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Track Smack: Is Kenseth contender or pretender?

May 19, 2011, ,

Up for debate: Raikkonen's expectations, simmering feuds igniting at Charlotte

1. Having won for the second time this season, is Matt Kenseth being underrated as a potential Sprint Cup championship contender?

Jarrod Breeze: Matt Kenseth is always underrated, much because is he so unassuming. That being said, it's going to take more than a couple of early wins to put him in the "title contender" category. He just hasn't shown enough consistency to be highly considered at this point. Kenseth hasn't reach 20 top-10s in a season since 2008, and double digits in top-fives since 2007. Until he can return to that level, he is nothing more than just a passing thought.

David Caraviello: Yes. I know the guy's won twice this season, but I still don't think the fan base views him in the same light as say, Jimmie Johnson or Carl Edwards or Kyle Busch, guys who have been at or near the top of the points all year. I think that nearly two-year winless skid that Kenseth snapped at Texas in April is difficult to shake. Now, can he win it -- of course he can. If you can win two races by this point, you can put yourself in the mix for the title. I think he has another step to take for some fans to make that connection, though.

Jill Erwin: Matt Kenseth doesn't get a lot of headlines. He's not a smack-talker (or Smack-talker)and he doesn't get into too many confrontations. So he's never the most talked-about guy, he's never the conflict du jour, and he's never the most feared guy on the track. But let's not confuse that with underrated. No one I know thinks he's less than capable of winning this title. He's mature, he runs well, he stays out of trouble ... and as we've seen, that means as much as, if not more than, trips to Victory Lane.

David Caraviello: Actually, Matt did Smack with us once a few years ago. It was very memorable. I believe he called Joe Menzer something I cannot repeat.

Jill Erwin: He can join the club on that one. But if we're talking about fans, there are two guys who can win the title: Jimmie, and their driver.

Jarrod Breeze: NASCAR is all about consistency. Always has been and even in today's Chase world, always will be. Change the system. Change the points. But you can't change how a champion is crowned.

Jill Erwin: JB with the smack down! I love it. I'm not saying he's a front-runner for the trophy. The Roush Fenway cars are better this year than they were last season, and Kenseth is a guy who doesn't waste a good car. You're not going to see him taking uncalculated risks. And that matters in the Chase.

David Caraviello: Whoa, JB opening with a bold statement. And a rash one too, probably. Sure, Kenseth won at Dover because of a tire gamble. The only laps he led were the ones after that final pit sequence. The three guys who dominated the event, Johnson, Edwards and Clint Bowyer, got shuffled back. But remember Texas? Kenseth kicked everyone's butt there. He was out front the whole race. Maybe that portends something when the circuit returns to 1.5- mile intermediate tracks.

Final Laps

When it came down to tire strategy the past two weeks, both Regan Smith and Matt Kenseth bucked the trend to take the checkers.

Jill Erwin: And, David, what tracks make up the majority of the Chase?

David Caraviello: Ex-actly.

Jarrod Breeze: Remember, Kenseth is one of the reasons for today's playoff format, his remarkable consistency the reason he won the 2003 championship. He just doesn't seem have that consistency anymore.

David Caraviello: But JB, the guy hit a skid. A lot of drivers do. Carl Edwards had a long winless streak until late last year. Kyle missed the Chase once. Only Jimmie has been impervious to this stuff. And Kenseth has been a fairly consistent guy for most of his career. You're right, his 2003 championship season, which in many minds became the impetus behind the Chase, is a hallmark of that. Can he run off a streak of top-10s? Absolutely. He's done it before. I think he can do it again.

Jill Erwin: JB, not arguing Kenseth hasn't run as well as he has in the past ,and I don't think he'd argue it either. But Roush Fenway as a group has struggled, and you can't write that off. That was a massive fallback by what had been a top-contending team. The power's back, and I just don't see Kenseth as the guy to make stupid mistakes or banzai moves or anything else. He plugs along, gets his finishes, keeps his car clean, and shows up in the top 10 at the end of the year. That's just who he is.

Jarrod Breeze: Right now, does anyone believe anyone who drives a Ford is a legitimate championship contender? Even Carl Edwards? He makes more splashes because he keeps himself in the news.

Jill Erwin: I think Carl is very legitimate as a title contender. And Kenseth too. Greg Biffle needs some help, and David Ragan ... well, yeah.

