DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Breathe easy, folks. The shortest offseason in sports has come to a close.
This weekend, the 2018 NASCAR season kicks off with the 60th annual Daytona 500. Although we seem to say it every season, there are storylines aplenty heading into this season, one that features change. Lots of it. So here are 10 of the biggest.
1). Changing of the Guard
Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Those are all the names of future NASCAR Hall of Famers that have been mainstays in the sport for the better part of two decades.
None of them will take the green flag for the Daytona 500.
But Chase Elliott will. So will Ryan Blaney, and William Byron, and Alex Bowman, and Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Kyle Larson. Some names might sound familiar, as family legacies in racing are living on through these young guns. But they aren’t household names yet.
Veterans like Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch are still around. So are Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin. But the focus all offseason has been centered around the young nucleus that is entering the sport.
Kyle Busch, 2014 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, took issue with NASCAR’s marketing of the younger drivers this offseason, saying they haven’t done anything yet, whereas he, and his “older” counterparts, have.
But as the sport faes declining attendance, television ratings and interest, they are looking to fresh faces to re-energize Sunday afternoons. In time, they might get what they’re looking for.
2). When, Not If, Chase Elliott Wins
The pride of Dawsonville, Georgia is tired of being a bridesmaid.
Chase Elliott, widely regarded to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the sport’s most popular driver, has yet to win a MENCS race. He has a XFINITY championship under his belt, along with a couple Truck Series wins. But the seven second-place results is what is glaring.
Elliott, son of Hall of Famer Bill, is going to win this season. Probably multiple times. He’s also going to win a championship someday. He very well may go down as one of the best drivers in the sport’s history some day. But the knock on the 22-year-old is his inability to win at the Cup level in his two full-time seasons at Hendrick Motorsports.
But with a new number, one that he holds close to his heart, a new season and a seemingly refreshed attitude heading into the 2018 campaign, Elliott just may grace victory lane in Cup.
3). Schedule Changes
For years, NASCAR has been hounded to switch up the schedule. They finally obliged.
Among the highlights for changes to the 2018 MENCS schedule include the addition of a road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the “ROVAL,” as well as Indianapolis moving to the final race of the regular season, giving the famed Brickyard some proverbial meaning once again.
That change moves Chicagoland to Indy’s date, the middle of the summer. Richmond also is now in the playoffs instead of being the final regular season race. NASCAR has managed to add a road course and short track to the playoffs … but of course, people are angry.
Some drivers, most notably Kevin Harvick, wants the playoff schedule to be changed every season, including the championship race rotating venues. Some want a dirt track added. Some want midweek races. Some want the schedule shortened. Some want races shortened.
I, for one, am a proponent of all of these things. But people should understand these things take time. Agreements with tracks usually run every five or so years. After that, things can be switched up. But for now, NASCAR is aiming to please, which should be applauded.
4). New Faces in New Places
Alex Bowman is driving the No. 88 for Hendrick Motorsports, taking over for Dale Earnhardt Jr. William Byron is driving the No. 24, taking over for Kasey Kahne, who is driving the No. 95 for Leavine-Family Racing. Michael McDowell, who drove the No. 95 last season, now is driving the No. 34 for Front Row Motorsports.
Erik Jones is out of the No. 77 (which doesn’t exist anymore) at Furniture Row Racing and is in the No. 20 replacing Matt Kenseth at Joe Gibbs Racing, Bubba Wallace is replacing Aric Almirola in the No. 43 at Richard Petty Motorsports, and Almirola is in the No. 10 replacing Danica Patrick at Stewart-Haas Racing. Patrick is running the Daytona 500 for Premium Motorsports, but then retiring from NASCAR racing.
That’s NASCAR silly season for you. This past one seemed to be sillier than any in recent memory, with drivers, sponsors, numbers, teams, etc. switching every which way. It’s going to take some getting used to, but if you put your mind to it, you can do it. I believe in you.
5). The New Chevrolet
If you look up “badass race car,” a picture of the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 will come up.
Chevrolet failed to put one of their drivers in the championship four last season for the first time under this new format. They had won every manufacturer’s championship for the past decade until Toyota dethroned them in 2015. Something needed to change.
