarez T-shirt. I stopped and signed his shirt. So I like that a lot.

What was his reaction?

He was scared at the beginning, but he was kind of surprised. I just like doing those kind of things.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

I really feel like NASCAR has got everything covered pretty well. I don’t know, maybe seven championships for Jimmie Johnson? That’s a pretty big deal. I’m not sure if someone is going to get that done again or (win) five consecutive championships. I grew up watching a lot of that. I feel like it got a lot of coverage — that’s not the right answer to the question — but it’s a pretty big deal for me.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Kyle Busch.

There’s a thing there with you where you’re always asking him for help.

Yeah. There is always something. Everyone on my team has been very good, but Kyle has been very good to me. We’ve spent some good time together. The last couple weeks, we’ve been working out on Tuesdays. That’s been kind of fun, working out with him.

Does he always text you back?

He texts me back, and if for some reason he doesn’t, I call him. (Laughs)

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

I think most of the race car drivers have a good attitude and a good personality. We’re always having fun and enjoying this. We do this every weekend. If you don’t enjoy this and have fun with interviews and stuff, you’re going to get tired of it. So I feel like we are (entertainers), yes.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

I think (of) respect. I read somewhere this week where drivers are like elephants — we never forget what happened. And that’s very, very true. I still remember every single person who hit me when we were racing go-karts, and I hit them back the next week. So I know who races me clean and I know who races me with respect and I know who races me aggressively all the time — and I race them back the same way.

So have you ever flipped the middle finger?

Uh, yes. I don’t remember who it was last year, but I did it a couple times.

9. You just touched on this a big, but some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Yes, that’s what I mean with respect. Sometimes you’re running fifth and you’re slower than the guy in sixth, but he can’t pass you. You have to just try to help him a little bit and maybe next weekend or maybe later in the race, you’re going to be better than that guy and he won’t give you a hard time to get that position. I feel like how you race people is how they’re going to race you.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

Carlos Slim. He’s a great guy and a good friend. I think my first dinner with him was when I was maybe 17 or 18 years old — I was never so scared. But now we’re good friends.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

Sometimes just to be more patient. I’m very hard on myself and I push myself very hard, and when the results are not coming together, I just get mad to myself — and that’s not a good thing. Sometimes you just have to move forward instead of getting stuck a little bit. Maybe that’s something I have to improve.

12. The last interview was with Kasey Kahne. He wanted to know how living in North Carolina compares to living in Mexico and how you’ve adjusted.

It’s really different. In the beginning, my first couple years living in the U.S., it was very tough. I didn’t have money, I didn’t have family, I didn’t have friends, I didn’t speak the language. It was tough, but I had a dream in my head, and I wanted to work so hard for it. Luckily, it worked out well.

I think living away from family and everyone you grew up hanging out with and living around, that’s difficult. But you just start again and start making friends. Now in racing, I don’t have a lot of time to be in North Carolina — just a few days a week.

It’s been a big challenge, but right now, honestly, if you asked me, “Daniel, would you move back to Mexico?” I will say no. I prefer to stay in North Carolina, I love North Carolina and hopefully I can bring my family more often.

Do you have a question for the next interview?

As race car drivers, we’re always competing against each other. If a driver that is competitive asks you for advice, would you tell that driver everything, 100 percent? How much are you going to help that driver out to be successful on the racetrack? Because eventually, maybe he can beat you out.

This 12 Questions interview is sponsored by Dover International Speedway. If you’re planning to attend the Dover race in June, please consider using my ticket link. Thanks!

Fan Profile: Bob Vick

These 12 Questions-style fan profiles are one of the rewards offered as a tier on my Patreon page. You can catch up on the other profiles so far this season here.

Name: Bob Vick
Location: Morristown, Tenn.
Twitter name: @oxybob
Age: 55

1. How long have you been a NASCAR fan?

 Since 1970.

2. How many races have you attended?

Around 200, if you include all three series.

3. Who is your No. 1 favorite driver?

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

4. What made you a fan of his?

I started following him when the family was racing at Myrtle Beach.

5. Who is your most disliked driver?

Kurt Busch.

6. Why don’t you like him?

His past actions, but I pretty much like all the drivers.

7. What is your favorite track?

Bristol Motor Speedway.

8. What is one thing you would change if you were in charge of NASCAR?

I’d add a road course to the playoffs.

9. What is one thing you would keep the same if you were in charge of NASCAR?

The championship weekend with four drivers that can win in each series. I was there last year, and it was great fun!

10. How often do you yell at the TV during a race?

Not regularly, but it does happen. Actually, it happens more often when the Tennessee Volunteers are playing!