David Caraviello: Jarrod, I don't think Carl Edwards is a championship contender. I think he is the championship favorite at this point. As for fans -- I think Kenseth has many more fans than they let on. I think they're like his driver, kind of quiet and willing to let the performance on the track do the talking for them. You go into the deep Midwest, places like Chicagoland and Michigan -- that's Kenseth country. They come out in force. He gets huge support up there. I wouldn't sell him short in the fan category, even if his fans maybe aren't as boisterous as some others.

Jill Erwin: I wasn't doubting his fan base. I was just saying when you talked about "the fan base" early on that as a group, NASCAR fans are very loyal. You're either with them, or you're against them (and their driver).

Jarrod Breeze: Kenseth will plug right along -- he will make the Chase and finish about fifth or sixth in final points. Nothing more, nothing less. As our buddy Chris Stanfield might say, it is what it is. I don't expect anyone to go out on that limb with me. I'm too heavy for that, anyway. I just don't believe in Ford, or Roush Fenway. It's more an indictment on them than it is Kenseth.

David Caraviello: I think JB got some bad Wisconsin cheese and is taking it out on the pride of Cambridge.

Jill Erwin: Well, I know who's getting the most hate mail this week. Put a filter on your e-mail, JB.

Jarrod Breeze: No doubt Kenseth is one of the better drivers in NASCAR. But sometimes you need a little more. I don't check my e-mail anyway.

David Caraviello: Where does this come from, Jarrod? I'm not trying to start a Ford commercial here or anything -- who am I, Mike Rowe? -- but you look at what Edwards and Kenseth have done, how can you discount them from the big picture? I mean, only three guys have won multiple times this year, and Matt is one of them. And Carl has been the most consistent driver of the season to this point. It's not early anymore. This is likely how strong they're going to be for the rest of the year.

Jarrod Breeze: I'm going on recent past history. And Ford hasn't been up to par with Chevrolet, or with the Gibbs Toyotas. Yes, the new engine has breathed new life for the make and its teams, but I need more of a sample size than 11 races.

Jill Erwin: I get the point, from fans especially, that consistency is boring. They don't want a guy to run seventh all year and points-race himself to the title. But now Kenseth has won like one-fifth of the races this year. What has the guy got to do to get some credit? Side note: I never expected Matt Freaking Kenseth to draw this type of spirited debate. I love Smack.

Matt Kenseth

Season statistics (through Dover)
No. RaceStartFinishPoints.Standing Pos.Laps/Total
2Subway Fresh Fit 50024123323312 / 312
3Kobalt Tools 4001113416267 / 267
4Jeff Byrd 5001144013500 / 500
5Auto Club 4001144010200 / 200
6Goody's Fast Relief 500246389500 / 500
7Samsung Mobile 50041483334 / 334
8Aaron's 499253698139 / 188
9Crown Royal 4003321249398 / 400
10Showtime Southern 50020251910366 / 370
11FedEx 400 241476400 / 400

2. Former Formula One champion Kimi Raikkonen makes his Camping World Truck Series debut Friday at Charlotte. What's a reasonable goal for him?

Jarrod Breeze: To stay out of serious contenders' ways. Anyone else tiring of drivers from other racing disciplines dabbling in NASCAR?

Jill Erwin: That's such a tough question. In some ways, more will be expected because of his resume. But the change from what he's driven to a truck at Charlotte is massive. I'd say "reasonable" is to stay out of the way, keep it off the wall, and get at least halfway through the race. Finishing it would be above expectations, to me.

David Caraviello: Finish (or shall I say Finnish?) the race. I think the guy is going to be way fast in qualifying -- Kyle Busch, who owns the truck Kimi will drive Friday, tells us he and Raikkonen were turning comparative lap times in a test. So I don't think there's any question the guy knows how to go fast. But leaning and rubbing on one another like the trucks do? That's going to be a new world. Rolling at the end would be a good way to get started. Finishing on the lead lap would be even better. Anything beyond that would be a real surprise.

Jill Erwin: JB, not tired of them "dabbling" but tired of hearing that every time someone else comes over they're a sign of how NASCAR is impacting racing elsewhere. I love that NASCAR's getting some new blood. Don't get me wrong. But they can't all be saviors.

Jarrod Breeze: Wasn't there a best friend on Full House named Kimi?

Jill Erwin: Kimmy Gibler! But seeing Kimi's hair, he's much more Uncle Jesse.

Jarrod Breeze: Is it so much that NASCAR is impacting other racing elsewhere, or that these guys who are so highly successful think NASCAR can be as easy?

Warm welcome

Truck Series director Wayne Auton knows his role is to make sure rookie Kimi Raikkonen is comfortable at Charlotte.

David Caraviello: JB, I'm with you there. I get how NASCAR eagerly welcomes there drivers from other disciplines as proof of its status in the racing world. But it does seem too often that NASCAR, because of the sheer number of national-series rides available, becomes something of a retirement plan for drivers who run out of options in the open-wheel field. That's why I have so much respect for guys like Juan Montoya, A.J. Allmendinger, and even Sam Hornish Jr., all of whom made the leap when they were at or near their peak in open-wheel racing.

Jarrod Breeze: Doesn't NASCAR already have enough back-fillers? Of course, these guys, and gal, in Danica Parick's case, are headline-fillers. And isn't that what it's really about. Unfortunately, what better way to drum up excitement on a Friday night before All-Star activities the following day than to talk about Kimi for 200 or so miles, before Kyle wins.

Jill Erwin: I'll let the Juan comment slide, DC2. But NASCAR needs/craves a good breakthrough from someone. They need new blood. And rather than hoping that they can bring someone up through Trucks and Nationwide, they're trying to rely on others with star power in their series to come inject the same into NASCAR.

David Caraviello: Well, we'll see. I think of guys like Max Papis and Patrick Carpentier, who bleed to make it in NASCAR, and wonder what this sport would be like if young, American -- and in some cases, too entitled -- drivers had the same attitude. If Kimi comes in with that mindset, he'll be fine. But I don't think any of us really know what his intentions are yet in this series.

Jarrod Breeze: Since this recent push of open-wheelers began a few years back, Montoya has been the most successful. But here we are, still waiting for him to win on an oval. What does that say?

Jill Erwin: It says it's not as easy as you seemed to intimate earlier. Sure, it's stepping on the gas and turning left. But the cars are so different, and the downforce, and the handling, and everything else ... it's not an easy move to make.

David Caraviello: Montoya has won twice on the premier series, has made the Chase, and is on track to make it again. That's a successful transition in my book. He could have won twice at the Brickyard but didn't. He's been competitive everywhere. The oval win will come. He has nothing to prove to anyone.

Jarrod Breeze: My point exactly. It's not easy.

David Caraviello: No question. Do some of these open-wheel expats think it's going to be easier than it is? Maybe. You could certainly ask Dario Franchitti that question. The fact that Kimi is already asking Kyle about Cup opportunities before he even makes his first truck start raises an eyebrow, to be honest. But maybe the Iceman will go out there Friday and shock us all.

Jill Erwin: I think the key, really, is what David said. He's going to be in great equipment, and he's shown he can go fast. But we don't really know anything about him, or his intentions, or his goals quite yet. We'll know a little more after Friday.

Jarrod Breeze: Doubtful.

David Caraviello: JB is in a doubting mood today. All the NASCAR fans from Wisconsin to Helsinki are going to be after him with pitchforks.

Jill Erwin: JB took some bitter pills with his Wisconsin cheese, apparently. Someone's Mr. Darkside today!

Jarrod Breeze: Wait until question No. 3.

David Caraviello: Well then, with that kind of buildup, let's not hesitate ....

3. Finally, it's All-Star Race week. No points on the line. Perfect time for Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch to reignite their simmering feud?

Jarrod Breeze: Let me start out by asking another question. Has anyone ever broken probation, as it is? What is the punishment for guys on probation if they do something NASCAR deems wrong?

David Caraviello: Double-secret probation?

Jill Erwin: To answer the original question, heck no. Probation still counts, and if they blow it on a chance to not hurt the other guys in the points, then that's a wasted opportunity. And that's assuming "probation" means anything, about which I'm not sure. As our boy Menzer wrote in his column Monday, this is far from over. But I don't think it will rear its head again until the probation runs out in the middle of next month.

David Caraviello: I don't know. Evidently Charlotte Motor Speedway is pitching a potential resumption of hostilities as part of its advertising campaign, but hey, tracks do crazy things to try and sell tickets. As for whether these guys are really going to go after one another on Saturday ... you'd have to say it's doubtful. Probation does cover this All-Star Race, even though it's a non-points event, so the eyes in the sky will be watching.

Jill Erwin: Lord, David, if we based what we thought would happen based on ad campaigns, we'd assume everyone was going to break out in a garage-wide brawl every time they go to Texas. Bruton Smith and his boys love playing up conflict to sell tickets, and bless them for it. But I still think it's a mistake to waste payback in a non-points event.

Jarrod Breeze: And does the probation count over all the series, or just in Cup? If Cup only, then there's a bigger chance this will boil over in Truck or Nationwide. But I don't see much happening in the All-Star Race. It's always billed as no points, but I haven't really seen a difference in the way drivers race in that than they will when 550 miles of the 600 have been completed.

David Caraviello: I believe it does cover all national-series events. Listen, there's no rush on this. Darlington was the continuation of a spat that started at Homestead, for goodness' sake. These things can be rather drawn out. Now, if something is going to happen Saturday, it's got to be real smooth. It's got to be one of those "racing incidents" everyone talks about, or at least look like it. Surely NASCAR can't hammer these guys for any kind of contact if they're around each other Saturday night. Then again, they did seem to steer clear of one another at Dover.

Jill Erwin: If they can avoid each other at Dover, they can do it at Charlotte. Especially with a smaller field. I don't think they'll avoid each other, at all, but I just don't think it will be the kind of response we'll see later in the season.

Jarrod Breeze: I don't think Busch or Harvick will ever be further penalized for whatever on-track contact may happen in the future. Unless it is overwhelmingly obvious (see Edwards, Carl, at Atlanta, circa 2010).

David Caraviello: But what violates probation? If Harvick is running first in the final laps and Busch does the bump-and-run to get by him and win, does the long arm of the law come down? What if they do a lot of door-to-door banging in traffic? There are plenty of ways for these guys to get into each other under the regular conditions of the race, which I would think NASCAR would see as incidental. Then again, it comes down to intent, and whether they want to be around each other. I wouldn't be surprised if this simmered until summer, when somebody made the next move at a convenient time.

Jarrod Breeze: It was the drivers' antics on pit road after the race that got them in hot water.

Showcase showdown

All-Stars will be the center of attention at Charlotte as Trucks open with their ninth race at the track and the Nationwide Series closes the weekend at Iowa.

David Caraviello: Very true, Jarrod. So are they free to bang on each other at will in the race? Hey, that might be fun.

Jill Erwin: David, exactly. I think they'll definitely bump each other, and have some conflicts, but I just don't see a blatant dump job.

Jarrod Breeze: Much like in baseball, when pitchers are warned for throwing at batters, intent is hard to prove. Busting Harvick or Busch for bump-and-run incidents that are commonplace in NASCAR will be very hard to deem intentional (for harmful purposes). Oops, I shouldn't compare NASCAR to baseball. This isn't stick-and-ball.

Jill Erwin: Good thing there's no Ford driver in this discussion. JB would dismiss him out of hand.

David Caraviello: But it doesn't take a blatant dump job. Just being in the same ZIP code with one another will make people stand up and take notice. If there's contact -- oh, goodness, watch out. It doesn't have to be deliberate, doesn't have to be obvious for it to engage the folks in the grandstands.

Jill Erwin: Well that's a different discussion altogether. I do think the fans will be watching, and wanting more. And I think they'll do enough to keep them engaged. It's just not the "perfect time" to reignite the feud.

David Caraviello: Best-case scenario for Charlotte is these guys qualifying right next to each other, to ramp up the tension over what might happen.

Jill Erwin: Undoubtedly. The idea of conflict is almost always more intriguing than what actually ends up happening.

Jarrod Breeze: Ryan Newman and Juan Montoya anyone? Anyone? How soon we forget. Of course, no post-race fists-a-flying and cars-a-rolling-with-no-drivers to amp up the situation.

David Caraviello: Hey, these things tend to get quiet for a while before they flare up again. Kind of like Jarrod when it comes to hammering Ford or former F1 drivers. He'll stay quiet until about July, and then come at 'em again. Smackers, have at it!

Jill Erwin: I hope JB is on Smack the week before Indy for Travis Pastrana's Nationwide debut.

David Caraviello: Just wait until you hear what he thinks about former motorcycle guys!

Jarrod Breeze: Kimi Pastrana. I can't hardly wait.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.