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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A Bad Weekend for the Buschs

Kyle and Kurt Busch will both miss the 57th Daytona 500 on Sunday, but due to two very different sets of circumstances.

Kurt, the older of the brothers, has been suspended indefinitely by NASCAR for conduct detrimental to the sport after a family court in Delaware found that he abused his then-girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, in his motor home in a race last September at Dover.  A family court commissioner handed down that ruling of domestic abuse on Friday afternoon, before the driver of the number 41 Haas Chevrolet was punished by the sanctioning body early Friday evening.

Kurt Busch is the 2004 Sprint Cup Series champion, and has won 25 Cup races in 14 full seasons for Roush Racing, Penske Racing, Phoenix Racing, Furniture Row Racing, and Stewart-Haas Racing.  In missing Sunday’s race, he misses another opportunity to win the 500, something he hasn’t done in 14 previous tries, although he has finished 2nd on three occasions, most recently in 2008.

After NASCAR suspended Kurt Busch on Friday, Chevrolet also “suspended their relationship” with the driver, in essence saying that even if he was allowed to drive in NASCAR, the manufacturer would not allow him to drive one of their cars.  Kurt’s current team, Stewart-Haas Racing, runs Chevrolets, meaning that even if he is allowed back on the track by NASCAR, he might not be able to return to his Stewart-Haas ride.

Regan Smith, a 31-year old XFinity series regular, will replace Kurt Busch in the 41 car for the 500 on Sunday.  Smith has one career Cup Series win, in the 2011 Southern 500 at Darlington, but has proven himself to be a competent superspeedway racer.  It is the fourth time since 2012 that Smith has filled in for a Cup Series driver, filling in for Tony Stewart the day after the Kevin Ward fatal accident last year, and filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in two races in 2012 after Junior got a concussion.

Kurt appealed his suspension, and due to the circumstances and timing, NASCAR expedited the appeal process so that if it was overturned, Kurt could still run the Daytona 500, which he had been scheduled to start 24th in.  Both his initial appeal to the National Motorsports Appeals Panel was denied, as was his final appeal to NASCAR Chief Appellate Officer Bryan Moss.

Considering that both the sanctioning body and his car manufacturer have indefinitely suspended Kurt Busch, and considering what has happened elsewhere in professional sports in the past year regarding domestic violence, particularly in the very high-profile cases of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, there is a real possibility Kurt’s career in NASCAR may be over.  Only time will tell.

This is not the first time Kurt has been in trouble with NASCAR, either.  Kurt, known by some as an aggressive and temperamental driver, was fined $50,000 by NASCAR and later fired by Penske Racing for insulting team officials on the radio and twice having incidents with reporters.  He was suspended one race in 2012, also for an incident with a reporter.  And now he’s in more trouble than he’s ever been.

On Saturday, in the NASCAR XFinity Series race at Daytona, Kyle Busch, the younger of the brothers, crashed head-on into a concrete wall on the extreme inside of the track between the tri-oval and turn one.  The crash resulted in a broken left leg and a broken left foot for Kyle, who naturally will miss the Daytona 500 due to the injuries.

Kyle initially got most of the way out of his car under his own power after the crash, but couldn’t get his left leg out of the car without the help of emergency personnel, who then laid him on the ground and stabilized his leg.  He was placed on a stretcher and taken directly to Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, bypassing the on-site hospital, and within a couple of hours was in surgery, according to media reports.

The crash resulted in the worst injuries suffered at Daytona since Dale Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500.  Kyle Busch will miss the 500, and a few subsequent events, as he is currently described by his Joe Gibbs Racing team as “out indefinitely”.

Matt Crafton, the 38-year old two-time defending champion in the Camping World Truck Series and has plenty of NASCAR experience, will drive Kyle’s number 18 M&Ms Toyota in the 500 on Sunday.  Crafton has filled in for drivers before, but only in qualifying, so he will make his Sprint Cup Series debut in his first 500 start on Sunday.

As for both Smith and Crafton, no word has been given as to whether or not they will continue driving for Stewart-Haas or Gibbs on an interim basis next week at Atlanta.

After the crash, which was into a concrete wall and not a SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barrier, which was a point of contention among many after the crash.  SAFER barriers were first used at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2002, as part of the safety movement across all forms of motorsports after, among other events, Earnhardt’s death, but are expensive, so many tracks began by placing them in the places where hard impacts occurred most frequently.

A majority of the walls at Daytona are SAFER barriers but, as mentioned, Kyle Busch hit a concrete wall, making the impact much more violent.  Within two hours of the accident, Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III announced that tires would be used as an impromptu softer wall for Sunday’s race, before the installing SAFER barriers on “every inch of this property”, saying the planning process for that would start on Monday.  Chitwood’s message was, in essence, that this will not happen again at Daytona on his watch.

Due to the Busch brothers both being out of the Daytona 500, making this the first running of the 500 since 2000 without one of the Buschs in the field.  Additionally, at least one Busch has been in the field for every Sprint Cup Series race since Kurt failed to qualify for a race at Atlanta on November 18, 2001 (before Kyle’s Cup career began).

For two very different reasons, it has been a bad weekend for both racing members of the Busch family.

 

 

 

2015 Daytona 500 Starting Lineup
Row 1:  Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson
Row 2:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Crafton*
Row 3:  Joey Logano, Carl Edwards
Row 4:  Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle
Row 5:  Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr.
Row 6:  Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney
Row 7:  Kasey Kahne, Reed Sorenson
Row 8:  Jamie McMurray, Mike Wallace
Row 9:  Landon Cassill, Justin Allgaier
Row 10:  Cole Whitt, Danica Patrick
Row 11:  Paul Menard, Ryan Newman
Row 12:  Michael McDowell, Regan Smith^
Row 13:  J.J. Yeley, David Gilliland
Row 14:  Michael Annett, David Ragan
Row 15:  Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon
Row 16:  Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 17:  Aric Almirola, Michael Waltrip
Row 18:  Matt Kenseth, Johnny Sauter
Row 19:  Trevor Bayne, Sam Hornish Jr.
Row 20:  Brad Keselowski, A.J. Allmendinger
Row 21:  Casey Mears, Denny Hamlin
Row 22:  Bobby Labonte
Failed to qualify:  Alex Bowman, Brian Scott, Jeb Burton, Justin Marks, Josh Wise, Ron Hornaday Jr., Joe Nemechek
*substituting for Kyle Busch

^substituting for Kurt Busch