Fast Five: Biggest Storylines Entering 2017 NASCAR Season

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.

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Column: Carl Edwards leaves just as he competed — with class

It’s 6:16 p.m. on November 20, 2016.

On a restart with 10 laps to go in the Ford EcoBoost 400 and the season, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano approach Homestead-Miami Speedway’s first turn, fighting for the race and championship leads.  Logano dives to the inside, Edwards blocks.  Edwards’ left-rear hits Logano’s right-front, hooking Edwards to the left, and he hits the wall head-on.

Edwards has every right to be frustrated, as the accident prevents him from potentially winning his first Cup Series title.  And yet, while his disappointment is apparent in post-race interviews, he shows no ill will towards Logano, even stopping at Logano’s pit to shake crew chief Todd Gordon’s hand and wish the team good luck in the remaining laps.

No one (including Edwards himself) knew at the time that Edwards’ incredible class, even in the face of heartbreak, would be the final image of his stellar career.

But Wednesday, the 37-year old Edwards announced he is stepping away from NASCAR, effective immediately.  Edwards said he came to the decision after the season, giving three well-thought-out reasons.

Three Reasons Why

First, Edwards is legitimately satisfied with his career accomplishments, even without a Cup Series title on his resume.  Edwards said that, to him, the competition in NASCAR was about more than winning, but the journey.

“Going through that whole process and becoming a better person, a stronger person, a better competitor, a better teammate, a better friend to people, that’s a big deal to me, and I feel accomplished,” Edwards said.

Secondly, Edwards said that while racing has been all-encompassing, physically and mentally, for the last 20 years of his life (13 in the Cup Series), it is necessary to devote his time and energy to other interests.

“I need to take that time right now and devote it to people and things that are important to me, things I’m really passionate about,” Edwards said.

Lastly, Edwards is 100 percent healthy, and wants to keep it that way in the short- and long-term.  Edwards does not appear scared, but is instead simply acknowledging that continuing to drive at the highest level could potentially be a risk to his health.

“Like anybody in a contact sport, I realize that there might be long-term consequences to that stuff, and that’s a piece of the puzzle,” Edwards said.

What’s Next

Edwards came to his decision after this season, and said that after considering his reasoning, he couldn’t think of a good reason why not to walk away now, and said that, in following his gut, he has no regrets.

“This is a pure, simple, personal decision, and for that I’m grateful,” Edwards said.

In his post-race interview at Homestead, Edwards clearly had not yet made this decision, as he pointed to the future after the tough break that cost him the 2016 title.

“This team is going to be on fire next year,” Edwards said.  “You watch out.  It’s going to be awesome.”

Perhaps he’s right — 2016 XFinity Series champion Daniel Suarez will take his place in the #19 Toyota, and is an immediate threat to qualify for the Chase for the Cup.

Edwards would not use “the R word” to describe his decision to walk away, because he is open to the possibility of potentially driving part-time in the future, saying his first call in such a situation would be Joe Gibbs, the car owner he drove for in 2015-16.

“If it comes up and the right opportunity is there and at that moment, it’s the right thing, then for sure I’d entertain it,” he said.

Outside of racing, Edwards has no specific plans, although the uncertainty doesn’t bother him.

“That’s one of the beauties about this decision,” Edwards said.  “I don’t have a there’s no life raft I’m jumping onto. I’m just jumping. And in a way, it makes it easier, because I’m not being swayed by some carrot out here, something going on.

“I don’t really have that all figured out yet, and to me that’s okay.  I’m at peace with that. I know if I lay out those three reasons that I listed, if you put those together, you add them up, it adds up to this. This is the right thing.”

Class at Every Turn

Edwards entered the Cup Series in 2004 with Roush Racing and drove #99 Ford for the team until the end of the 2014 season, before moving to Gibbs for his final two seasons.

The Columbia, Missouri native won 28 races in 445 starts, finishing second in points in 2008 and 2011, and leading the championship with 10 to go in 2016 before the crash with Logano.  Edwards also won 38 races and the 2007 championship in the XFinity Series, running both XFinity and Cup full-time for seven seasons.

