ONE: The New Guys
When you write a weekly NASCAR column, even the shortest offseason in professional sports ends up feeling long without the constant drumbeat of minute-by-minute racing news. Sure, there’s a few weeks when you’re happy you don’t have to write a column or think about cars going fast and turning left. But, truth be told, you end up missing it.
So, with NASCAR news sparse, the offseason fit of pique from Kyle Busch was a fun one to watch. His beef was with NASCAR brass, mostly, and for what? Promoting the plethora of young guns this season over the longtime vets. Busch feels lost in the shuffle with the next generation popping up all around him as top competition.
There’s the freshly “corporate” shorn Ryan Blaney, teaming up with the power of Team Penske. Chase Elliott is now piloting a number his Dad helped make famous (No. 9). Alex Bowman now sits in the famous No. 88, replacing the sport’s Most Popular Driver. You have Darrell Wallace Jr. in the iconic No. 43 and Kyle Larson, who looks to all the world like a future Cup champion. Finally, there’s young William Byron, a tender 19 years of age but possessing the grit and guile of a savvy veteran.
The simple truth is there has been a massive changing of the guard. It’s a quantum shift caused by the list of retiring drivers from the past couple seasons: Four-time Jeff Gordon, Cousin Carl, The Biff, Smoke, Danica, the Robot and, of course, Dale Jr.
The void they left behind makes it absolutely in NASCAR’s best interest to promote the up-and-coming drivers over those with existing and established fan bases. Is there a balance? Sure. But there can be no question the success of the sport, moving forward, will come from the likes of Elliott and Blaney resonating with huge audiences. They must become as popular as the luminaries that have recently hung up their driving gloves.
TWO: The New Pit Crews
Pit road is a brave new world in 2018. We got a bit of a look into just that this past weekend for the Advance Auto Parts Clash – the first race since the change from six to five over-the-wall crew members. It will be fascinating to watch the different strategies unfold in the early weeks and you can be sure there will be some different approaches, at least in the short-term.
Those adjustments could lead to surprise results, especially at tracks like the mile-and-a-halves where track position can make a serious difference. Sunday afternoon, the fastest stop was (by comparison to 2017) a pedestrian 16.95 seconds, over five seconds slower than last year.
“A 16.9 is, obviously it’s quite a bit slower than what we’re used to,” Paul Wolfe told NASCAR.com. He’s the longtime crew chief for the winner of Sunday’s race — Brad Keselowski. “And that’s just it — we’re not sure what to expect yet. Speedways are different, as well, from the mile-and-a-half tracks.”
Expect the unexpected for at least the next few weeks. I don’t expect teams to truly figure this out until we hit Charlotte’s All-Star Race in May.
THREE: The New Playoffs
For the first time in years, NASCAR’s ten-race playoff will have a totally different look. The first race will now be at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (replacing Chicagoland Speedway) while Richmond International Raceway will take over as the second race.
The conclusion to the first stage will then be the biggest unknown of them all – the Charlotte Roval. Pity the poor drivers on the bubble going into that event. But after a decade of two road courses “not mattering” playoff wise, regular season races at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International should have a very different feel this year.
The other big factor to consider is the second year of the new race format. Teams now have a whole season of understanding the value of stage points. Expect to see many more gambles in 2018 as they try to optimize “bonus points” heading into the postseason.
Now, a successful regular season of bonuses doesn’t guarantee you a spot in the Final Four (far from it). But there is ample evidence that it does, indeed, make a huge difference. Watching stage strategies play out should be fascinating – absolutely fascinating.
FOUR: The New Chevy
Another massive change this year is the arrival of the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. It’s the first substantial redesign in five years for the Bowtie Brigade and a return to Cup for an iconic brand in the Camaro. Initial reports (waaaaay early reports) are positive.
“It was awesome. The car has a lot of speed. The new Camaro is great,” said Cup rookie William Byron, piloting the No. 24 Chevy in 2018. “The new ride height rule makes it a little different. The cars drive a little different, but a lot of speed in it, so hopefully that means good things for the Daytona 500 and we can just kind of get through the week smooth.”
Now, there’s no question Toyota was the class of the field in 2017. But a new car and a new chassis design will certainly level the playing field a fair bit. It’s hard to say at this stage if the Chevys will best the Toyotas over the long run. But the likelihood is it will be a lot closer than last season (which wouldn’t be hard.)
“The Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 has been a dream to drive so far, so we will just keep working on it,” noted Austin Dillon of his new ride. It remains to be seen if Dillon and others still feel that way by midseason but my guess is they just might.
FIVE: And an Old Favorite
Finally this week, where else could I finish but the 60th Running of the Daytona 500 Sunday afternoon on the high banks of wonderful Daytona International Speedway?
I’ve been lucky enough to attend the Great American Race on two occasions. In 2008, for the 50th Running, I saw a race won by Rocket Man Ryan Newman. Then teammate Kurt Busch ran second that day; last year, I saw Busch take the checkered flag first in what was a massive victory for the 2004 Cup champion.
On both occasions, it was a tremendous experience. If you’ve attended, you know just how special this race is, steeped in the illustrious history of the sport.
Can the competition match the magnitude of the moment? I think it will. After what was a strong, exciting first 25 laps of Sunday’s Advanced Auto Parts Clash, the final 50 fizzled out into single (high) line monotony. But I can’t imagine that will be the case this time round in the 500, especially with stage points on the line — both regular season and playoffs.
So here’s to 200 hard-fought laps, an epic green-flag finish and a brilliant day out for the 100,000-plus who’ll pack the stands. I’ll leave the last word to Jimmie Johnson, who sagely noted: “There is no other way to start the season than to win the Daytona 500.”
I couldn’t agree more, seven-time. Enjoy the Great American Race, everyone!