CHARLOTTE, NC — A new year means there’s a brand new NASCAR season looming, right around the turn in the track. In many ways, not much has changed for the motorsport that began as a way to showcase the driving prowess of Southern moonshine bootleggers in the late 1940s.
While the race cars of today are vastly different in comparison to those that first went round the track 70 years ago, there are some things that remain, starting with fast cars and strong personalities.
When the 2018 NASCAR season kicks off at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday, Feb. 11, fans old and new to the sport will be bracing for a year of changes. NASCAR fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. has retired, a new car will be seen on the track and a new road course will be unveiled in Charlotte.
Want some help picking out a new favorite driver or could you use a cheat sheet for the upcoming season? Patch got the lowdown from two seasoned NASCAR experts who gave their thoughts on the big things coming up this season.
“This is going to be an interesting season for NASCAR because there’s been so much turnover with the stars of the sport,” said Jenna Fryer, who writes about NASCAR for the Associated Press.
Freelance writer and statistician Brock Beard, who runs the website Lastcar that follows the underdogs of the sport, said he believes 2018 will be the best year for new fans, “simply because so much of the sport is new,” he said. “It will also be a good time for old fans to embrace a new generation that has slowly been building over the years.”
Dale Jr.’s Retirement
Perhaps the most epic star turnover came with the retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who started Cup-level racing at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in the 1999 Coca-Cola 600. Earnhardt announced his retirement in April 2017 following rehabilitation from a concussion. “You’re wondering why I reached this decision, it’s really simple,” he said at a press conference. “I wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms.”
Earnhardt’s exodus from the top tier of NASCAR racing means there will be a chance for other drivers to shine, according to Beard. “The biggest thing fans old and new need to know about NASCAR is that there are plenty of interesting personalities throughout the field, both in front and in rear,” Beard said.
“With Junior retired, many other stars can now get the attention they deserve,” Beard added. “It will draw focus to the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, and Kevin Harvick, who are now the old guard and championship contenders. It will also look at the young guys coming up, including Ryan Blaney and Darrell Wallace Jr., who have become some of the most fun and approachable drivers on the circuit.”
Earnhardt is just one of several major driver changes that have kept fans engaged, says Fryer.
“In the span of three seasons, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired, and Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Danica Patrick have all been sidelined for various reasons,” she said. “So with all those stars out of cars, fans are really going to have to find a driver who they are passionate enough about to continue to watch races on television, attend them in person and buy products.”
Who is the driver to watch?
For many race fans, the wave of driver retirements last season means picking new favorites in 2018. But who are the drivers to watch?
“There’s a real opportunity for some young drivers to take the series by storm both on the track and with fans,” Fryer said. “The flip side of the exodus of stars is that an entire new crop of drivers is right behind them.”
Says Fryer: “Kyle Larson is probably the hottest driver right now because he’s started consistently winning already. But right behind him are Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez. Dale Jr. was NASCAR’s most popular driver year after year, but that award will now go to someone else and the odds are it will be Chase Elliott. His father, Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, won the award a record 16 times and Chase seems poised to step into that role. His popularity soared late last season when he beefed with Denny Hamlin, and got his revenge on Hamlin in a race that knocked Hamlin out of the Playoffs. By the way fans reacted to the sequence, Elliott could step right into Dale Jr.’s vacant hole.”
The new season is ushering in a “youth movement,” with many younger drivers in top rides, Beard said.
“Erik Jones almost made the Playoffs with Furniture Row Racing this year and should have won a couple races,” Beard said. “Next year, he’ll be driving one of the best cars in the garage — the #20 for Joe Gibbs Racing. Darrell Wallace Jr. showed some real promise in his debut last year for Richard Petty Motorsports, and with [Richard Childress Racing] support and Chevrolet backing in 2018, I expect that car to be even faster,” he said, adding that Alex Bowman could also be a strong contender on the track this season.
For fans who like a good underdog story, who is the driver to watch?
According to Beard, who studies just this very scenario, one of the most exciting race teams to watch this season will be Beard Motorsports (which are no relation to him).
“Team owner Mark Beard has been trying to break into racing for so long, and finally pulled together a Chevrolet last year at Daytona with the outspoken Brendan Gaughan behind the wheel,” he said. “From the team’s 11th-place finish in the Daytona 500 onward, this team has consistently outperformed its limitations all year, even though they only ran the four plate races. While I’m unhappy that smaller teams in the sport can no longer afford to run large parts of the schedule, I’m hopeful that the Beard team’s example will encourage other startups to try their hand at limited schedules, which is what the sport was built on decades ago.”
What tracks will present the most interesting races to watch?
When it comes to the best racing to watch, according to Beard, you’ll want to watch the short tracks (like Martinsville, Va., or Bristol, Tenn.), plate races (in Talladega, Ala., and Daytona, Fla.) and road courses (in Sonoma, Calif., and Watkins Glen, N.Y). These tracks hold the best potential for getting new fans hooked on the sport, Beard said.
Car Manufacturer Competition
Racing is as much a competition between the big names on the hood of the cars as it is among the big names behind the wheel. The new season will bring some developments on this front, too, including a new car headed to the track that could shake things up a bit.
Says Fryer: “Toyota was the most dominant manufacturer in 2017 and driver Martin Truex Jr. won the title in a very strong fashion. There was grumblings from some drivers that Toyota had an advantage in the design of the new Camry it rolled out last season. Now, this year, Chevrolet will also come out with a new car, a Camaro. It should bolster Hendrick Motorsports — seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson just wasn’t a factor down the stretch last season — and he could adapt quickly to the Camaro. But, it’s got the Ford camps a little annoyed because Ford does not have a new car in the works and its drivers don’t want to fall any further behind Toyota and Chevrolet.”
Charlotte Motor Speedway has a new road course oval coming online this season with the Bank of America 500 on Sept. 30. The ROVAL will feature 13 turns spread out over 2.4 miles, and NASCAR officials expect fans will be thrilled by the physical and mental challenges it will create for drivers.
“No one has any idea what the ROVAL is going to be like just yet,” Fryer said. “Track operators have got to be creative in getting fans to come to the races, and simply by introducing the ROVAL, [Speedway Motorsports, Inc.] has created a unique event that is worth checking out at least once.”
The decision to add the ROVAL to the track lineup is one that fans have wanted to see happen for years, Beard said. “The biggest problem will be NASCAR’s officiating with cautions, and I expect a tedious portion of the race to be run under yellow — a problem made worse by the stage racing format. If NASCAR doesn’t throw a yellow for every little thing, we might see some fun stuff on the ROVAL.”
Race fans have one more thing to look forward to in 2018 — Beard’s new book, “J.D.: The Life and Death of a Forgotten NASCAR Legend,” which will be released in July by Waldorf Publishing. According to Beard, it’s the first stand-alone biography of the late J.D. McDuffie, and will introduce old and new fans alike to a driver who played a big part in making NASCAR what it is today.
You can find the 2018 NASCAR schedule here.
PHOTOS: NASCAR Cup Series championship contenders from left to right, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr. during driver introductions before a auto race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla., Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.(AP Photo/Terry Renna)
Martin Truex Jr. speaks during the NASCAR Cup Series auto racing awards Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)
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