But the lasting impression of Edwards career is the class and dignity with which he competed, something not lost on Edwards himself at Wednesday’s press conference.  After a reporter remarked that Edwards had seemed to compete with a Midwestern mentality of work hard, be kind to others, and your reputation will follow, Edwards got choked up at the compliments given to his character.

“It’s important to me… to do the right thing,” Edwards said.  “I do not always do the right thing, and just like anyone, there are things I wish I could do over, and that’s that.”

Edwards said he was “a jerk” at times in his career, yet I can’t recall a time in his career when Edwards didn’t handle himself in the usual professional, classy way that became the trademark of his career, a refreshing departure from an age of several star drivers with an arrogant and self-centered streak.

When he was upset over on-track events — and I can’t remember a time in his career when such frustration wasn’t justified — he didn’t lash out publicly at his rivals but typically dealt with the situation professionally, behind closed doors.

When he won, Edwards visibly had a blast, performing his unique backflip celebration, but applauded the competition on a good race and humbly accepted the congratulations of his peers.  When he had heartbreaking losses, he tipped his cap to those who beat him, often personally congratulating the victor.

It was one of those heartbreaking losses at Homestead that will now go down as (at least for now) his final Cup Series start.

While the result of a 34th-place finish is not indicative of Edwards’ ability on the track throughout his career, the grace and sportsmanship Edwards showed in defeat is an appropriate end to his career.

I was watching the Ford EcoBoost 400 at the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s race-viewing party, and after Edwards’ interview with NBC’s Kelli Stavast, the assembled crowd applauded the class Edwards showed in possibly the toughest defeat of his life.

That applause can now be extended to cover Edwards’ entire career.  Even as Edwards is walking away at a surprisingly young age, he has nothing to regret as he looks back over his career.

After doing things the right way from start to finish, Edwards walks away just as he drove, showing class and dignity at every turn.

 

 

 

Carl Edwards Career Statistics (Cup Series unless otherwise noted):
445 starts
28 wins
124 top fives
223 top 10s
22 poles
14.2 average start
13.6 average finish
127,758 laps
6,136 laps led
$80,473,708
2008 & 2011 Cup Series runner-up
38 XFinity Series wins
2007 XFinity Series champion

Chase for the Sprint Cup Power Rankings

My overall rankings for the 10-race Chase.

1. Matt Kenseth.  He has 5 wins this year, with 4 coming on 1.5-mile tracks.  Half the chase races are at 1.5-mile tracks, with additional races at Talladega and Dover, good tracks for Matt.  He starts the Chase as the points leader based on those wins.  Much of the media has him as the favorite, and so do I, with Johnson’s recent struggles.

2, Carl Edwards.  Winner at Richmond, “Cousin Carl” has some momentum.  Like Kenseth, he is good at 1.5-mile tracks, Talladega, and Dover, as well as Pheonix.  If he is decent at Martinsville, expect the 99 to be in contention to win it all at Homestead.  Unlike Kenseth, and many others in this Chase, he has experienced racing at Homestead with the prospect of winning the title, finishing 2nd  twice.  That experience could put him over the top.

3. Jimmie Johnson.  A month ago it was unthinkable the 5-time champion would be this low in these rankings.  Since then, he has posted finishes of 40th, 36th, 28th, and 40th.  It should be difficult for anyone to suddenly flip a switch and be championship material again, but if anyone can do it, it’s Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.  They are very good in the Chase format, winning 5 of the 9 Chases run, with finishes of 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th in the other 4.

4. Kyle Busch.  Here’s the elephant in the room.  There are questions surrounding Kyle, as usual.  Can he be consistent enough to contend for a championship?  Is he mature enough?  Can he keep his composure in big-pressure spots if he’s in contention late in the Chase?  I have a feeling we’ll get some answers in the next 10 weeks.  Like Edwards, Busch is riding some momentum, and he’s good at Chicago, New Hampshire, and Dover, the first three tracks the Chase will visit.  After those races, we’ll know if he’s in it or not.

5. Kasey Kahne.  I was hesitant to put him this high, because he was 14th in points, reaching the Chase on a wild card berth.  Kahne, though, is another driver very good on those key 1.5-mile tracks, particularly Charlotte and Texas.  He’s also had moderate success at Phoenix, Dover, and New Hampshire.  Like Edwards, Martinsville is Kahne’s weakness among the Chase tracks.  Kahne may be the wild card in another way, as he will likely be consistent enough to contend for a title, like early in the season, or he will lack consistency and struggle down the stretch.

