With the ‘Great American Race’ fast approaching, here are all of the biggest talking points and story lines as we head into the Daytona 500 and a new season of NASCAR.
Martin Truex Jr’s Title Defence
2017 belonged to Martin Truex Jr whichever way you look at it. With Monster Energy coming into NASCAR and revamping the series, he adapted to the new stage format with ease to take nineteen stage wins during the season and seven race wins. He then topped it all off by winning the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway to clinch his first NASCAR championship. In what was definitely his best twenty laps of the season, Truex Jr managed to hold off a clearly faster Kyle Busch, preventing him from taking the win and his second championship. He didn’t put a wheel wrong and fully deserved to take the title. A fantastic end to a fairytale season. It would have been difficult to find a fan of the sport that was disappointed at the outcome.
The question is now, was it just a flash in the pan season or will this usher in a new era of dominance for Truex Jr and Furniture Row Racing’s 78 team? With Toyota and a Joe Gibbs Racing alliance behind the team, it is feasible that the 78 team can dominate for many seasons to come. The team has gone from strength to strength since switching from Chevrolet to Toyota in 2016. The teamwork between Truex Jr and his crew chief, Cole Pearn too has a lot to do with that. Very rarely do you hear an angry word said by either of them about one another during a race. Clearly they have a fantastic working relationship and Pearn’s decisions towards the end of the races last season shouldn’t go unnoticed. So often as the frontman for the team the driver gets all the plaudits.
Cole Pearn is a very solid crew chief who rarely makes the wrong call when it matters. At only 37 years of age, in NASCAR terms, Truex Jr is also nearing his peak. Evidence that his age shouldn’t be an issue for many years to come. When combined with the well publicised battle that his longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex goes through, it can only be assumed that Truex Jr’s enthusiasm won’t waver, instead it seems to inspire a strength within him.
Toyota over the last two seasons have won thirty-two of seventy-two races. Nearly half. On current form, you’d have to say that once again, Toyota are clearly favourites to be the strongest manufacturer.
However, Chevrolet rolling out the new Camaro, will obviously be looking to end that stronghold. A brand new car model might be exactly what NASCAR’s most successful manufacturer needs to spark a resurgence after what was a largely disappointing 2017 season.
Toyota will clearly go into the 2018 season with the target on their backs. The one major factor that Truex Jr will need to overcome to repeat as champion is a certain Kyle Busch. The man that people love to hate. He quite literally started 2017 with a bang. The unnecessary Las Vegas incident in the pit lane with Joey Logano, put the spotlight on him early and it took until July 30 at Pocono to win his first race and book his place in the playoffs.
He did go on to win a further four races however and pushed Truex Jr every step of the way at Homestead-Miami, just falling short.
The most naturally talented driver in NASCAR will start the season as the favourite despite not quite managing to take the championship last season. His talent deserves more than just the one title he already has, so he will be ever present at the front of the field in 2018.
In 2016 Martin Truex Jr came second to Denny Hamlin in the closest finish in the history of Daytona 500, can he go one better this year or will he get snubbed again?
It seems that this year, Brad Keselowski is the favourite to win the Great American Race, sitting at 8/1 on most Sportsbooks reviewed on mytopsportsbooks.com to win the Daytona 500. Last year’s winner, Kurt Busch, is all the way down at 25/1, well behind his brother Kyle (12/1) with Joe Gibbs Racing. There’s a reason the defending champ’s odds are so long: nobody has won the Daytona 500 twice in a row since Sterling Marlin in 1994 and 1995. The pole-sitter, Alex Bowman, is similarly faded at 28/1: nobody’s won from the pole since 2000, and neither sportsbooks nor bettors think it’s likely for a replacement driver to make it happen this year.
On the back of a championship winning, rookie season in the Xfinity series, Byron will step into the legendary #24 car for Hendrick Motorsport. At just 20 years old, Byron already has an incredible list of achievements; 2015 K&N East Series Champion (rookie year), 2016 CWTS Rookie of Year (with a rookie record of 7 wins), 2017 Xfinity champion with 4 wins. If there’s one thing evident from his record, it’s that he can win straight from the gate. Although I don’t believe he’ll make it into the final, it’d be a huge surprise to see Byron fail to make the playoffs this season
Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.
Bubba made his cup debut at Pocono, substituting for an injured Aric Almirola. He impressed in the four races he appearing for RPM with a best finish of 11th at Kentucky. Returning to the #43 for a full time drive this season, the experience and confidence gained in 2017 should help Wallace to hit the ground running. With Richard Petty Motorsport making the switch from Ford to the new Chevvy Camaro and tying in with RCR, hopefully they can provide Bubba with a car that can match his obvious talent.
