The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season starts tonight, with the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona, a non-points event with an all-star field.
As always, there are a plethora of storylines entering the new season and Daytona Speedweeks. Here are the biggest subplots entering the new year:
5. Johnson Goes For Championship Eight
After winning his record-tying seventh Cup Series championship in November, the 2017 season is Jimmie Johnson’s first chance to win an unprecedented eighth title and break the record of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
Johnson has won his seven titles over the last 11 seasons, while Earnhardt won his seven over 15 seasons and Petty won seven over 16 seasons. Even if Johnson, 41, does not win his eighth title in 2017, he is expected to have several competitive years left to try to break the record.
4. Daniel Suarez enters Cup, replacing Carl Edwards
Carl Edwards’ retirement at 37 came as a surprise to everyone in the NASCAR garage. His replacement, however, was not as surprising to insiders, although it is a name casual fans may not recognize.
Daniel Suarez, 25, replaces Edwards in the #19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota after winning the XFinity Series championship in 2016, becoming the first minority champion in any NASCAR national series, and the first born outside the U.S. (Mexico).
The very talented Suarez will immediately be a threat to win races and qualify for the playoffs, and joins a rookie class that also includes Erik Jones (#77 Furniture Row Racing Toyota) and Ty Dillon (brother of Austin, #13 Germain Racing Chevrolet).
3. Changes at Stewart-Haas Racing
Tony Stewart also retired after the 2016 season, and is replaced in the #14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford by Clint Bowyer.
SHR, which consists of Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick, is changing to Ford for the 2017 season after the last 14 seasons (eight with Stewart as co-owner) with Chevrolet. The move allows SHR to become one of the two co-leading teams with Ford (alongside Penske Racing), after spending their tenure with Chevy in the shadow of Hendrick Motorsports. With the move, SHR also had to change engine providers; after using Hendrick engines for their entire history, the company now moves to Roush-Yates Engines.
The team is also is fighting a developing legal battle with ex-sponsor Nature’s Bakery. The company ceased its sponsorship of Patrick after the first year of a three-year contract, as the small company was struggling to pay for their sponsorship. As a result, SHR has sued Nature’s Bakery for a breach of contract, and the company has countersued. Patrick will still be sponsored for 2017 by TaxAct and Aspen Dental, the latter of which extended their sponsorship to fill some of the void left by Nature’s Bakery.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Returns
Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed the last 18 races of the 2016 season after suffering a concussion, one which he says is at least his fourth such injury in racing.
The son of Dale Earnhardt, who was killed 16 years ago today in the Daytona 500, has been voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for 14 straight seasons, capitalizing on both his father’s popularity and his moderate Cup Series success.
The 42-year old Earnhardt Jr., who married on Dec. 31 and enters a “contract year” in 2017, returns at arguably his most successful track, as he will make his first start of any kind since July in next week’s Daytona 500. He will not race in the Advance Auto Parts Clash tonight; Alex Bowman, who earned a spot in tonight’s field by winning a pole at Phoenix last year, will drive the #88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Earnhardt Jr. is a 26-time Cup Series race winner, and has finished in the top five in points four times, including a third-place points finish in 2003. He is one of 11 drivers with multiple Daytona 500 wins, and can become just the sixth with three or more with a win next Sunday.
1. NASCAR’s Changes for 2017
NASCAR in 2017 will look different from any NASCAR season in the past, for multiple reasons.
First, the Cup Series has a new title sponsor. What was the Sprint Cup Series in now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, as the energy drink company signed a “multiyear deal” with NASCAR back in December.
A new identity for the Cup Series made this offseason natural timing for other changes, and NASCAR has made several.
The biggest change is the new race format: races will be divided into three segments, called “stages,” with points being awarded to the top 10 after each stage in addition to the full field at the race’s completion. Stage winners will also recieve bonus points for the newly-named playoffs (formerly “The Chase”), as will the top 10 in regular season points, and those bonuses will carry through all the way until the Round of 8 (previously, bonus points only applied to the initial round, the Round of 16).
Many say the result will be better racing throughout the entirety of the event, although there are many skeptics, myself included. Tonight’s 75-lap exhibition has no stages, so we won’t see the new format in action until next week’s Daytona 500.
In addition, NASCAR announced a new damaged vehicle policy for 2017. Teams will no longer be allowed to replace major parts on damaged cars, and while they will be allowed to fix damage on original parts, they will only be allowed five minutes on pit road to perform such repairs. Any car that has to go behind the wall or to the garage will be out of the race.
This rule is a safety initiative by NASCAR, as often times in the past when teams have sent patched-up cars back on the track they have caused accidents. How much it affects the racing–and how much attrition goes up–are a big unknown right now; this change will potentially be seen in tonight’s Advance Auto Parts Clash (i.e. a hypothetical “big one” takes out 14 of the 17-car field).
How all these changes affect the competition, including driving styles and strategy, will be a big storyline throughout the entire 2017 season.