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

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Fast Five: Best throwback paint schemes at Darlington

The Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington is NASCAR’s oldest crown jewel, dating back to 1950 when Johnny Mantz won with a whopping average speed of 75.25 miles per hour.

This weekend, as the speeds will approach 200, the competitors will honor the past for the third straight year during NASCAR’s throwback weekend.

Darlington Raceway began the throwback theme for their race weekends in 2015, and the event instantly became a favorite in the sport, getting bigger and better every year.

In addition to some throwback apparel and haircuts making their way through the garage area each year, the majority of the cars are sporting throwback paint schemes to the drivers of yesteryear.

Here are the best among the paint schemes for this year’s throwback weekend:

Honorable Mention:  XFinity Series Drivers Honor Legends

The cars in Saturday’s XFinity Series race, the Sports Clips Haircuts VFW 200, will not race in the Southern 500, but are still honoring some of the sports’ greatest legends.

Dylan Lupton is throwing back to six-time Southern 500 winner and four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, and his classic rainbow paint scheme from the 1990s.  In the rainbow DuPont car, Gordon won four straight Southern 500s from 1995-98, including the 1997 win to clinch the Winston Million bonus.

Erik Jones pays tribute to the late Davey Allison, who drove a #28 Texaco-Havoline paint scheme in the late 1980s, including his 1987 Rookie of the Year season and a runner-up finish to his father Bobby in the 1988 Daytona 500 in a car that is also being thrown back to this weekend (see below).

Ryan Reed is honoring the late Alan Kulwicki on the 25th anniversary of his remarkable 1992 Cup Series title.  This paint scheme is from 1989, when Kulwicki drove his #7 Zerex Ford to his first career Cup win at Phoenix.

Cole Custer’s car honors two-time XFinity Series champion Sam Ard (1983-84), who died earlier this year.  Ard, who is Pamplico, S.C., near Darlington, won 22 XFinity races in just three seasons before retiring after the 1984 season due to injuries.

Jeremy Clements, who drove a family-owned car to win last week’s XFinity Series race at Road America in a huge upset, is honoring A.J. Foyt, who drove this paint scheme to victory in the 1964 Firecracker 400 at Daytona.  This car has personal meaning for Clements; his grandfather Crawford was the crew chief on Foyt’s car.

Dakoda Armstrong honors legend and local native Cale Yarborough, from Timmonsville, S.C., who won five Southern 500s and three consecutive NASCAR Cup Series titles (1976-78).  Yarborough drove this paint scheme, sponsored by Hardee’s, from 1983-87, mostly in number 28, the number of Armstrong’s car this weekend.

 

5.  Denny Hamlin

While all the throwbacks honor racing’s legends, Hamlin’s is unique as it honors modified racing legend Ray Hendrick.  Hendrick, from Hamlin’s home state of Virginia, is nicknamed Mr. Modified, won over 700 races, and is the all-time winner at Martinsville Speedway with 20.

4.  Aric Almirola

Richard Petty Motorsports’ #43 will honor The King with a car replicating the paint scheme he drove to his 200th and final victory on July 4, 1984 in the Firecracker 400.  Almirola has honored Petty with his throwback the last two years, but you can’t go wrong honoring the undisputed greatest living driver in the sport’s history.  This car even has the original sponsor, STP, on the throwback scheme.

3.  Three Classics from 1985-1989

The official theme for this year’s throwback weekend is the 1985-89 era, and these cars are running paint schemes from that era:

Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman are both throwing back to Dale Earnhardt’s Wrangler Chevrolet from the late 1980s, but Dillon’s is the more notable throwback as he does so in car number 3.  This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the first of three Southern 500 wins by The Intimidator, who won seven NASCAR Cup titles.

Kasey Kahne will recreate the Levi Garrett #5 Chevrolet, driven by Geoff Bodine from 1985-89 in the early years of Hendrick Motorsports, including his 1986 Daytona 500 win.  The number has since been driven by drivers including Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte, Kyle Busch and Mark Martin, all at Hendrick, but will not return in 2018 as Hendrick re-aligns its car numbers to allow Chase Elliott to drive #9, his Hall of Fame father’s old number.

Matt DiBenedetto’s #32 Ford depicts the #12 Miller High Life Buick that Bobby Allison drove to victory in the aforementioned 1988 Daytona 500.  Allison’s career also ended in this paint scheme when he was seriously injured in a 1988 crash at Pocono.

2.  Drivers Throwing Back to Themselves

Two drivers are throwing back to cars they drove in the 1990s.  (You know you’re old when…)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be making his final Southern 500 start in his #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, in the paint scheme he drove in the XFinity Series as a #3 AC Delco Chevrolet in 1998-99.  Earnhardt Jr. won two XFinity Series titles in the car, and finished 2nd in the 1998 XFinity Series race at Darlington.  He has never won the Southern 500 but finished second in 2014 and eighth in 2015 (he did not start last year due to injury).

Talk about throwbacks, how about a throwback driver!  1990 Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope, who made his Cup debut in 1982, will make his 11th Cup start of the season in a paint scheme he drove in 1994 for owner Bobby Allison, as Mane ‘n’ Tail returns as sponsor.  This is not the first time Cope has thrown back to himself, as he drove the paint scheme from his Daytona win in the 2015 Darlington XFinity Series race.  Cope has not finished higher than 31st in a race this season.

1.  Brad Keselowski 

Brad Keselowski will drive a Miller Genuine Draft Ford identical to the car Rusty Wallace drove from 1991-95, a period when he won 23 races.  Miller has sponsored the Penske Racing #2 car ever since, so the sponsor is even the same on this throwback.  Even as simple as it is, this is one of the great paint schemes in the sport’s history, and I naturally like black and gold things, so this is easily the top paint scheme of this year’s throwback weekend.