The 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series kicks off Sunday with the 60th annual Daytona 500. For the most part, the Cup Series remains the same with just a small handful of rule changes.
But as for the teams? It’s a different story altogether. Some drivers switched rides, a handful retired, and several rookies are moving up looking to make their mark. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will also have a whole new look in 2018 with veterans like Dale Earnhardt Jr. moving on into retirement.
Meanwhile, the drivers and crews have one full season of stage racing under their belts. That should help with strategy to maneuver into position to take the checkered flag each weekend, or at least to sneak into the playoffs on points.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the larger trends in NASCAR entering 2018.
The new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 looks amazing, and drivers think it will cut significantly into Toyota’s advantage from last year. If this storyline turns out to be true, it will be an interesting one to follow as the season goes along. Will younger drivers like Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher, William Byron, Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, and Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr. be able to adapt quickly to the new car’s driving quirks? Or can veterans like Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Jamie McMurray, and Ryan Newman teach the younger generation a thing or two?
Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski have both expressed concerns about the ability of their Ford Fusions to keep up with the Camrys and the new Camaros. That shouldn’t be a problem at the restrictor-plate tracks, but on the 1.5-mile cookie-cutter ovals, 2018 might be a rough year for Ford teams. NBC Sports reported that Roger Penske says Ford will be introducing a new car in 2019, so that should help. Hopefully, it will be the Mustang.
Counting the Clash (though not the Duels), Ford drivers have won the last nine races at Daytona and Talladega since May 2016. In order, it’s been: Keselowski, Keselowski again, Joey Logano, Logano again, Kurt Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Stenhouse again, Keselowski, and (surprise, surprise) Keselowski. Team Penske finished 1-2-4 in Sunday’s Clash, as Keselowski won, followed by Logano and Ryan Blaney.
Jimmie Johnson has two Daytona 500 victories to go along with his seven championships. But on Sunday, he wrecked in the Clash for the seventh season in a row. This poor result follows his worst season to date in the MENCS. In 2017, he earned no poles and scored career lows in top fives (4), top 10s (11), laps led (217), average start (16.9) and average finish (16.8). Will Sunday be a bad harbinger of things to come for what’s now the oldest full-time driver in the series?
Hendrick Motorsports has now won the last four Daytona 500 poles. Alex Bowman won qualifying on Sunday. That follows Chase Elliott earning it twice, in 2016 and 2017, plus Jeff Gordon in his final full-time season (2015). Also, this pole made it six years straight that Chevrolet has led the Great American Race to green. Danica Patrick won the pole her rookie season in 2013, and then Austin Dillon did the same in 2014. Starting position doesn’t mean all that much at superspeedways, but for bragging rights, this streak is worth noting.
2003 champion Matt Kenseth is done racing, it appears, which will frustrate his fans. Danica Patrick will make her final run in NASCAR this Sunday, which will likely lose NASCAR some followers, at least until another female driver joins the top series on a regular basis. Social media favorite Landon Cassill doesn’t have a ride with any of the forty entries for the 500, either. It’s the smallest entry list in the history of the event. On the other hand, no team will have to go home Thursday night after the Duels. Crushed dreams aren’t something to wish on anyone, so it is good that every Cup team down in Daytona will have a shot to win the biggest stock car race of them all.
Paint Scheme of the Week
Chase Elliott’s Mountain Dew car for the Clash. The metallic shade of green looks like one of the early Hot Wheels colors. Plus, with the black stripes on the hood and black number on the door, it looks intimidating. That Mountain Dew logo on the hood could be a little smaller, though at least it’s easy to see who the sponsor is. From an advertising perspective, I suppose that’s a good thing.
Keep in mind there’s an old racing superstition green cars are bad luck; Chase did end up in the grass in that final-lap Clash wreck. Still, this car looks fantastic.
Gigantic tracks mean everyone has a chance to win if things go right (see the demolition derbies last fall at Indianapolis and Talladega). So there’s not really any clear consensus on who could win this Daytona 500. You may as well throw a dart at a dartboard to pick a winner, that’s about the accuracy here.
But given Team Penske’s success on these tracks, I’m going to say that Ryan Blaney will win the Daytona 500 in his first full-time race in the No. 12 (he ran a couple of races in the car in 2014, when it was a part-time effort). And because this sentence will be the final time I can say it, I’m going with Danica Patrick as my sleeper pick, considering that Daytona is arguably her best track. Remember, she finished eighth in the 2013 Daytona 500 and 2014 July race at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.