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?
Here are my picks for the 2017 NASCAR Cup playoffs (alphabetical order):
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Martin Truex Jr.
A few expanded predictions:
— Clint Bowyer will get back to his old competitive self after joining Stewart-Haas Racing. By September, any hiccups SHR has in the transition to Ford will be forgotten.
— Four Toyotas will make it, but rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez will barely miss out because of a few late-race mistakes.
— All four Hendrick drivers will be in the playoff, including Kasey Kahne after his best season in several years. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will finish the regular season within the top 10 in points.
— Both Chip Ganassi Racing drivers will be in and Kyle Larson will win two times in the regular season.
— Austin Dillon will win his first Cup race by late August.
— Overall, Hendrick Motorsports will be the best team in the regular season (with Jimmie Johnson having the most wins), followed by Team Penske. Joe Gibbs Racing will experience a slight drop-off after two great years, just part of the usual cycle in racing.
— I hate leaving Ryan Blaney out, but I’m not a Blaney detractor. I picked him to make it last year, and it’s certainly possible he could have a great year.
— Joey Logano will win his first championship in 2017.
Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards have been fairly tight the last few years, with their infamous Martinsville altercation buried long ago.
But even Kenseth says he’s still not sure why Edwards stepped away from racing — this despite speaking with Edwards on the phone about it.
“I called him and asked him (why) straight out, and when I hung up, it was probably less clear than before I picked (the phone) up,” Kenseth said. “I tried to listen to what he was saying, I tried to listen to what he wasn’t saying and I didn’t really come up with anything.”
Kenseth said he had no idea Edwards was thinking of leaving until Joe Gibbs put all the drivers and crew chiefs on a conference call together on a Sunday night — which was the first time that had ever happened in Kenseth’s tenure with Joe Gibbs Racing.
“(Gibbs) told us about it then, and I guess the announcement was (the next) Wednesday,” Kenseth said. “That was the first time I heard about it, and I was very, very surprised.”
But Kenseth said after thinking about it more, he wasn’t totally shocked — because that’s sort of Edwards’ nature.
The AP’s Jenna Fryer asked why that is.
“Carl has always been his own guy, right?” Kenseth said. “He kind of does his own thing, and if he decided that’s what he needed to do at the time, it doesn’t shock me he actually went through with it.”
Below: Matt Kenseth cracks jokes in a sarcastic press conference.