Fast Five: What I’m looking forward to in the 2018 NASCAR season

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season gets underway today, with the star-laden Advance Auto Parts Clash, a week ahead of the sport’s biggest event, the Daytona 500.

Every season has storylines, and this one is no different. As NASCAR makes its annual trip to the beach, here are the five things I’m most looking forward to for the 2018 season.

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the broadcast booth

The 2017 season marked Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s farewell as a driver in the Cup Series, but he is not leaving the sport by any means.

Junior continues to own an XFinity Series team, and plans to run at least one one-off event in that series this year. He will also be in a very visible role for the second half of the 2018 season as an analyst for NBC Sports for their portion of the schedule, beginning at Daytona in July.

It’s great that the driver who has been voted Most Popular Driver for the last 15 consecutive years is staying involved in the sport, and in a way that he will be seen and heard by the fans. It’s also always a great idea for a broadcast network to add a just-retired driver to their coverage, as he will have excellent insight into the drivers and teams, since he just competed against them; Earnhardt also has a phenomenal knowledge of the sport’s past, given his family history and his own passion for it.

4. Who can match Truex’s stage-racing success?

Last year, in the first season of stage racing, Martin Truex Jr. mastered the new concept almost instantly and his 19 stage victories and eight race wins propelled him to his first Cup Series title.

Now, as the sport has had a year to adjust to stage racing, who will step up to match Truex’s mastery in 2018?

Kyle Busch won 14 stages in 2017, and Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson each won eight. And it was Larson, not Truex, who had the most stage top 10s, earning 56 of them. In addition, several young stars seem primed to rise to the next level in 2018 (see below).

It will also be interesting to see if more drivers win stages in 2018. Last year, there were more race winners (15) than stage winners (13), due in part to Truex and Busch’s stage dominance.

3. The Charlotte “roval”

NASCAR has made significant changes to the schedule for the early rounds of the Playoffs, with Las Vegas and Richmond hosting the first two races of the first round, and Dover moved to the opening race of the second round. Another notable change is that the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis will now be the regular-season finale on Sept. 9.

But perhaps the biggest change is that the Playoff race at Charlotte on Sept. 30, now the last race of the first round, will now be run on the track’s “roval” — racing jargon for a road course-oval combo, as the circuit will include parts of the 1.5-mile oval and the infield road course.

This will be the first race since 1987 that NASCAR has had three road-course races in a season, something which I find as a great change for the sport. Adding one to the Playoffs is also a welcome change.

The new layout will be a unique challenge for the drivers and teams, especially with the event’s timing as a cut-off race in the Playoffs. Who will conquer the sport’s newest challenge?

2. The emergence of young stars

Two rookies enter the Cup Series full-time in 2018, as both take over a storied ride: defending XFinity Series champion William Byron takes over the No. 24 Hendrick seat, while Darrell Wallace Jr. will be in the Petty No. 43 full-time after subbing four races last year for the injured Aric Almirola. Both have the talent and the personality to be big stars in the very near future.

But in addition to these two, other young guns are ready to establish themselves more firmly among the sport’s upper echelon. Erik Jones moves to the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 from Furniture Row Racing, taking over Matt Kenseth’s seat, while Ryan Blaney joins Penske Racing, who is expanding to three cars with the new No. 12 team. Both should be threats to win often, and have legitimate shots at contending for the championship this fall.

Alex Bowman takes over Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride in the No. 88 car at Hendrick Motorsports; many forget that he has 81 Cup Series starts between a stint in the No. 88 filling in for the concussed Earnhardt in 2016, as well as stints at the smaller teams of Tommy Baldwin Racing and BK Racing. Former XFinity Series champion Daniel Suarez also shows promise as he moves into his second season.

Oh, and there’s one other rising star primed for a huge 2018… some guy named Elliott.

1. The next level for Chase Elliott

Chase Elliott enters his third Cup Series season, and this year changes over to the No. 9 car at Hendrick Motorsports, driving for the same team but changing numbers after the opportunity arose to bring back to the Elliott family the number made legendary by Bill Elliott, Chase’s father.

Chase has not won a Cup Series race yet, though he has come painstakingly close on numerous occasions, including five runner-up finishes in 2017. Yet he seems primed for a breakout year in 2018, especially given a strong Playoff performance last year, finishing fifth in the final standings. Many feel one win may open the floodgates and lead to many victories.

