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10 Must-Watch Storylines in NASCAR This Year

Jimmie Johnson’s final ride, a strong rookie class, and Chevrolet’s quest to return to the front headline the NASCAR Cup Series in 2021

Steven Cole SmithWriterNASCARPhotographerGetty ImagesPhotographer

You hear it every year from drivers, usually right after the Daytona 500: "The NASCAR Cup Series season really begins next week. Daytona really isn't representative …"

Especially, you hear this from drivers who had a lousy Daytona 500, which this year opened the NASCAR Cup Series season on Feb. 18—after rain forced officials to move the race to the day after its scheduled Sunday running. But there's a lot of truth in the statement, no matter where you finished in the first race of the season: Florida's Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama really aren't like the rest of the tracks on the NASCAR schedule. They're big, they're fast, and the drivers need to constantly draft: That means they run nose-to-tail, inches apart (if that much), because on the biggest tracks, two cars together go faster than one, three go faster than two, four go faster than three … and eventually someone will make a mistake, and you'll have "the big one," a massive multi-car crash that decimates the field.

And last Monday night, in the rain-delayed Daytona 500, we had more than one "big one," until we had that horrendous crash at the finish line where a minor mistake on the part of leader Ryan Newman and Ryan Blaney, both Ford drivers trying to hold off eventual winner Denny Hamlin, sent Newman head-on into the wall. Newman then flipped down the track until a hapless Corey Lajoie slammed into the side of Newman's car, which then slid down the track upside down, on fire.

You already know that, and you also know, in what can only be described as a miracle, Newman walked out of the hospital in Daytona Beach less than 48 hours after he arrived there in a speeding ambulance, where he was quickly pronounced in serious condition.

So Daytona really is different. After the last race of the season, in November, drivers have all winter to dread the Daytona 500, one reason being because NASCAR—unlike most every other sport—has its Superbowl at the start of the season, not the end. It's a frightening place to knock the winter rust off, and to try out the inevitable off-season changes NASCAR makes to the cars. It's like debuting a brand-new play, with no rehearsal, on Broadway.

Even though next year will mark 20 years since Dale Earnhardt was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500, and despite the fact the cars, the track, and the drivers' safety equipment are dramatically safer now, Monday night we were reminded that racing in general, Daytona in particular, plays rough.

So now, Daytona is out of the way until it hosts a summer race in August, and Talladega doesn't roll around until April 26. That gives us time to talk about …

Ten Things to Watch in the NASCAR Cup Series This Season:

1. Just Cup.  Notice above, we call it the NASCAR Cup Series. We haven't done that since 1970, the last season before NASCAR struck a deal with R.J. Reynolds, the tobacco company, and we began calling it the NASCAR Winston Cup Series (for those among you who were born by 1971). Then, from 2004-2007, it was the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series. Sprint then bought Nextel, so from 2008-2016, it was the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. In 2017, it became the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series.

Now, NASCAR insists that despite rumors that Monster Energy balked at continuing to serve as title sponsor at the present asking price, it was actually NASCAR that fired Monster Energy. Instead of one main sponsor, NASCAR named several companies as "premiere partners," and for the first time in decades, it's just the NASCAR Cup Series, with no sponsor mention. Which seems odd. For years, if you wanted to refer to the top tier of the three-tier NASCAR series, you had to actually say "Winston Cup" or "Nextel Cup" or "Sprint Cup." You literally couldn't accurately explain what you were referring to without mentioning a brand of cigarette or phone service. It was brilliant, and very lucrative, marketing on both sides. Let's see if NASCAR's "premiere partners" will fill the gap.

2. So long, Mr. Seven-Time. In December 2006, at the Black Diamond golf club about 70 miles north of Tampa, Florida, Jimmie Johnson—possibly celebrating his first NASCAR Cup championship with excessive liquidity—was playing in a charity tournament when he decided to "surf" atop a golf cart. He fell off and broke his wrist. And that is the most controversial, eyebrow-raising event in Johnson's full-time NASCAR Cup career that ends this season at 19 years and an incredible seven championships.

With 83 wins in 652 races—so far—Johnson is the template for what we say we want our professional athletes to be: polite, humble, even-tempered, fair, a good spokesman for NASCAR and his sponsors, married to the same woman since 2004. He and Chandra have two daughters, and she spends much of her time running the Jimmie Johnson Foundation, which has raised millions of dollars for charity. Yet the most common complaint we hear about Johnson is that he is too, well, plain. Boring. Right. He'll be plain and boring all the way to the bank, and we will miss him when he's gone. See him now if you never have: You'll be watching one of the best. Ever.

