Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in motorsports as the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series returns to Michigan International Speedway this weekend:
Turn 1: If you were a Cup team owner, which free-agent driver would you sign and why?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: In spite of his age (45), I would sign Matt Kenseth for a two-year deal. Matt has always been an exceptional talent, perhaps equally important at this time. Kenseth’s an exceptional teammate — he makes those around him better. If possible, I would bring crew chief Jason Ratcliff with Matt because the two seem perfectly matched and it would eliminate a variable for Kenseth in the transition. Kenseth will reward any team willing to invest in him.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: Kenseth. As teams are increasingly going young, he’s the perfect guy for a team to bring in and step into the role of mentor, just as one of his old mentors, Mark Martin, used to do. I think he knows he’s not going to keep going for years and years, so if you’re willing to pay a little money to get him, it’s a low-risk, high-reward proposition. Just this week Don Baylor passed away. I think about how his quiet, veteran demeanor would stabilize baseball clubhouses, from Boston to Minnesota to Oakland. Hire Matt Kenseth as your Don Baylor.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: Assuming Carl Edwards is not available? Kenseth. He’s a proven consistent winner. And if he didn’t run well, at least his dry sense of humor would make me laugh.
Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: Can I cheat and say Edwards? If not, I’m going to say Kenseth. Even though he’s older than the other prime drivers on the market, Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne, he’s been steady and impressive this season, despite being winless. He’s on pace for 10 top-5 finishes this season, which would surpass what he had last season, and actually what he had in 2008, 2009 and 2010. If I didn’t have a young driver waiting in the wings, I’d also take a hard look at Darrell Wallace Jr., if he wasn’t under contract with Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports for next season already. He had three top-20 finishes in four races in the No. 43. Aric Almirola has nine in 15 races.
Turn 2: What would you include in your scouting report on William Byron?
Craven: Byron is quick to adapt — there’s proof of this with him winning in two of NASCAR’s top three series as a teenager. He does not drive over his head, and he studies, applies the knowledge of each track and operates within its boundaries. Byron’s driving style is more similar to Terry or Bobby Labonte, rather than Kyle or Kurt Busch. All four drivers are champions, but they each have contrasting styles and approaches. Byron may never lead the most laps in a Cup season, but he’s capable of collecting the most top-5 finishes and top-10s while recording the fewest DNFs (did not finish). I see the potential for double-digit Cup wins and contending for a championship by his third or fourth season.
McGee: He’s level-headed beyond his years, even as success has come quickly. That’s not a typical trait among racers who have executed the types of fearless moves we’ve seen him try on the track. But his incessant film study has told him when and where to make those moves, so there’s nothing reckless about them. See? That’s level-headed!
Pockrass: He can take a car capable of winning and win with it. No clue of what he can do with a 15th-place car because I’ve never seen him drive one.
Willis: He’s a quick study and will be in store for a great rookie season driving Hendrick Motorsports equipment. Byron ran one full season in the Truck series and won seven races. This season, he already has three wins in the Xfinity Series, coming on three very different tracks — Iowa, Daytona and Indianapolis. What I’m encouraged by is how much he’s been doing in the second half of the season. He’s on a run of eight straight top-10 finishes, after having six in the first 12 races of the season. The only rookie drivers with 10 or more in a row in series history are Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott.
Turn 3: What do you think of the qualifying and racing Sunday format for Cup?
Craven: I don’t think it’s the solution exclusively, but I believe it helps carry us through the summer months or middle of the season. Poor weather could make the formula a failure for track owners. They are already losing a day of activity, and if rain were to wipe out both qualifying and the Sunday race, it would mean terrible consequences financially. I see the healthy value of the condensed schedule for team owners and their employees. I can’t see the benefit for track owners.
McGee: Love it, love it, love it … and I also love it.
Pockrass: It might work in some instances, but overall I’m not thrilled with it, especially if it requires 3 p.m. ET starts on a Sunday. The biggest concern beyond fans having less time to get home: How does a team that’s behind have enough practice time to catch the competition? Minor concerns: No buzz for the pole sitter, there’s a burden on teams if the there’s a crash in qualifying, and there’s the silly policy of using qualifying results from the previous week to determine pit selection.
Willis: I’d be really curious to know what fans at the track feel about it. Is watching same-day qualifying enough for them to leave their morning tailgates, get to the track a couple of hours earlier to watch qualifying and then have to go find something else to do for three or four hours only to return to the track for the actual race? From a personal perspective, I already find I’m committing so much of my Sunday to the Cup race that I’m fine with qualifying being sandwiched into Saturday’s track activity.
Turn 4: Which driver gets your vote for showing the most improvement this year?
Craven: Kyle Larson for sure. He has quickly evolved as a threat to win at nearly every track, which means in every discipline of NASCAR racing. A close second for the most improved title would be Ryan Blaney, with Daniel Suarez third. I’m very impressed with Daniel’s past six races or so. All three drivers will contribute significantly to NASCAR success in the next decade.
McGee: There are plenty of candidates (I’m looking at you, Danica Patrick, and your boyfriend), but I’ll go with Clint Bowyer. Yes, I know he went from a bad team to a good one, but he’s 10th in the standings. This time last year I’d forgot he even existed.
Pockrass: Suarez. Is there anyone else even considered in this debate?
Willis: My vote goes to Suarez. When he started the season running mostly between 15th and 25th, I thought it was a case of “too much, too soon.” But he’s bounced back with seven straight top-20 finishes and four top-10s in a row entering Michigan to move into the top 15 in points. From 2016 to 2017 improvement, I’m going with Michael McDowell and the Leavine Family Racing team. McDowell picked up his first career top-5 finish at Daytona, but over the past dozen races, he has eight top-20 finishes, which is really impressive for a low-budget, single-car team. And in the past seven races, McDowell ranks 14th in points, ahead of drivers such as Jimmie Johnson, Larson, Erik Jones and Joey Logano.