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Track Smack: Kenseth conspiracy theories, surprise contenders

June 28, 2012, ,

Topics: 2003 champ's future, upset winners and Stewart duplicators

1. Matt Kenseth is parting ways with Roush Fenway Racing after this season. Where will the 2003 series champion end up?

Joe Menzer: I think the most obvious answer is Joe Gibbs Racing. I think they likely will either add a fourth team -- or Joey Logano still is possibly in trouble despite running well, and even winning a Cup race, as of late. I would lean toward them adding a fourth team and bringing Kenseth into the JGR fold that way.

Jill Erwin: To me, the wild card in all this is the legislation that's floating out there about the use of military funds for athletic sponsorship. I think Stewart-Haas is the game-changer. The team can't double in size in one offseason, and I don't think they're willing to put Danica Patrick on hold for another year. But if sponsorship doesn't come through for Ryan Newman, whose deal is up this year, I wouldn't be stunned to see Kenseth go to SHR. But yes, Joe's right -- got that out of the way early -- JGR is the easy pick.

David Caraviello: Well, isn't this going to be an interesting one? It all depends on where the rides are, right? Or should I say where the sponsored rides are. Given the sponsorship situation he faced at Roush, I would think Kenseth would want something with solid backing, and all signs there point to the Gibbs shop. But stranger things have happened -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Hendrick, anyone? -- so I think it might be short-sighted to pencil him in at one place.

* Kenseth out at RFR in 2013 | Next deal already in place

Joe Menzer: So where does he go? To me, it just doesn't seem like there are that many viable options outside of JGR. And thanks, Jill, for agreeing with me so early -- and rather unexpectedly -- in this Smack session.

Jill Erwin: I think if he ends up at JGR and the team keeps Logano, Kenseth is in the Home Depot ride and JoLo gets the fourth ride with whatever sponsorship comes along. I have heard that GameStop is possibly interested in moving from Nationwide to Cup, so that would be a perfect match.

Joe Menzer: Yes, it would. Now I agree with you, Jill.

Jill Erwin: Kumbaya.

David Caraviello: Jill, I think the odds of Kenseth ending up at Stewart-Haas are about the same as me eating Cincinnati-style chili. Stewart wants Newman back in the 39 car -- he's been fairly candid about that much, and how it's just a matter of lining up the package to put around him. For Matt to end up at Stewart-Haas, Newman would have to leave to go somewhere else. And where would that be? He's a solid driver, but I don't know if he'd have Kenseth's options. Lots of potential dominoes in play here.

Jill Erwin: Don't you tempt me with Skyline discussions. I've already asked Joe to send me some back from his trip to Kentucky Speedway.

David Caraviello: Tempt? More like repel. Isn't that stuff really just spaghetti sauce anyway?

Matt Kenseth

Career Cup stats

Joe Menzer: Let me clarify that I only agreed with the part of Jill's argument where Kenseth ends up at JGR and Logano stays in a fourth car with a different sponsor. GameStop makes the most sense. That SHR stuff is wild conspiracy stuff. Let me also clarify that if you don't like Skyline Chili, well, you just aren't much of an American.

Jill Erwin: You take that back, David Caraviello! You do not want to anger Cincinnatians. And what good is Track Smack without a little old-fashioned conspiracy theory action?

David Caraviello: I will admit that when the news first broke, my immediate thought was Penske. They're going to Ford, and AJ Allmendinger is on a one-year deal and having an unspectacular season in the 22 car. Boy, would Kenseth fit in perfectly in one of those white Penske shirts. But then Ford Racing boss Jamie Allison released a statement that basically said goodbye and good luck, and would he do that if there were any chance of Kenseth remaining in the blue oval camp?

Joe Menzer: And now I have to agree with you, Chili-Hater, much as I hate to. That surprised me as well -- again pointing everything to JGR.

Jill Erwin: Yeah, the Allison statement was an eye-opener to me too. But then again, it's not like he could say "Let's see what shakes out with the Ford teams!" when it's obviously not Roush, and no one else has any rides open. So I think he said what he said, and it's likely goodbye, but I don't think it's the end.