One of the most telling lines ever delivered about Johnson was at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2010, the season finale, where Johnson finished the race in second, and Carl Edwards, who finished the season fourth in points, won the race. In the media center after the race Edwards, marveling at how Johnson had just won his fifth straight championship in five years, said, "He's an amazing driver. Think about it: To equal him, I'd have to win the championship next year, and the next, and the next, and the next, and the next. I don't think we'll ever see that happen again."

3. The rookie class. This is one of the strongest NASCAR Cup rookie classes in years. Remember these names: Christopher Bell (No. 95), Tyler Reddick (No. 8), John Hunter Nemechek (No. 38) and, if his Premium Motorsports team can find enough money to keep him in the car, and competitive, all season, Brennan Poole (No. 15). In terms of outright talent, we'll go with Bell, but while he is signed to the potent Joe Gibbs Racing roster, JGR is already at the four-car maximum. So, Toyota put Bell with the one-car Leavine Family Racing team, and that might slow his progress a bit. Nemechek is running a Chevrolet for Front Row Motorsports, regarded like Leavine as second-tier, but like Leavine, the team swings above its weight. Custer, in a Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, and son of SHR president Joe Custer, has good equipment and teammates like Kevin Harvick to lean on. And Reddick is in a Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing; Chevy likes him and will likely do what it can to expedite his learning curve. Going into this weekend's race at Las Vegas, Poole and Bell have no sponsor listed, a problem for Poole, but Toyota will help pay Bell's way.

4. Speaking of sponsors. The starting field for this weekend's race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway calls for 40 cars. There are 38 entries. Of those 38, eight have no sponsors listed. Of the 30 that do, two are essentially charitable organizations, and likely are not contributing much financial support, if any. In a sport where it takes $20 million to be competitive, motorsports—any kind—is finding it tough to raise that kind of per-car capital. This is nothing new, but we're hearing from team owners that this could be a long year.

5. The bow-tie brand. It has been a tough few years for Chevrolet, for a couple of reasons. One, it lost some good drivers to retirement, especially Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., and it lost some good teams, like with Stewart-Haas moving its alignment to Ford. In 2018, Chevrolet won four races—and three of those wins came from Chase Elliott at Hendrick Motorsports. Chevy won seven races in 2019, but Ford won 10, Toyota 19. Painfully, when it came to the "final four" at the season finale, there was one Ford, Harvick, and three Toyotas (Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., and winner Kyle Busch).

This year, though, there seems to be reason for some real hope. Chevrolet ran the Camaro body-style in the NASCAR Xfinity series with substantial success, but when it brought the Camaro to the Cup series, well, it just didn't work out so great, and it caught Chevrolet by surprise. For 2020, NASCAR allowed Chevrolet to make some modest tweaks to the car's aerodynamics, and they seem to be paying off. Chevrolet also has a modified engine it will introduce soon. Also, the young crop of drivers like Alex Bowman (No. 88) and William Byron (No. 24) have had a chance to develop, and for those two especially, this is a critical year. It's also the final year of Kyle Larson's contract with Chip Ganassi Racing, and Larson is getting tired of having to drive outside of his comfort zone to try to keep up with the other two manufacturers.

6. Can Toyota keep it up? Toyota Racing Development boss David Wilson knows that to win regularly, you have to be lucky and good. He's pretty sure his Toyotas are good, but they seem to have been blessed with an inordinate proportion of luck the last few years. Like Monday night: Denny Hamlin, in his Toyota, had five Fords behind him, and at that moment, no one would have bet on Hamlin's chances. But one of the two top Fords accidentally wrecked the other, and Hamlin won his second straight Daytona 500 in a photo-finish. Otherwise, is there a solid reason why the Toyotas won't be similarly dominant? Not a logical one.

The top Toyota team, Joe Gibbs Racing, still has Truex, Busch, and Hamlin in place, and if the fourth driver, Erik Jones, doesn't pick up the pace, there are plenty of drivers who would love to sit in that seat. What's stunning is that really, that's all Toyota has. There are three other Toyota drivers at Las Vegas this weekend: Rookie Bell, who is with a team that has never won; Daniel Suarez, with a team attempting a full Cup schedule for the first time; and Timmy Hill, in a two-year-old Camry that has to be considered a race-to-race team. So, in the field of 38 cars, there are 15 Chevrolets, 16 Fords, and just seven Toyotas. But it's Vegas—want to bet against them?

