News Analysis: Matt Kenseth will step away from NASCAR after this season

What happened: Matt Kenseth, in an interview with NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan, acknowledged what has seemed increasingly apparent over the last few months — that he will not race in NASCAR next season, and perhaps never again. Kenseth said there were no good opportunities to race in the Cup Series in 2018 and though he was open to a return, he didn’t “really feel it’s in the cards.” (He said a lot more than that, so you should read the interview — linked above — if you haven’t.)

What it meansThis appears to be the unsatisfying end of the road for a future Hall of Fame driver and another big blow to NASCAR. The Cup Series will now have lost Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth all within a span of three years. It’s an entire generation of star power leaving all at once.

News value (scale of 1-10): Eight. Even though people knew Kenseth was probably going to be the odd man out in Silly Season, it’s still jarring to realize this could be the end. But it’s also a relief, because now Kenseth can be celebrated for the next two weeks and his fans will have at least a brief chance to say goodbye. Although Kenseth is understated and probably doesn’t care much for recognition, it would have been sad for him to step out of the car for the final time at Homestead and just walk away without any fanfare.

Three questions: Can the NASCAR industry scramble to pay proper respect to the 2003 Cup champ in the next few weeks? Will we see Kenseth back behind the wheel at some point, or is this really it? How crazy have the economics of the sport gotten when an elite driver who can still win races can’t get a top ride for next season?

Brennan Poole on his future: ‘I don’t have anything set’

Brennan Poole’s 2018 plans were the subject of conflicting reports this week. First, Motorsport.com reported Poole was out at Chip Ganassi Racing and could be heading to Richard Childress Racing’s No. 27 car in the Cup Series. But then Chip Ganassi Racing co-owner Felix Sabates told Sirius/XM Radio the Xfinity Series driver would likely be returning to CGR next season.

So what’s the deal?

“I don’t have anything set,” Poole said via phone on Friday. “Like I don’t really have any plans. I don’t really know what’s going to happen. I haven’t really had an in-depth conversation with Ganassi. So I really just am not sure.”

Poole said he’s “definitely open to all opportunities,” but insisted he sincerely doesn’t know where he’ll be racing next season. That murky future includes whether sponsor DC Solar will continue to align with him.

“Honestly — honestly — I really don’t know,” he said. “I’ve had a great relationship with them over the past several years, but there hasn’t been any talks. So I really just don’t know.”

What the 26-year-old does know, he said, is his team has a great chance to win a championship this season — and that’s where his attention lies after three straight top-five finishes helped him breeze through the first round of the playoffs.

“I’ve certainly been flattered with everything that’s happened course of this week, and my name being out there and tossed around,” he said. “But really, I’ve just been focused on a championship this year.”

A driver whose career once seemed completely done, Poole got the opportunity to run part time in the Xfinity Series in 2015 when co-owners Harry Scott and Ganassi offered him a ride a month before the season began. His results were impressive enough to land him a full season in the series last year — when he finished eighth in points — and he then returned this season.

After a rough start, Poole has scored 10 top-10 finishes in the last 13 races and was the highest-finishing playoff driver in two of the Round 1 races.

“We didn’t have the best start to the season, but the past couple months have just been outstanding,” he said. “We’ve been bringing really fast race cars and putting ourselves in position to win. I think it shows a lot about where our team is at and how much I’ve grown as a driver.”

That’s why Poole said he “wouldn’t say I’m nervous or anything” about his 2018 plans. He’s confident that if he can go win the title, the future will take care of itself.

“I’ve got four races left to get this championship done,” he said. “We have what it takes. I’m just excited to see what’s going to happen on the track and what’s next for me.”

Landon Cassill won’t return to Front Row Motorsports, becomes free agent

At just 28 years old, Landon Cassill has already made 253 starts in the NASCAR Cup Series. If it’s possible for a Millennial to be considered a veteran driver, that’s Cassill.

But the journey will have to continue elsewhere next season. Cassill said he was informed Monday he will not return to Front Row Motorsports in 2018, and he will now begin the process of finding a new ride.

A driver with a cult following on Twitter, Cassill has been behind two popular social media campaigns during his time at Front Row. Last year, he got fans to tweet “38, nice” in honor of his car number at the time; this season, he’s been retweeting fans who take a photo at sponsor Love’s Travel Stops and say they can’t find the driver there.

Cassill said via phone call on Tuesday he was not told why he was out of a ride, other than the team was making “radical changes” for next season. In a statement to this website, the team said it was appreciative for his time there but offered no further details.

“We’re thankful for the last two years having Landon as a teammate and an ambassador for our sponsors, and we’ll keep working hard with him and the No. 34 team for the best possible results the remainder of the 2017 season,” a spokesperson said.

Cassill acknowledged he was surprised by the decision, but said “there’s no message of despair.” After getting over the initial shock, he said, there’s been a feeling of anticipation to see what else is out there.