David Caraviello: So, does that mean Penske is willing to give Allmendinger another year? Or they feel Sam Hornish Jr. is ready to make the step back up to Sprint Cup if they feel it's time to make a change? Roger loves him some Sam, and Hornish is an in-house option. Hornish and Allmendinger are both very capable drivers who could win races at NASCAR's top level. But honestly, neither of those guys is Matt Kenseth.

Jill Erwin: I will say I agreed with our esteemed Mr. Caraviello on one point in his column on Tuesday: Matt Kenseth is entirely too smart to be doing this without a net. Whatever is going to happen is well on its way to happening, or we wouldn't be having this conversation right now.

Joe Menzer: Let me throw this out there, though. Andrew Murstein is loaded and has been wanting to build Richard Petty Motorsports into more of a mega-team. They've run better lately as a two-car team. What if they switch to Dodge and Kenseth ends up with them? Not out of the realm of endless possibilities. Taking my point further, what if both RPM and Earnhardt Ganassi switch to Dodge -- and Dodge lays the world at Matt Kenseth's feet? He could go to either of those teams under that scenario and be the main man for that manufacturer.

David Caraviello: Who's spinning the wild conspiracy theories now?

Jill Erwin: Wow. EGR? There isn't enough world to lay at my feet if I'm Matt Kenseth to put me with that team until there's at least a little consistency to show for it.

Joe Menzer: Really? I think the right amount of money might make you -- or anyone -- reconsider.

Jill Erwin: Right, but think about it from Matt Kenseth's position. He's not a guy who has ever struck me as being money hungry. I don't think he's going to go to the highest bidder, results be damned. He's getting older, he's looking at his legacy, and he wants a second (or more) Cup title. There are things that are more important than money, Joe Menzer.

Joe Menzer: Well, I still say JGR makes the most sense. But we would be fools not to think there very well might be other players in this. And if there are, who could they be? There just aren't that many teams who could pull something off to land Matt Kenseth. And like y'all said, he doesn't let this announcement slip out if he doesn't have a safety net already pretty much in place.

David Caraviello: OK, what if EGR and RPM merge, and they switch manufacturers to Audi, and they hire Chad Knaus ... nah, not going to happen. Everybody else has crept out there on a thin limb today, so just wanted to fit in.

-- Check out Matt Kenseth's season highlights:

2. Kurt Busch finished third in the Sprint Cup race at Sonoma. Nelson Piquet Jr. won the Nationwide event at Road America. Who has the best chance of a similar surprise in this weekend's tripleheader at Kentucky?

Jill Erwin: I mean, there's only been one Cup race at Kentucky, so it's hard to know what's a "surprise" there. I guess it would be anyone other than defending champ Kyle Busch. I do think Joey Logano could ride his recent success and transfer that Nationwide dominance he had until last year on over to the Cup side ... but is that really a surprise?

Joe Menzer: Hmmm. This is a good question. I'm going to say out of the three races to be run at Kentucky, we might have one surprise winner. Maybe someone in the Truck race.

Follow your favorite driver's chance of winning this week's race and making the Chase.

David Caraviello: Ah, you have to love road courses. More turns, more actions, interesting results. We've all been talking about how Piquet was ready to break through; we just didn't think it would be in the Nationwide Series. And what Kurt did Sunday was one of the more impressive feats of his career, even if he did finish third and Clint Bowyer won. As for potential surprises at Kentucky, perhaps look to the Truck Series, which has had a different winner every race. Can Piquet do it again, but in his regular vehicle? Although I guess him winning wouldn't exactly qualify as a surprise.

* Caraviello: Sonoma reminds how good Busch can be

Joe Menzer: No, Piquet should have won the Truck race at Rockingham and might have if not for a late speeding penalty that he admitted was his own fault on pit road. I really like that guy, though. He's got loads of talent and seems to be a real good guy on top of it.

Jill Erwin: I'm calling it: Danica wins the Nationwide race in her first race at Kentucky. There. Who's on the thin limb now?

David Caraviello: I think I see some large cracks forming in that tree.

Joe Menzer: What? Danica wins at Kentucky? What did you have for breakfast, Erwin? It's a little early to be hitting the heavy stuff.

Jill Erwin: Odd, I almost used the same line on you earlier after your EGR crack. Hey, we're talking surprises, right? Is Nelson Piquet a surprise? Is Joey Logano a surprise? No. But Danica winning sure as heck would be. I win.