7. What will Roger Penske do? Track owner, team owner, NTT IndyCar Series owner, and former driver Roger Penske is heavily involved in motorsports, but we'd argue the 83-year-old is worth an estimated $1.65 billion not because of his participation in racing, but in spite of it. Yes, he owns the Ford teams of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, both former NASCAR Cup champions, and Ryan Blaney, who is just coming into his own. He also owns two of the top-running Prototype teams in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and he also owns IndyCar teams for three of the top drivers in that series. But you likely recall he also bought the entire IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway late last year. As a result, Penske is already making noise—and correctly so—that there has been too much isolation among NASCAR, IMSA, and IndyCar, and he wants to know what can be done to create the rising tide that lifts all race cars.

How about a schedule that boasts an IndyCar race on Saturday and Cup on Sunday, at the same track? We'd go to that, especially if it was a road course. Add to that the fact this is the last year for the majority of NASCAR contracts with the various racetracks the NASCAR Cup series competes on, including the dozen that NASCAR owns, since it essentially bought out International Speedway Corp. last year. Think about it: The combined power wielded by NASCAR CEO Jim France (who is only 75) and Penske can and should have an enormous influence on the future of motorsports—it's arguably unprecedented. Both men think quickly, act quickly, and have no one to answer to. What happens next? We have no clue. But we expect something.

8. As for those track contracts. Expect some changes to the NASCAR schedule next year—2021—possibly major ones, as some tracks may get one race per season instead of two, some may lose out altogether, dates will be adjusted, and race lengths may be trimmed.

We're already seeing a preview: Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, one of only three tracks on the NASCAR Cup circuit not owned by NASCAR or Speedway Motorsports Inc. (the other two are Indianapolis and Dover International Speedway in Delaware), is contracted to host two Cup races per year. Last year one was in June, the other July. This year, rather than make the trip twice, NASCAR called an audible and Pocono will run the Kids Free 325 on Saturday, June 27, and the Worry-Free Guarantee 350 on Sunday, June 28. A "doubleheader," NASCAR says.

What it really does is save NASCAR, the teams, and the fans money by staging two races in one weekend, cutting down on travel, labor, and lodging. If it works, we could see more of that, opening up a few additional weekends for more racing. Also, our sources suggest the schedules for 2021, in large part, have not been decided. At every race you attend this year, expect the employees to be a little friendlier, the beer to be a little colder, and the restrooms to be a little cleaner, as tracks are literally auditioning for their place on the 2021 NASCAR schedule.

9. This will be the last season you'll see these cars. One of those Big Changes we were talking about is coming in 2021, and probably 2022, and maybe even 2023, as there will be an all-new, and we mean all-new, NASCAR Cup car in 2021. It's such an ambitious program that while NASCAR would love to have everything in place in time for the 2021 Daytona 500—if nothing else, to give the media something big to report on besides the fact that it's the 20th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's death there—we're hearing it might not happen that quickly.

In a nutshell, the "Next-Gen" car, which is what NASCAR calls it, is expected to have a composite body, a carbon-fiber tub likely made by one manufacturer, a 550-horsepower engine that could be a V-6, a V-8, or more likely either; a sequential transmission, a mild hybrid system that would enable an IndyCar-like "push to pass" feature for very limited times, an independent rear suspension, 18-inch tires and wheels that will likely be held on by one large nut—there's more, but you get the idea. Why? Two main reasons.

One is cost savings—more common parts and what amounts to a bolt-together car with replaceable body panels will be cheaper, and require fewer employees in the teams' shops and at the track. The other reason is to try to attract more manufacturers; we've heard from Dodge, Honda, Hyundai, and others that NASCAR is telling them, "If you have ever considered getting into NASCAR, it should be now, because the last time the playing field was this level was in 1949." Indeed, the three existing manufacturers and their veteran teams will be forced to throw away their playbooks, because this brand-new car will have so little in common with the 2020 models that even brand-new teams should have a chance to win. So expect a new car in 2021, but line items like the hybrid system or single-hose overhead refueling rigs might not be ready until 2022, or even 2023.

10. Oh, you want predictions? Sure thing. Top five place-your-bets drivers are, in no particular order: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., and Joey Logano. Longshots: Christopher Bell, and because they have something to prove and not much time to do it, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Aric Almirola. A driver we always have our eye on: Kyle Larson, especially if the Chevrolets are fast. Will Jimmie Johnson win an eighth championship? No. Will he win a race? Yes.

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