“I’m kind of excited to see what doors open up for me,” he said. “I have a unique resume in this sport right now. I think my youth is what kind of helps stay plugged in on a social side and off-track side, and then I just have a tremendous amount of experience in the Cup Series — maybe not having the limelight of a top-notch team, but I’d like to work myself into one of those scenarios where I can showcase what I’ve learned.”

This position isn’t new for Cassill, who has driven for seven race teams in the Cup Series as well as four different teams in the Xfinity Series while making 118 starts there.

The Iowa native was originally a Hendrick Motorsports development driver but ultimately had to come up through the Cup ranks in an old-school way: Starting with start-and-park teams, then slowly climbing the ladder in the small team ranks.

His latest stop was Front Row, where he’s averaged a 26th-place finish over two seasons for a team that counts a top-25 result as a good day and a top-20 as a great one.

Along the way, he built a following of underdog-loving fans who appreciate Cassill’s savvy when it comes to the Internet culture.

“One of my big motivations right now is to succeed for all these people who are so emotionally invested in following me and see where I go and what I do,” he said. “I don’t want to let my fans down. And I say that genuinely and feel that, because I know there are fans who have stuck with me for a long time. I feel a sense of responsibility for them as much as I do my own family that I have to provide for.”

Cassill said he would be open to talking to anyone across NASCAR’s three national series (“I don’t turn down any phone calls when I’m in these situations,” he said) but would prefer to land somewhere that has a “road map for me to continue to grow my success.”

“I’ve had a lot of things in my career where my hard work has paid off and put me in positions to keep myself in the business, and I don’t really plan on stopping that at all,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in myself in how I do things to go about being a professional race car driver that I don’t think will change. I think for me this is just another chapter in my career and my life.

“It’s tough, because sometimes these changes are the best things for opening doors, but they’re the hardest thing in the moment. That’s probably what my family and I are going to be dealing with right now.”

 

News Analysis: Smithfield leaves Richard Petty Motorsports for Stewart-Haas Racing

What happened: In a Tuesday morning Facebook post, Smithfield said it will leave Richard Petty Motorsports and join Stewart-Haas Racing next season. On Sunday, Lee Spencer of Motorsport.com reported Smithfield backed out of a handshake deal to return to RPM’s No. 43 car next season after the team proposed it hire Bubba Wallace to replace Aric Almirola. Richard Petty later confirmed the sponsor broke its handshake agreement. A desire for increased competitiveness resulted in Smithfield moving to SHR, which said in a statement the move will come with a “driver who will be added to SHR’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series lineup.” EDIT: In a statement later Tuesday afternoon, RPM said Almirola will not return to the team.

What it means: While it’s nice SHR found a high-paying sponsor for one of its cars to go along with a new driver, the immediate focus will be on RPM’s future. This is a devastating loss for the No. 43, as the team thought Smithfield was set to return next season. It’s mid-September and RPM doesn’t have a sponsor for most of its 2018 races — and likely hasn’t been looking for one if it believed Smithfield would be back. This could put RPM in serious jeopardy as an organization, since it now must scramble to find funding in order to compete next season. As for SHR, it’s unclear which driver could end up with the team — but we now know the lineup will indeed change for next season. Danica Patrick has said her return to the No. 10 car is based on sponsorship, while SHR previously said it intends to retain free agent Kurt Busch in 2018.

News value (scale of 1-10): Seven. Spencer’s reporting took the surprise out of this news, but it’s still very significant in terms of RPM’s future. If Smithfield’s move results in the No. 43 car not being on the track in some form next season, it’s a pretty major story for NASCAR. In addition, the SHR piece of this will play into Silly Season news with an unspecified driver movement.

Three questions: Will Almirola be able to go with Smithfield to SHR, or does this mean a free agent like Matt Kenseth will get that seat? Can RPM find enough sponsorship to run a full schedule in 2018? Will there be Subway-like backlash toward Smithfield, or will fans view this as a business decision and be OK with it?

News Analysis: Reports say William Byron to drive Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 car

What happened: William Byron, age 19, will be named as the driver of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 car starting in 2018, according to (in order of reporting) SportsBusiness Journal, SBNation.com and Motorsport.com. The team has not officially announced the move (and I haven’t personally confirmed it, but I don’t doubt those who have). Byron, who grew up playing NASCAR video games but did not start racing until five years ago, will replace Kasey Kahne, whose departure from Hendrick was announced Monday. The racing prodigy is currently a rookie in the Xfinity Series, where he is second in points with three wins for JR Motorsports — this following his seven wins last season for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series.

What it means: The face of Hendrick Motorsports has been dramatically altered in the last few years. Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne (combined 137 Cup victories) have been replaced with Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and Byron (combined zero Cup victories), who have an average age of 21.3. Byron will now be a full-time Cup driver after just one year each in Trucks and Xfinity — and that seems like an awfully quick move, similar to the rapid ascents of Joey Logano and Kyle Larson. Byron is unquestionably talented, but it would have been nice to see him run another full season of Xfinity before getting promoted to Cup — something even Jimmie Johnson indicated last month. “At his age, I just don’t want to be in too big of a hurry to move him up,” Johnson told a small group of reporters at New Hampshire. “If you look back at past history, like a Joey Logano scenario, it just takes time. I feel so lucky I didn’t get my Cup start until I was 25. … I think I was just in a better place than the position some of these young guys are put in. They’re super talented, it’s just a lot of pressure to put on those guys.”