David Caraviello: Seriously, usually it's Menzer who starts handing out potential race victories like they're discounted buffet coupons on the Vegas Strip. But you, Jill? Come on. Listen, Danica is very capable, and she had a tremendous race at Road America before she got punted by Jacques Villeneuve. She's had some rotten luck this season, but I don't think she's ready for this.

Joe Menzer: So, I stand by my earlier statement that there will be no real surprises. I would have thought Jill would predict a Cole Whitt breakthrough before a Danica one.

David Caraviello: I would have thought Jill would predict that Elliott Sadler would win five times before the end of the season. Oh, sorry, that's Joe. Of course, we all sat here last week and completely laughed at the idea that Kurt Busch would contend at Sonoma again, and look what happened. So what do we know? Congrats in advance, Danica.

Jill Erwin: Keep it straight. I would have predicted 10 wins for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -- oh, sorry, that was Ricky. And Danica has raced at Kentucky, just not in a stock car. This will be her NASCAR Motegi!

Follow your favorite driver's chance of winning this week's race and the series title.

David Caraviello: Wow, why didn't Kentucky think of that as a slogan?

Joe Menzer: Um, Danica is no Kurt Busch, on the track or, thankfully, off it. She's far too cordial. But as far as talent on it, no one ever has questioned Kurt's abilities there. I've said for a long time that he's easily one of the top five or six wheelmen out there based on pure ability. Now the rest of that package is a train wreck, but the talent is there.

Jill Erwin: David, Kentucky would have thought of that if Eddie Gossage were running the show. Well, not really. It would have been something involving fights or crashes. No matter. In all seriousness, I do think the odds for a surprise diminish as you climb the NASCAR ladder. I'm much more likely to see a new Truck winner than for someone like Josh Wise to win in Cup.

Joe Menzer: And, by the way, Mr. Chili-Hater, Sadler already has two wins this year in Nationwide. Five isn't out of the question.

David Caraviello: I'll say it again: At tracks that have been resurfaced or are (relatively, in this case) new, the big teams have the advantage because they're more readily able to adapt. That's why Gibbs won at Kentucky last year, why they won at Pocono earlier this year, why Hendrick won at Michigan. These situations where everyone is starting over play right into their hands. That's why a Gibbs car is going to win the Nationwide race on Friday, and why a traditional power will win the Cup event Saturday. That's just the way it happens.

Joe Menzer: I still say Cole Whitt wins in Nationwide before his JR Motorsports teammate. But I'm not trashing Danica. She's been improving all year long, and what happened to her late at Road America was pretty darn awful. She ran a great race there. But that was Road America, this is Chili Country.

David Caraviello: If that's the case, I think I'm moving to Canada.

Jill Erwin: Poutine for everyone!

Tony Stewart won the 2011 championship after climbing through the Chase standings in the final 10 races. (Autostock)

3. The Race to the Chase, the 10 races before the playoff, begins this week. Last year at this time, eventual champion Tony Stewart was 12th in points. Is there anyone on the low end of the Chase standings capable of duplicating that feat?

Jill Erwin: To be fair, we didn't think Tony was capable of it either. So it's kind of weird to pick people we think can do it when the entire point was that no one thought Tony could do it. That was a lot of typing to say, "How should I know?"

David Caraviello: Yes there is, and it's the guy Tony beat for the championship last season. Isn't Carl Edwards having a season to this point quite similar to the one our reigning champion had last year? Walking the Chase tightrope all summer, needing wins but never quite getting them and catching fire at just the right time. OK, maybe that last part has yet to happen. But we know when Carl wins, he wins in bunches. And it's not like the guys at Roush don't know how to make fast cars.

Joe Menzer: The obvious choice here would be Carl Edwards. But until he wins a race or climbs back into the top 10 in points (he's 11th going into this weekend), last year's runner-up won't even make the Chase. Crazy, and I don't believe that'll happen. But that's the reality right now for him.

David Caraviello: It is, Joe. He's way down there in the wild card standings, buried beneath a bunch of guys outside the top 10 who have wins. But talking to Jack Roush a few weeks ago, he feels like the 99 setups are getting closer in line to what the 16 and 17 are running, so he expects Edwards to get better as the year goes on. We'll see about that, but Carl is certainly capable of going on a run like Tony did last year. Of course, he has to make the Chase first. But wasn't Stewart worried about the same thing at this point a season ago?

