Richmond News Roundup: Day 1

Here’s a quick roundup of what drivers were talking about Friday at Richmond International Raceway:

Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave a couple more hints about what he might want to do in the future (coughTVcough).

“Obviously I enjoyed my fun in the booth (as a guest analyst),” he said. “If that’s an opportunity for me, I’m certainly going to have those conversations to find out.”

He added: “One of the people that I really respected a lot was Benny Parsons (who was also a well-known TV analyst in addition to his driving career). I thought that he left as important of a mark outside the car as he did inside the car. Whatever mark I can leave, I would love to be able to be as big an asset to the sport as I can be beyond driving.”

— The speculation about a possible Carl Edwards return still won’t go away, so I asked his former Denny Hamlin — who is very good at predictions — to estimate the odds of a Carl comeback.

“I would just be guessing, but I would say 50 percent,” Hamlin said. “Carl is a competitor. At his age (37), I’d find it hard to believe that he would just step away and not do it ever again. I think him leaving the window open in his press conference to say he’s not retiring, he’s just stepping away, I think it depends.”

Hamlin then cracked a smile.

“Has anyone found out whether he’s having a good time right now or not?” he said. “I think that would tell the story about whether he’s interested in coming back or not. From what I hear from all the retired drivers, it’s awesome for like a few months — then you kind of get bored a little bit.”

Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski both were noncommittal when answering questions about the status of their contracts and whether they would be interested in replacing Earnhardt in the No. 88 car.

Larson, who is believed to have a contract with Chip Ganassi Racing beyond this year, would not say there was zero possibility of him leaving the team when asked.

“Oh, I’d have to talk to Chip before I came out in public about anything that serious,” he said. “So I won’t talk about anything like that because I don’t even know if I’m allowed to or not. I know Jamie (McMurray) is very secret about all his stuff. But I don’t know.”

Keselowski, speaking to a small group of reporters later in the day, wouldn’t say whether he is working on a contract extension with Team Penske (“There’s some stuff going on, but I’m not (able) to mention it in detail”).

And of any interest of returning to Hendrick Motorsports, where he began his Cup career on a partial schedule, to drive the 88?

“Do I have to have a yes or a no?” he said with a laugh. “It’s a Hendrick car, which by nature means it’s going to be one of the best cars available for a long period of time. But I would also say the car I’m in is one of the best available, and the team I’m with, I have a lot of equity in. So I’m pretty darn happy where I’m at. But I’ve learned in this world to never say no (definitively).”

Matt Kenseth won the pole for Richmond, followed by Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano.

It’s Kenseth’s first No. 1 starting spot since Kansas last fall and his seventh consecutive season with at least one pole — this after failing to get a pole in eight of his first 11 seasons.

Austin Dillon crew chief Slugger Labbe was kept back in North Carolina by Richard Childress Racing after the team failed the laser inspection station five times at Bristol last week. Operations director Sammy Johns is crew-chiefing for Dillon this weekend instead.

Dillon lost his pit selection for this week and had to start in the back as part of the inspection penalty.

There were also a host of teams that lost practice time due to Texas and Bristol infractions, including a 30-minute penalty for both Kenseth and Logano for swerving after the race.

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?

2017 NASCAR Playoff Picks

Here are my picks for the 2017 NASCAR Cup playoffs (alphabetical order):

  • Clint Bowyer
  • Kurt Busch
  • Kyle Busch
  • Austin Dillon
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  • Chase Elliott
  • Denny Hamlin
  • Kevin Harvick
  • Jimmie Johnson
  • Kasey Kahne
  • Matt Kenseth
  • Brad Keselowski
  • Kyle Larson
  • Joey Logano
  • Jamie McMurray
  • 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 clueless as to why Carl Edwards quit racing

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.