News value (scale of 1-10): Eight. Even if Byron was the likely replacement after the team said Kahne was out, it’s still quite noteworthy that Hendrick continues to use young and relatively inexperienced drivers to fill its seasons considering veteran drivers like Matt Kenseth are on the free agent market. It wasn’t long ago that Hendrick was the most sought-after destination for established drivers who had already won many races. Now the seats are being snatched up by drivers who are unproven at the Cup level. Dale Earnhardt Jr. shed some light on why this might be the case for Silly Season in general, and it makes sense again in this scenario.

Three questions: Can Byron continue to immediately adapt and win at the next level, as he has done in each series along the way up the ladder? Since it turned out OK for Logano and Larson in the long run, what are the real risks of moving him up too soon? Who will replace Byron at JRM now that he will be vacating a championship-caliber seat in the Xfinity Series?

Related: Here are my 12 Questions interviews with Byron from 2016 and from 2017.

 

News Analysis: Kasey Kahne out at Hendrick Motorsports

What happened: Kasey Kahne will not return to Hendrick Motorsports in 2018, the team announced Monday morning. Though Kahne had a contract with Hendrick through next year, the team chose to release the Brickyard 400 winner and go with a yet-to-be-determined driver for the No. 5 car next season. Kahne is now a free agent and can sign with another team for 2018.

What it means: This is the inevitable divorce of a marriage that had been on the rocks for some time. When Kahne arrived at Hendrick, both he and the team had sky-high hopes. The driver, who once won six races in a season, even spent a year at Red Bull waiting for Mark Martin to vacate the No. 5. But despite two wins in each of his first two seasons at Hendrick, Kahne never found his footing there. He had just three top-five finishes in each of the last three years and missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. And as it turned out, his recent Indianapolis win and subsequent playoff berth this season wasn’t enough to save his job at Hendrick. But you know what? That’s not a bad thing. Kahne has long needed a fresh start with a team that believes in him — and vice versa — to give him a chance to regularly win again in the Cup Series. It’s been hard to watch Kahne struggle so much in the last few years, but perhaps this means there are brighter days ahead. After all, he’s only 37 and drivers don’t seem to start declining until their early 40s. Kahne is still capable of racking up a few wins per season if he finds the right team.

News value (scale of 1-10): Five. Fitting, right? But seriously, this lands as about average news because it’s something most people anticipated but is still noteworthy when it actually went down. If Kahne’s replacement had been named in the same announcement, it would have been much higher on the scale.

Three questions: Does this mean William Byron will be in the No. 5 next year, or will Hendrick look to a veteran like Matt Kenseth to fill the seat? What are the chances Kahne could end up in another top ride, such as the vacancy at Stewart-Haas Racing or Furniture Row Racing? Will this decision being made public alleviate any pressure on Kahne and allow him to make a run in the playoffs?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. explains economics of 2017 Silly Season

Leave it to Dale Earnhardt Jr. to perfectly explain why this year’s Silly Season seems so crazy.

Unproven Alex Bowman was named as Earnhardt’s replacement in the No. 88 and former champions Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch are currently free agents. Eighteen-time race winner Kasey Kahne may be on the hot seat, too.

So what the hell is going on? Well, it all comes down to driver salaries.

Here’s Earnhardt talking about the economics of NASCAR today at Watkins Glen:

“You’ve got more drivers coming in being offered — and accepting — contracts that are a fifth to a tenth of what veterans are getting paid. And that’s money that can go into the team. These sponsors aren’t giving teams the money they used to, so everybody’s got to take a little cut. Everybody’s got to dial it back. Everybody’s got to realize they’ve got to accept some of that difference.

“You’ve got a guy who you think has got a lot of talent, very young, lot of potential — and a veteran who is established but he wants three, four, five, six times the amount of money. I mean, you’re going to go with a younger guy because it’s a better deal financially.

“It took awhile, but when we had our major reset (financially) — the trickle-down effect is coming through the drivers’ contracts and making a big difference into the decisions these owners are making. You can’t pay a driver $5 to $8 million a year if you ain’t got but $10 million a year in sponsorship. You can’t. That ain’t gonna work. (Owners) aren’t getting $20, $30, $40 million a year on sponsorship.

“Drivers sort of have to understand that change is coming down the pipe. If it hasn’t happened to ’em yet, it’s going to happen to them. And the young guys, they don’t know any better. They’re taking a nickel to race. They’re taking whatever they can get.”

“That’s a shift that’s going to be better for the sport. Get those salaries in a realistic range for how much money we have from corporate America.”