Jill Erwin: So we've gone from wild proclamations to taking last year's runner-up who's just outside the Chase? Way to stand out, fellas. I don't think Stewart was worried at all last year. He full-on assumed he wouldn't make it. That Tony, ever the optimist. Of course, we all saw how it turned out, so maybe self-defeatist is the way to go. To answer: I don't think there's anyone that far down who can do what Tony did. No one's ever done that, and now we're thinking it could happen in back-to-back years? No thanks.

Sprint Cup Series

Wild-card standings
13. (WC2) Ryan Newman 453 1
15. Joey Logano 441 1
17. Kasey Kahne 421 1
11. Carl Edwards 479 0

David Caraviello: You know, Jill, instead of critiquing everyone else's responses, you could -- oh, I don't know -- answer the question? Are you trying to say there's no one at the bottom end of the top 12 currently who's capable of going on a run and winning the whole thing?

Jill Erwin: Yes. That's exactly what I just said above. It ain't happening. Not going to happen. No one there can do or will do what Tony did. Did I stumble as I answered that earlier? Or have you been drinking along with Joe and me?

David Caraviello: So, answering the question with a non-answer. Oh, that brings back memories ...

Jill Erwin: If you ask a yes/no question, David, it's OK for the answer to be no. Or did the rules change?

Joe Menzer: I'm going to throw a name out there -- Kasey Kahne. Only 17th in points right now but with the Coca-Cola 600 win under his belt. I think that team will continue to get better and maybe even win again here over the next 10 races. They could pull a surprise and at least get in the Chase. I don't know about winning it all, though. Probably not.

Jill Erwin: I really don't see that from Kahne. He doesn't seem as strong-but-poisoned as he did early in the season. I think Hendrick will have two guys in the Chase, the two who are already in the top 10.

Joe Menzer: I think what Tony Stewart did last year was so extraordinary, I don't think we'll see something like that again -- from anyone -- for a long time. It truly was incredible. ... And of course then he fired the crew chief who helped him do it!

Jill Erwin: In Tony's defense, he did fire crew chief Darian Grubb before they won the title. Which, apparently, has become Matt Kenseth's rallying cry from his tweets on Tuesday. Full circle!

Joe Menzer: A weak defense, really. He could have unfired him, right? But then that would have left Steve Addington twisting out there, which wouldn't have been cool, either.

David Caraviello: I'll tell you who else could do it, and that's Brad Keselowski. He's obviously in a very different situation from Edwards, given that he has the wins to fall back on and is basically guaranteed a wild-card berth at the very least, but he's still 10th in points. Brad can absolutely win races when the time calls for it. And we're not talking about duplicating Stewart's feat completely, folks. We're talking about going from the borderline to a championship, regardless of how the latter happens. I think there are a few guys -- Kahne being one of them -- who could flip the switch at the right time.

Joe Menzer: Yeah, but Brad's situation right now is totally different than what Stewart's was at this time last year. Brad already has two. Tony had none.

Jill Erwin: I'd be happy to be wrong about Kahne. I wish him good will. He's been on a roller-coaster the last few years, and I'd be thrilled for Kenny Francis. And Joe's right. Kes will have some bonus points and a start at the front of the pack. Tony dug his heels in and did it all. It was impressive as all get out.

Joe Menzer: I will say this: BK getting into the top 10 and staying there with his two wins makes him more of a real contender because now he'll have those bonus points going into the Chase. It also clears the way for some others to scramble for the two wild-card spots, meaning that perhaps one win will get you in. But he has to stay there. I think he will. Now, can we wrap this up? I've got to grab some Skyline Chili before the Reds' game. Or maybe I'll eat some of my leftover Richard's steak sandwich -- I ordered two, "just in case" -- and pizza. Another Ohio delicacy that you just can't get in Canada ... or Michigan, for that matter.

David Caraviello: I'll let you spaghetti-sauce-disguised-as-chili people enjoy your disgusting regional dish. I'm going to crack open a Molson and put a reindeer steak on the grill.

-- Check out 2011 season highlights: