With less than a month to go before the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series kicks off with the iconic Daytona 500, it seems like a good time to preview what is set to be an era-defining year for the sport.
Last November saw household names of stock car racing, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Matt Kenseth, bow out of the sport, whilst Danica Patrick is set to take part in her final NASCAR race at Daytona. On the flipside, 2017 was the year several young drivers burst onto the scene.
Chase Elliott won a legion of fans in the Playoffs following his spat with Denny Hamlin at Martinsville, Ryan Blaney – who moves from the Wood Brothers to Team Penske this season – broke out for his first Cup win at Pocono, whilst Kyle Larson won 4 races, and looked set to compete for the title, before he was struck with a stretch of bad luck which saw him painfully eliminated in the Round of 12.
This season promises to be a significant year for another bunch of future stars. Rookie William Byron takes over the iconic #24 driven by Jeff Gordon (Elliott switches to the #9 to follow his father Bill’s legacy) off the back of a hugely impressive NASCAR Xfinity title in 2017. Byron isn’t the only new face at Hendrick Motorsports this year as Earnhardt Jr’s successor, Alex Bowman, makes his full-time return to the Cup Series after a 2-year hiatus.
7-time champion Jimmie Johnson returns to a team that will also be running a new car in 2018. The Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 debuts at Daytona with a striking front end and the aerodynamic potential to challenge Toyota’s dominance after a disappointing year last season.
Speaking of Toyota, last season’s Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. has to go into the season opener as the favourite to retain his crown. Truex dominated 2017, picking up 8 wins, including the vital win in the season finale at Homestead to secure his first title.
His teammate from last season, Erik Jones, joins the team which offers technical support to Furniture Row Racing each year, Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR). JGR maintains a strong driver lineup, with 2015 champion and last year’s runner-up, Kyle Busch, the headline act alongside Jones, Hamlin and sophomore Daniel Suarez.
Stewart-Haas Racing also make a change to their driver lineup, as Aric Almirola replaces Patrick in the #10 Ford. Almirola joins past champions Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, as well as multiple race winner Clint Bowyer in a team with tonnes of experience.
Almirola’s big break comes after leaving Richard Petty Motorsports, who have switched from Ford to Chevrolet for 2018. Driving under Petty’s legendary mentorship is Darrell Wallace Jr. who substituted for the team last season in the wake of Almirola’s back injury. “Bubba” as he is affectionately known, has strong fan support and will have a chip on the shoulder after he was harshly dropped from Roush-Fenway’s Xfinity programme halfway through 2017.
Other things to note ahead of the new season include minor changes to the schedule; Indianapolis replaces Richmond as the cutoff race before the Playoffs, which now moves into the Round of 16, joining Las Vegas and a new race at the Charlotte “Roval”, making for what should be an exciting and varied first Playoff round.
Kasey Kahne joins Leavine Family Racing in the #95 Chevrolet, Paul Menard joins the legendary Wood Brothers in the #21 Ford, whilst Michael McDowell also drives a Ford this year with Front Row Motorsports.
The Daytona 500 gets underway on February 18th at 7:30pm GMT (2:30pm EST) and Essaar Motorsport will bring you news and reports throughout the season.