The model did. Previously, Chevy had been running their SS in the Cup series. The bowtie had discontinued the SS a couple years ago, and their performance on-track was suffering.
Cup series manufacturers typically stick to four-door sedans (Fusions, SS, Impala, Camry, etc). But Chevy opted to go to a sleeker sports car model in the Camaro ZL1. If it performs half as good as it looks, Chevrolet might win all 36 points-paying races in 2018.
In all seriousness, there will be some growing pains. Especially with three of their top drivers being inexperienced in Bowman, Byron and Wallace. Toyota debuted a new Camry last season and struggled for the first half before knocking off wins weekly in the second half. The Camaro ZL1 may be what Chevy needed to get back on the winning track. Literally.
6). Pit Stop Choreography
One major change that was announced prior to the season involved pit crews. Instead of the usual six members over the wall, crews will be limited to five (not including one to service the driver). This is expected to slow down pit stops by a couple seconds and force teams to change how they choreograph pit stops on a race-to-race basis.
We’re not reinventing the wheel (like my pun?) but we’re tweaking it slightly. Whichever team can adjust the quickest and best may find themselves at a significant advantage.
7). Stage Racing, Year Two
Stage racing was announced prior to the start of the 2017 season. And in what might have been the biggest change in the history of NASCAR, the sanctioning body hit a home run.
Almost everybody was skeptical of stage racing and how it would look once the season began. But the narrative came true. The intensity was ratcheted up, middle of races that used to have no significance now did and the product was made more compelling overall.
Whether or not we’ll see more teams adopt the strategy that gave Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 78 team a clear path to the championship, gathering as many playoff points via stage wins as possible, remains to be seen. But what we do know is that stage racing year two is primed to entertain.
8). A New-Look Hendrick Motorsports
A dream team that once consisted of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne is now thing of the past. Meet William Byron, Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott.
Elliott and Byron’s age combined still doesn’t surpass seven-time champion Johnson’s age. And Bowman’s brief Cup career has included stints at BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing. One is out of business and one is in the process of going out of business.
Hendrick Motorsports is one of the most storied teams in all of motorsports. This is the youngest driver lineup, with about as much inexperience as they’ve ever had. On the flip side, this is about as much promise as they, as well as any other team, have ever had.
Bowman was a caution flag away from winning in the No. 88 at Phoenix two seasons ago filling in for Dale Jr., Byron has been steadily improving on his rapid rise to the Cup level at an unprecedented rate and Elliott has as much promise as any driver.
Oh, and they have the greatest stock car driver of all time in Johnson who has seven championships and is hungry for a record-breaking eighth. HMS will be just fine.
9). Will Ford be able to keep pace?
Toyota introduced a new nose last season. Chevrolet introduced a new car this season. Ford … did nothing.
Did they necessarily need to? No, I guess not. But half the battle in racing is staying ahead of the game. The rumor around the garage is that Ford will be introducing a new car next season (probably the Mustang), but for now, they’re stuck with the oldest of the three OEM models.
Now that Toyota worked out the kinks for their new Camry nose in 2017 and once Chevrolet presumably does the same, the blue ovals could be bringing up the rear. Then again, they did put two of their drivers in the championship four and have multiple former and future champions in their stable.
10). Martin Truex Jr. Attempting to Repeat
There hasn’t been a repeat champion since 2010, when Jimmie Johnson’s reign of dominance ended. Martin Truex Jr. has about a good a chance as ever to become the first one to do so since JJ in 2018.
Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing proved last season that their performance is not a one-off. In 2015 they made the championship four. In 2016, a blown engine at Talladega prevented them from returning. But in 2017, their unfinished business trip ended with a win and championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
They were the best team all season long in 2017, and they enter 2018 with some of the best odds to repeat and hoist the hardware once again.
There are plenty more storylines to keep an eye out for throughout the 2018 season. But these are some of the biggest. Will MTJ repeat? How will the young bucks at HMS fare? Which young gun will emerge atop the rest? All of these questions, and more, will be answered by the end of November. Until then, I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.