11. Do you have any advice for other fans?

At the track, scanners are mandatory. A headset with an intercom is great for talking to the people with you at places like Bristol.

Also, I use Twitter during the event. Good follows for me so far include Jeff Gluck, Claire B. Lang, Bob Pockrass, DeLana Harvick, Jim Utter, Steve Letarte, nascarcasm, The Orange Cone and my favorite teams.

12. What else do you want the NASCAR world to know about you?

I am a very passionate fan and have been for a long time. I love seeing our sport grow and evolve. Bristol is my closest and favorite track. I really also enjoy how the tracks are doing things such as concerts and other events to add value to the race experience.

Bob Vick of Morristown, Tenn., at his favorite track — Bristol Motor Speedway. (Courtesy of Bob Vick)

Social Spotlight with Jimmie Johnson

Each week, I ask a member of the NASCAR industry to shed some light on their social media usage. This week: Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, who won Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Jimmie, you are quite proficient at a number of social platforms. What is your favorite one to use?

I’m torn, but I would head towards Instagram. I’m a huge fan of photography and imagery and when it first started off, it was kind of a not-so-popular space (and had) great creativity. It certainly has morphed into something more mass; I’ve seen enough of everyone’s dinners and stuff like that to drive me crazy. But Instagram is probably my favorite.

It’s closely followed up by Strava (a workout tracker where followers can like and comment on runs or bike rides). I enjoy my physical activities and it’s amazing how knowing you’re going to post to that app and site, how it will motivate you to run faster, pedal harder, ride longer. You think of interesting names for your rides. Looking for a photo (to put with the workout). It’s a very fun way for me to stay motivated and stay connected with other athletes around the country.

That was actually one of my questions, if you considered Strava a social media network. I feel like it is, but it’s not one that people mention off the top of their heads. But you are sharing in the same way you’re sharing anything else you do.

Yeah, you really do. The numbers are much smaller on that platform. But from meeting other athletes and setting up rides or training sessions with others around the country, it’s really cool.

And then if you go on your laptop, you can designate any stretch of road as a segment and name it yourself if you want. So as you ride or run across through these areas, your device takes the time to rank you and tell you how fast you were this year and all time. If you come through the segment again, it starts to rank you against yourself.

So the way my mind works and living by the stopwatch with everything I do in my life, it’s really nice to see the progression of your rides and your fitness. And if you’re in a big group on the bike and you guys are drafting or being smart, you can post and put up big numbers, which is fun.

What’s amazing about that is it’s probably the most positive social media network because there’s nobody trolling on there. Everybody’s giving encouragement to others and it’s motivating you to do better because there’s a peer pressure factor. Even when I’m out there, I’m like, “Oh man, this is a slow mile time or a slow ride and people are going to look at my time, so I gotta go faster.” Do you know what I mean?

I totally know that aspect and it’s highly motivating from that standpoint.

But you bring up such a great point: Out of all the social platforms, I don’t think I’ve seen a negative comment or any trolling. It’s all positive. When you like somebody’s ride, you give them a little thumbs up. The comments are all very constructive and positive — so you’re right, I haven’t thought of it as being the only positive social space out there.

Let’s go back to Instagram for a minute because it’s clear you have a love for photography. Do you have photographers that work for you and then you pick the best picture of the weekend? Or are they all of your photos? How do you decide what to put on your feed?

It kind of changes from week to week. There are a lot of photos provided to the race teams over the course of the weekend that I have access to and I kind of pick some cool shots just to use. Of course, I take my own photos and do some (Instagram) Story stuff.

But over the years, I have brought in some professional photographers. In Homestead last year, I brought in Liz Kreutz to shoot and document the weekend, largely because I love photography so much. Someday I want a big book full of all the images that I can relive, and she came and shot that and took like 10,000 pictures. And then we took a few and used them on our social channels just to share the experience with others and let people see a race weekend through a different viewpoint.

This year, I started a program at Daytona where I’m going to bring in four different professional photographers and then have those four professional photographers pick four amateurs to come and shoot. So, we’ll have at least eight opportunities for me to collect imagery. Then, we’ll use them through our social platforms. Lyle Owerko was our photographer at Daytona, and then the famous Danny Clinch who’s done all the Rolling Stone shoots for years and years will come and shoot Indianapolis for us.

So it’s fun to see what they shoot and what they bring in their style. We’ll share all that stuff through the social, but then someday down the road, if we decide to do a book or an exhibition, I’m gonna have a ton of photos over the next four to five years, just collecting all that stuff.