6. Ryan Newman.  The 39 team left Richmond thinking a late caution and a bad pit stop had cost them a wild card spot in the Chase.  Sunday, of course, they found out with the rest of us that there was more to it.  Newman could use his surprise Chase berth as a springboard to a title shot.  However, the “Achilles heel” of Stewart-Haas Racing this year has been 1.5-mile tracks, which make up half of the Chase races.  The full resources of SHR will be needed to give Newman a shot, and he will have them due to Tony Stewart’s season-ending leg injury.  Another negative, though, is that this is a “lame duck” season, as Newman announced Monday he will drive for Richard Childress Racing in 2014.

7. Joey Logano.  Like Newman, Logano just barely got in.  In fact, there is now speculation that Penske Racing may have asked David Gilliland to intentionally let Logano around to help his points situation at Richmond.  (Great, this week’s been crazy enough.)  He has some momentum, if you ignore his finish at Richmond, he had a win, 3 top fives, and 5 top sevens in the previous 5 races.  Penske Racing won the Chase last year with Brad Keselowski.  The 2 car isn’t in the Chase, so all the resources of Penske will be with Logano, not a bad thing to have.

8. Kurt Busch.  The 2004 Champion may be a dark horse in this Chase.  No one gives the single car team out of Denver a chance.  They are the first single car team and the first team based outside of NC to qualify for the Chase.  This team, however, has some help.  They have a competitive alliance with Richard Childress Racing, and after winning at Darlington in 2011 with Regan Smith, they have been poised to win all year with Kurt Busch, with a 2nd at Richmond, three 3rds, and four additional top fives.  He is a “lame duck,” but his team has probably assumed that all year.  Expect him to win a race or races in the Chase; we shall see if the underdog team can contend at Homestead.

9. Kevin Harvick.  Some writers have him among their top 3, and a couple even have him winning the title.  I’ll be different, and coin a new term, as he may be the “lamest duck.”  Harvick has been at Richard Childress Racing since 2001 (2000 if you count Nationwide), and is leaving for Stewart-Haas Racing at season’s end.  In six previous Chase apperances, he has finishes of 3rd (twice), 4th (twice), 8th, and 10th.  He has shown some consistency, but he only has 6 top fives on the year.  I don’t see that as strong enough to contend for the title.

10. Clint Bowyer.  I just can’t see someone with as crazy a week as Bowyer has had going to Chicago and doing well.  There also must be some negative momentum, not just from the Richmond incident but also from a couple of poor finishes.  Also, after Jeff Gordon got the short end of the stick in the MWR penalties (he’s still not in the Chase), and considering the two have a history, there could be some fireworks (who knows).  On the bright side, Bowyer is good at the first three tracks In the Chase:  Chicago, New Hampshire, and Dover.

11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Junior has had a pretty good year, other than the fact he hasn’t found the winner’s circle.  He was, of course, leading big at Michigan when he blew an engine.  Consistency has been an issue this year, not just for Junior, but for all of Hendrick (never thought I’d say that).  In five previous Chase apperances, his best finish is 5th, but not since 2004 and 2006.  His best Chase finish in three appearances while at Hendrick is 7th.  I don’t see anything here to suggest he will be a contender for the title.

12. Greg Biffle.  Biffle struggled for much of the regular season, as did all of the Fords, but put together enough good finishes to make the Chase.  “The Biff” did finish 2nd in 2005 and 3rd in 2008, but has never really been close enough to taste the champagne.   He won at Michigan in June, but his best finish since the win was 8th, and at a road course.  Out of the 8 races at tracks that are featured in the Chase, he had only one top ten finish, and that was a Martinsville, a track he traditionally struggles at.  The signs don’t look promising for the veteran to contend late into the Chase.

Chase Schedule: 9/15 Chicago, 9/22 New Hampshire, 9/29 Dover, 10/6 Kansas, 10/12 Charlotte, 10/20 Talladega, 10/27 Martinsville, 11/3 Texas, 11/10 Phoenix, 11/17 Homestead