This is a season of change for NASCAR. The sponsor of the Cup series has changed. The points system has changed. Some of the drivers have changed.
What hasn’t changed is that Jimmie Johnson is the defending champion, which is something that could be said in seven of the past 11 years. Whether Johnson will notch his record-setting eighth NASCAR title is one of this year’s top storylines.
If Johnson wins his eighth NASCAR championship, it will be his first Monster Energy Cup Series victory. The energy drink replaces Sprint as the sponsor of NASCAR’s premier circuit.
More significant than the change in the title sponsor is the change in the points system. NASCAR races will be divided into three sections, with drivers earning points during each segment. This makes the first half of races more meaningful, which NASCAR hopes will translate into more viewers, reversing the drastic decline in television ratings during the past decade. The increased emphasis on earlier portions of the race will likely alter drivers’ strategies because they will need to be more competitive earlier in the race.
As expected, NASCAR icon Tony Stewart retired after last season. But it was a complete surprise that Carl Edwards decided not to drive this season. Following Jeff Gordon’s retirement the previous season – although Gordon filled in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. during portions of last season – the departure of Stewart and Edwards creates a void that will be filled by younger drivers such as Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon and Ryan Blaney.
Let’s examine some storylines for the 2017 season, which kicks off Sunday with the Daytona 500, and analyze the potential contenders for the NASCAR title.
What impact will Dale Earnhardt’s return have on NASCAR?
At the very least, the presence of NASCAR’s most popular driver should increase television ratings and track attendance. If Earnhardt performs like a top competitor – he qualified for the front row at the Daytona 500 – after missing half of last year due to a concussion, it will be even better for NASCAR.
Who is replacing Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards?
Veteran Clint Bowyer, who hasn’t won in his last 149 races, replaces Stewart with Stewart-Haas Racing. Daniel Suarez, who won the XFINITY Series championship, is taking Edwards’ spot with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Will this be Danica Patrick’s final season as a full-time driver?
At some point, the novelty wears off. Patrick generated a lot of attention as a female driver on NASCAR’s biggest circuit, but that interest waned as she failed to compete for victories. The decision by Nature’s Bakery to cut off its sponsorship leaves Patrick without a main sponsor for the No. 10 car. If she doesn’t perform well enough to attract a new sponsor, it’s conceivable that Stewart-Haas Racing finds a new driver for the No. 10 car.
Will Jimmie Johnson break the record for NASCAR titles?
Johnson is tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with a record seven NASCAR championships. Breaking the tie and becoming NASCAR’s all-time championship leader will be difficult. There is a lot of competition at the top of NASCAR. Johnson will need some good fortune to repeat as champion. (See predictions at the end of this article.)
Which young drivers will join the elite group of familiar faces this year?
Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon all qualified for the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup last year. Elliott, who replaced Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 car, has almost established himself as a top driver. He won the pole for the Daytona 500 for the second consecutive season. It would be more surprising if Chase Elliott didn’t notch his first victory this season that if he did. Larson broke through with his first victory last season, and he should continue to ascend toward the top of the standings. Like Elliott, Dillon is searching for his first win. Dillon was eliminated in the first round of the Chase last season. Elliott and Larson were eliminated in the second stage. It wouldn’t be shocking if at least one member of this trio advances to the final eight this year.
Aside from the trio of young drivers who qualified for the Chase, which other young drivers could have a breakthrough year?
Ryan Blaney finished in the Top 10 nine times last year as a rookie with Wood Brothers Racing, which certainly doesn’t have the resources and pedigree of Hendrick Motorsports or Richard Childress Racing (Austin Dillon). Blaney finished 20th overall last year. He could find his way into the playoffs – it’s no longer called the Chase – this year.
Wait a minute. There isn’t a Chase for the Cup?
There is, but it will simply be the NASCAR playoffs. The Chase name is history.
Will the new points system make a difference?
As I wrote earlier, the division of races into three segments, with points opportunities during the first two segments (approximately the first half of the race), should affect driver strategies. Will it attract more fans? I’m not sure. The system seems a little complicated. Fans shouldn’t have to work too hard to figure out what’s going on during a race. The system also seems to be the equivalent of rewarding basketball or football teams for leading after one quarter or at halftime, which doesn’t make sense in my mind.
Which organization could make a greater impact this year?
Furniture Row Racing added Erik Jones to its organization, giving Martin Truex Jr. some company on the track. Truex qualified for the Chase and finished 11th last season. Jones, 20, won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series last year. He has filled in for Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth in Sprint Cup Series races for Joe Gibbs Racing.
The obvious answer is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 32nd last year after only appearing in 18 races. If he remains healthy, he should be able to return to the playoffs. Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne (left) were the top two drivers who didn’t make the Chase last year. Kahne, who hasn’t won in 83 races, may find his seat at Hendrick Motorsports getting awfully hot if he doesn’t win a race and qualify for the playoffs this year. Newman also should be considered a question mark to return to his former level of success. The pressure will be on Clint Bowyer to take Tony Stewart’s old car back to victory lane, but he’s far from a sure bet. Greg Biffle, with only one top-five finish last season, seems to be fading out of the picture. I think we’ll seem more new faces in the playoffs as NASCAR undergoes a changing of the guard.
Which 16 drivers will make the playoffs this year?
As always, I start with the drivers who made the Chase, or playoffs, last year. The departure of Carl Edwards and the retirement of Tony Stewart open up two spots for new drivers in the playoff field.
Barring severe injury, you can write Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski down as making the playoffs. And you can write their names in pen rather than pencil. Matt Kenseth should also return to the playoffs.
The Chip Ganassi duo of veteran Jamie McMurray and rising star Kyle Larson is likely to make the playoffs. I think Martin Truex Jr. will benefit from having rookie Erik Jones added to the Furniture Racing crew, so let’s keep Truex in the playoffs.
That leaves six spots remaining. Chase Elliott should retain his spot, and I expect Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. to make the playoffs, taking the optimistic view that he won’t sustain another concussion.
The drivers from last year’s Chase that I feel are most in jeopardy of missing the playoffs are Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon and Chris Buescher. After qualifying with a weather-related victory at Pocono as a rookie, Buescher is likely to miss the playoffs this year. Dillon, with younger brother Ty Dillon added to the Richard Childress Racing team, has a decent chance to make the playoffs.
That leaves two spots remaining. Will Clint Bowyer’s presence at Stewart Haas help Kurt Busch keep his playoff spot? Will Bowyer qualify for the playoffs? Will Kasey Kahne make the playoffs? Could Ryan Newman or Paul Menard join Richard Childress teammate Austin Dillon in the playoffs? Or will a young driver such as Ryan Blaney or Roush Fenway Racing’s Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. crack the playoff field?
I’m going to pick Kurt Busch and, continuing the process of the changing of the guard, Blaney to round out the 16-driver playoff field.
Who will win the first Monster Energy Cup?
I expected the younger drivers to make strides this season, but the old guard still dominates the list of true championship contenders.
5. Joey Logano
4. Denny Hamlin
3. Jimmie Johnson
2. Kevin Harvick
1. Kyle Busch