How do you decide how much to share with the public? When these photographers first come, it seems like they have all-access. Is there anything where you’re like, “Hey, not this part?”

Yeah, I work hard to get them into anything and everything and I also firmly believe that they are the photographers they are, and I don’t want to mess with that style. I don’t want to push them into a corner and only post this and only show this; I try to turn them loose.

With Lyle Owerko, he did a lot of time lapsing, and we posted that on the social channels. I didn’t even know time lapse was on my phone and how to use it and that it would be cool, and he did that pretty frequently.

As things are developing with Danny, his style is much more creating a scene and a set to take a picture. Obviously, that’s pretty tough to do on a race weekend with how quick we’re moving, but I want to give him that opportunity to put a couple of sets together and grab his traditional shots. So I really let the style of the photographer steer where we go.

I follow you on Snapchat, and every once in awhile a stray snap will come out. It’ll be like one snap and then it’ll go a few days where there’s no more snaps. Do you think to yourself, “OK, you know what, I’m gonna snap today,” and you have good intentions but you just go focus on that other platform?

For sure. What’s tough for me with Snap is that my phone comes out often, and I take pictures in the platforms where I can go back at the end of the day or I have a free moment to think of a caption, work on the photo and edit it. That just works better for me, especially with chasing two little ones around and how busy my life is. So it’s hard for me to think, “Oh yeah, Snap.” That’s its own photo and you go from there. I dig Snap — I think it’s fun. It’s just not in my first line of thought.

So you have somewhat of a social team, where people can help you with your social media. Why is it important to have people help you? What do the partners say to you about social media that makes that an important space for you?

In my office we’d been looking for something that we could own, especially as I developed to be a multi-time champion. I was just looking for a space to really dominate and make a presence. As social media was coming along, we’re knocking off our championships, and we could see that everything was switching to digital. Even websites and what information those websites provide … was changing.

So I hired a firm in New York to work with me and help get my social stuff going. I quickly realized we didn’t need a firm. It was helpful, but it just wasn’t me. Through relationships in New York, I was able to really focus in and lay out a plan on what we wanted to do, and we did a deep dive into our sport and what platforms our consumers used and what was important then.

Way back then — like eight to 10 years ago now — out of all the NASCAR fans, only about 15 percent of the fans had a smart phone. That led us in a direction to bolster our website (as the top priority). So we really doubled down on our website, won best website in all of sports which was a huge honor for us. It was very creative and very cool the way interaction worked between our social channels.

And then I just knew that as requests were coming in for sponsors and they saw our investment in digital and everything shifting to digital, we needed somebody to manage that stuff and really work with the sponsors and make sure things were authentic on my side and then also serve the greater good of racing.

We hired somebody from Sprint — Lauren Murray, now Lauren Edwards — she came in and worked on our program for a lot of years. And she’s done so well, she’s now started her own firm (Reine Digital) and was married recently to Jon Edwards, who’s been Jeff Gordon’s longtime PR man. I’m her first client at her new place and I’m trying to help her build up her social team and her clients. She’s done an amazing job for us and I know that she can help some other drivers here in the garage area and other people outside.

Let’s talk about Twitter, the big one that everybody seems to be focused on in this garage at times. How often are you looking at your feed on Twitter? Do you visit it daily?

I do visit it daily, multiple times a day. For me, I use it for my news feed. I’m always on the run, and the magazines I follow, the news outlets I follow — of course there’s the work side in our industry — but that’s how I consume the world news today.

I don’t go on to my mentions as often. I mean, sometimes you want to see it, some times you don’t. If I post something, it’s nice to see what people think or what the reaction is. But from a consumption standpoint, I do spend a fair amount of time just looking through the feed and taking in the news.

I feel like you’re one of the notable people who’s not afraid to go back at somebody if they’re a hater. If they say something to you, you’re not afraid to retweet them and poke a little fun back at them. Do you ever block people? What’s your general response to the trolls?

I haven’t blocked a single person yet on any platform. Believe me, I’ve wanted to. When the digital stuff first started — back when there were blogs on NASCAR.com — I went through them and read the Jimmie Johnson blog. I couldn’t believe the things that people were staying about myself, and also what they were saying about my wife when we were dating. It’s why I had a quick departure and was pretty late the Twitter game to start with. I was like, “I don’t need that in my life.”

But then I realized the importance of it, so you just need to breeze by certain things and move on. But poking fun back at these guys is, I think, critical. You know, people sitting in their underwear in their mom’s basement, they’re pretty brave and want to say things. It’s funny — as soon as you draw attention to them and let some hating happen on their feed, they’re quickly apologizing, they delete the tweet and hopefully they don’t do it to anyone else again.