This will be the first Daytona 500 for both of the rookies, who will come out on top?
The Danica Double
2018 is the year of the Danica double. She will race in the two of the jewels in the motor sport crown; The Daytona 500 and the Indy 500. The familiar Go Daddy livery will adorn her Chevrolet Camaro in the Premium Motorsports number 7. Tony Eury Jr will again be her crew chief. She is ready for her last ever race in NASCAR and she’s ready to go out on a high at the place where she gained her one and only pole position. The Great American Race. After a string of bad luck last season, Patrick will be hoping to avoid trouble in her last race as she looks to close a large chapter in her racing career.
A deal seems to be in place for a team for the Indy 500 too. In the as yet unannounced team (believed to be confirmed at the Indy Hall of Fame in March), she will be taking to the wheel in an Indy Car for the first time since Las Vegas in 2011. As one of the most recognisable athletes in the world, male or female, a strong result in both would be the least she deserves after a career that has allowed gender barriers to be broken down in an industry that has been largely male dominated.
Kyle Busch vs Brad Keselowski
“Kyle Busch is an ass!” – Brad Keselowski on Busch
“Sometimes you just don’t like a guy” – Kyle Busch on Brad Keselowski
There’s no love lost between these two and not a season goes by without contact made between the #2 and the#18, especially at Watkins Glen. Will they kiss and make up in 2018? I doubt it!
The Fords have been dominant at the super speedways in recent years but the Toyota’s seem to have pace everywhere, I think there’s every chance that we’ll see these guys running wheel to wheel on Sunday.
Kyle Busch vs Joey Logano
“Everything’s great!” – Possibly the best catchphrase to be born in 2017. This is a rivalry that seemed to come out of nowhere. On the final lap of last seasons race at Las Vegas, Logano got into the rear quarter panel of the #18, turning Busch and spinning him out of the race. From outside, most would call this an unfortunate racing incident but in the mind of Kyle Busch, there was no doubt that Logano intentionally ‘dumped’ him.
What came next was a furious Rowdy storming down the pit lane and without a word, throwing a punch at Logano before being tackled to the ground by the #22 team. Joey was dumbfounded that Kyle reacted in such a way, as far as he was concerned, racing had always been hard but respectful between the two. In interviews the next, when asked about the incident and NASCAR’s reaction to it, all Busch had to say was “Everything’s great!”, which went on to become a t-shirt sold at $22, with proceeds going to the Kyle Busch Foundation.
Although Kyle Busch was quick to make light of the incident, I don’t believe it would take much between the two, to open the wound and turn rivalry into Busch vs Penske.
Kevin Harvick vs Ryan Blaney
Another rivalry that came out of nowhere and was over just as quickly. Kevin Harvick spent much of the Martinsville playoff race, riding Blaney’s rear bumper, seemingly using the #21 as his brake. On the final lap, heavier lap was made between the two, collecting Hamlin and the rest of field, turn the front stretch into a junk yard. Both drivers blamed the other, Harvick claimed he was brake checked by Blaney, and Ryan was furious with being shunted around the track for most of the race.
Heated words were exchanged in the pit lane, out of ear shot, and both drivers seemed to move on but much like the Busch/Logano dynamic, it wouldn’t take much between the two to light the touch paper and see a feud develop between the popular young driver and a NASCAR veteran.
Chase Elliott vs Denny Hamlin
The Martinsville race with go down in NASCAR history as a prime example of everything that NASCAR can and should be. Most notable the rivalry that was sparked between Hamlin and Elliott, both of whom were racing to seal there place in the next phase of the playoffs, when Hamlin spun the #24 into the wall and out of the lead in the closing laps. After the checkered flag as the cars made their way to pit lane, Chase drew alongside Hamlin and made deliberate contact with both drivers topping and getting out of their cars to confront each other.
“You wrecked me” were the word clearly being spoken by an incensed Chase Elliott. Who was now in a must win situation. Over the boo’s of the Martinsville crowd, Hamlin explained to interviewers that as far as he was concerned in was just hard racing with no intent to wreck. When the cameras turned to Elliott to hear his side, there was no doubt whose side the crowd was on and Chase made it very clear that he believed the wreck to be intentional.
Fast forward to Phoenix and Chase returned the favour, getting alongside the #11 and nudging him into the wall, causing a tire rub and eventual failure, potentially costing Hamlin his place in the championship 4.
One would hope that both drivers are big enough to say “one each, we’re even” and move on. It’ll be interesting to see how they race each other at the Daytona 500 and beyond.