With Earnhardt Jr. now retired, Elliott is set to take over as the sport’s most popular driver (I wasn’t sure about this, until at Darlington last year I noticed the number of Elliott shirts nearly equaled that of Earnhardt). But to validate that title in 2018, he needs to have the success to match — and he is more than capable of doing just that.

Elliott is already a star, but this year — with the timing of Earnhardt’s retirement and Elliott’s potential on-track success– may be the perfect storm for the humble, relatable Georgian to hit the fast track to superstardom, as in Junior’s absence he may be exactly what the sport is looking for.

 

 

Daytona Speedweeks Schedule

Sunday, Feb. 11
12:15 p.m. — Daytona 500 Pole Qualifying
3 p.m. — Advance Auto Parts Clash (75-lap exhibition race for 2017 pole winners, Playoff drivers and past Clash winners)

Thursday, Feb. 15
7 p.m. — CanAm Duels (Sets the starting lineup for the Daytona 500)

Friday, Feb. 16
7:30 p.m. — NextEra Energy Resources 250 (Camping World Truck Series race)

Saturday, Feb. 17
2:30 p.m. — Powershares QQQ 300 (XFinity Series race)

Sunday, Feb. 18
2:30 p.m. — 60th Daytona 500

Gordon Ends Drought, Bubba Makes History: The Weekend in NASCAR

Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon (File) (Photo credit: .Mearn)

Jeff Gordon won today’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway, for his 88th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory, and his first this year.  This was his 8th career win at Martinsville.  The win was a much needed one for Gordon, as it moved him from 5th to 3rd in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings, and he reduced his deficit from 34 to 27 points.  The win was the 21st at the Virginia short track for owner Rick Hendrick, although the track is also the site of the Hendrick plane crash tragedy in 2004, in which 10 were killed, including Rick’s son and brother, as well as legendary Hendrick engine builder Randy Dorton.

Matt Kenseth, who began the day 4 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson in the standings, led the most laps and finished 2nd, while Johnson finished 5th, resulting in a tie in the standings with 3 races remaining.  Kenseth does own the tiebreaker (for now at least) with 7 wins compared to 5 for Johnson.  The remaining races are at Texas Motor Speedway next Sunday, followed by Phoenix International Speedway on November 10 and Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 17.

Martinsville Speedway, April 2011

Martinsville Speedway (File) (Photo credit: chayes2014_)

Gordon’s win clinched the manufacturer’s championship for Chevrolet (pretty remarkable considering there’s still three races left).  This gives Chevy their 11th straight title, and their 37th overall.  This will be their 25th title in the last 31 years, with the last 30 of those being the Hendrick era, something that is not a coincidence.  While the Hendrick team isn’t solely responsible for this unbelievable run (Richard Childress Racing, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Morgan-McClure Motorsports, Darrell Waltrip Racing, Junior Johnson & Associates, Leo Jackson Motorsports, Ranier-Lundy Racing, Hagan Racing, and (briefly) Joe Gibbs Racing have also played a part in Chevy’s success over that time span), they are a major reason Chevrolet has dominated the sport.  Hendrick Motorsports has won 10 championships and 217 races in 30 Sprint Cup seasons, with drivers like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Terry Labonte, Ken Schrader, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, and Geoff Bodine.  Of those championships, Johnson has 5, Gordon has 4, and Labonte has 1 (Waltrip and Bodine won their titles with other car owners).  Hendrick also has 7 Daytona 500 wins.

Darrell Wallace Jr. Chats With Media

Darrell Wallace Jr. (File) (Photo credit: Bristol Motor Speedway & Dragway)

In Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race, an event that would normally be an unnotable preliminary became a historic occasion when Darrell Wallace Jr. took the checkered flag, becoming just the second African-American to win a race in a NASCAR national series (the national series are the Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Truck circuits).  The first man to do it was Wendell Scott, on December 1, 1963 at the now defunct Jacksonville (FL) Speedway Park.  Scott died in 1990, but his sons Franklin and Wendell Jr. made an appearance at Martinsville this morning alongside Wallace.  The 20-year-old Alabama native, who is called “Bubba” by many in the garage area, was making just his 19th career start in the Truck Series, acquiring his 5th top-5 and his 11th top-10 finish.  He currently sits 8th in this year’s points standings in the series, and could realistically finish as high as 5th in the standings at year’s end (he’s not mathematically eliminated from the title, but it’s unrealistic that he could catch points leader Matt Crafton).  Wallace had previously become the first African-American winner in the K&N Pro Series East in 2010 at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina, and he won Rookie of the Year in that series that season.  Also, in 4 Nationwide Series starts in 2012, he has compiled 3 top-10 finishes with a high of 7th.  Everyone who watched the race yesterday, and everyone who has followed Wallace’s career can tell you he has an exceptional amount of talent, and that the win which was his first won’t be his last.  If he reaches the Sprint Cup Series (and I firmly believe he will), he will be the first black driver to start a Sprint Cup Series race since Bill Lester ran 2 races for owner Bill Davis in 2006.  Before that, the most recent man to do it had been Willy T. Ribbs in 1986.  Watch out for Wallace, who currently drives for Kyle Busch Motorsports, to make some noise, and some more history, in the future.

 

Sprint Cup Series:  Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500, Results
(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Led, Points)
1. Jeff Gordon, 9, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 78, 47
2. Matt Kenseth, 4, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 202, 44
3. Clint Bowyer, 5, Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota, 60, 42
4. Brad Keselowski, 11, Penske Racing, Ford, 0, 40
5. Jimmie Johnson, 2, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 123, 40
6. Kevin Harvick, 10, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 38
7. Denny Hamlin, 1, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 14, 38
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 12, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet 0, 36
9. Greg Biffle, 33, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford, 0, 35
10. Jamie McMurray, 7, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 31
Notables:
12. Carl Edwards, 14, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford, 0, 32
14. Joey Logano, 6, Penske Racing, Ford, 0, 30
15. Kyle Busch, 3, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 12, 30
18. Kurt Busch, 19, Furniture Row Racing, Toyota, 0, 26
27. Kasey Kahne, 25, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 17
38. Ryan Newman, 17, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 6

Chase for the Cup Standings:
1. Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing, 2294
1. Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, 2294
3. Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports, 2267, -27
4. Kevin Harvick, Richard Childress Racing, 2266, -28
5. Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, 2258, -36
6. Clint Bowyer, Michael Waltrip Racing, 2239, -55
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports, 2238, -56
8. Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing, 2236, -58
9. Kurt Busch, Furniture Row Racing, 2219, -75
10. Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing, 2218, -76
11. Joey Logano, Penske Racing, 2209, -85
12. Ryan Newman, Stewart-Haas Racing, 2188, -106
13. Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports, 2170, -124

 

Camping World Truck Series:  Kroger 200, Results
(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Led, Points)
1. Darrell Wallace Jr., 3, Kyle Busch Motorsports, Toyota, 96, 48
2. Brendan Gaughan, 15, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 42
3. Jeb Burton, 9, Turner Scott Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 41
4. Ben Kennedy, 14, Turner Scott Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 40
5. Ryan Blaney, 24, Brad Keselowski Racing, Ford, 0, 39
6. Denny Hamlin, 1, Kyle Busch Motorsports, Toyota, 66, n/a
7. German Quiroga, 6, Red Horse Racing, Toyota, 0, 37
8. Johnny Sauter, 2, Curb Racing, Toyota, 9, 37
9. Scott Riggs, 28, RBR Enterprises, Chevrolet, 0, n/a
10. James Buescher, 7, Turner Scott Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 34
Notables:
17. Matt Crafton, 13, ThorSport Racing, Toyota, 0, 27
20. Chase Elliott, 12, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 24
22. Ty Dillon, 5, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 16, 23
30. Kevin Harvick, 21, NTS Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, n/a

Series Standings
1. Matt Crafton, ThorSport Racing, 707
2. James Buescher, Turner Scott Motorsports, 656, -51
3. Ty Dillon, Richard Childress Racing, 646, -61
4. Jeb Burton, Turner Scott Motorsports, 639, -68
5. Johnny Sauter, Curb Racing, 625, -82
6. Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski Racing, 615, -92
6. Miguel Paludo, Turner Scott Motorsports, 615, -92
8. Darrell Wallace Jr., Kyle Busch Motorsports, 614, -93
9. Brendan Gaughan, Richard Childress Racing, 595, -112
10. Timothy Peters, Red Horse Racing, 592, -115