It is interesting how when you go back at somebody, they’ll come back and say, “Actually, Jimmie, I’m a big fan and I respect you.” And you’re like, “What?”

Totally. I’ve had that, I’ve had the tweet deleted and then people tell me how rude I was to bring this upon them and get everybody else hating on them. I’m like, “Oh no, you started this whole thing. Be a little smarter before you hit send.”

Do you ever almost tweet something and then decide not to tweet it?

Yeah, I think we’ve all had one ready to send out and we put down the phone and come back a few minutes later like, “I probably shouldn’t.” So yeah, I’ve been there quite a few times.

Where do you see social media going next? There a lot of people doing live video, there’s Facebook Stories, Instagram Stories, Snapchat, you can do Periscoping. Where do you see this evolving for you?

It seems like the unique experience on each platform is kind of gone and now all the big platforms are like, “OK, that’s kind of cool there, I’m gonna bring that into mine.” Having a presence on all (the platforms) is hard and trying to keep a consistent schedule of posts going on all those sites is important because there are people who only use certain platforms because it fits their lifestyle better.

But what’s interesting to me is looking at our sport and looking at sports in general. I read an article (last week) in the Wall Street Journal where (Amazon) has purchased the right to stream the Thursday Night Football games. On the surface it looks like a standard play — but long term, if you’re an Amazon Prime member, they’ll know your shopping habits and your buying habits and they can send strategic marketing to you while you’re watching on their platform.

So understanding how that stuff works and how it might work in our industry (is valuable). Nobody’s watching TV; it doesn’t matter if it’s sports or what, the numbers are just going down. TV ad buys have supported our lives, my life and racing. And we’re trying to convince sponsors every day that it’s all moving digital: “Here’s our numbers, here’s our presence.” You’re just trying to understand that, which I don’t think anybody does.

(Social media) has been very good for me on a social standpoint and being able to let others see my personal side and what I’m about and what my interests are, because I don’t give the best interviews at the track — I’m more focused on the job. But from a business standpoint, there’s a big business in that and I think we need to be wise in our industry to jump on that so sponsors understand that.

This week’s Social Spotlight interview is sponsored by Dover International Speedway. If you plan to attend the upcoming Dover race in June, please consider using my ticket link to make your purchase. Thanks!

Reacting to shocking Survivor controversy (SPOILERS)

Watching Wednesday night’s Survivor: Game Changers episode left me feeling a mix of disgust and hope as a controversial tribal council produced one of the most shocking moments in the show’s history.

I’m filled with admiration and respect for Zeke Smith following what was a disgusting and evil act by Jeff Varner.

Before we get to Zeke, I want to be clear: That doesn’t make Varner an evil *person* … but what he DID was malicious (as Sarah Lacina said). It was so, so wrong; he should have known better, particularly as a gay man living in North Carolina. Even though he backtracked by saying he thought it was public knowledge, Varner’s initial premise was this: Zeke was being “deceptive” by not telling the world he was a trans person.

Uh, no. It’s not being “deceptive” to keep your biggest secrets to yourself. Zeke had a right to not tell anyone, and it wasn’t Varner’s news to make public. That was really sickening to watch, and it’s no wonder Zeke said in a People.com story he’s still struggling to forgive Varner.

That said, Zeke could not have handled himself any better. Imagine being put in that position in front of millions of people (and yeah, I assume he gave CBS permission to air it, although I don’t know if he could have prevented it if they decided to do so anyway). He said all the right things and was easily the bigger person, and I have so, so much respect for Zeke as a human being.

And by the way, I think after tonight, I still will view him first as a phenomenal Survivor player more than “Zeke the trans Survivor” as he feared would be the case.

What was also very important was how the rest of the tribe reacted. Andrea’s emotions, Tai’s anger and Sarah’s strong defense and support of Zeke were so valuable for America to see.

I really hope that some good comes out of this. Let’s be honest: This is a show watched by conservatives and liberals alike, by those in middle America and those in big cities — young, old, black, white, Hispanic and everything in between. And what ultimately emerged from the shocking and dirty assault by Varner was humanity — from Zeke, from his tribemates, from Jeff Probst and, yes, even from Varner (after he realized what he’d done).

I hope Zeke can become sort of a role model for a community whose biggest spokesperson is Caitlyn Jenner (which often doesn’t seem helpful to the cause). Zeke is so damn likable that maybe he can open some eyes and change minds about something that is obviously very misunderstood.

I’m rooting for him.