Sev­eral key driv­ers will steer new cars

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS | AUTO RACING - Michelle R. Martinelli For The Win USA TO­DAY Net­work

NASCAR is (very nearly al­most) back, so we’re break­ing down the big­gest sto­ry­lines go­ing into the Mon­ster En­ergy NASCAR Cup Se­ries sea­son. The sea­son-open­ing Day­tona 500 is Feb. 17 at Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way, where chaos is all but guar­an­teed, with just 25 of the 40 driv­ers still rac­ing at the end last year.

With 35 races fol­low­ing the “Su­per Bowl of NASCAR” in the nine-month sea­son, there are a lot of ques­tions that will hope­fully get an­swered sooner than later.

1. Will the Big 3 still dom­i­nate?

For the ma­jor­ity of the 2018 sea­son, Kevin Har­vick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. con­trolled the nar­ra­tive with so many wins they were dubbed the Big 3. Har­vick and Busch racked up eight check­ered flags each while Truex had four. Al­though all three made it to the cham­pi­onship race at Homestead-Mi­ami Speed­way, Joey Logano ended up win­ning it all with his third vic­tory of the sea­son.

But those three won so much the sea­son got bor­ing af­ter a while, so will they carry that mo­men­tum into a new year? They might not dom­i­nate in the same way, but they’ll cer­tainly have a few wins each by Novem­ber.

2. When will Jim­mie John­son finally end his win­less streak?

The seven-time Cup Se­ries champ is un­de­ni­ably one of the best driv­ers on the track, but the 2018 sea­son was his first in 17 years as a full-time driver with­out a trip to vic­tory lane. The 43-year-old has 83 wins, but his last was in June 2017 at Dover In­ter­na­tional Speed­way. 2018 wasn’t a great year for him, Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports — Chase El­liott was the team’s only driver to get to vic­tory lane — or Chevro­let driv­ers over­all.

John­son man­aged to make the play­offs last sea­son. He might not get so lucky this time. How­ever, he has a new crew chief af­ter Chad Knaus and John­son broke up at the end of the 2018 sea­son af­ter 17 years.

Knaus is now with Wil­liam By­ron and the No. 24 team, while John­son’s new crew chief is Kevin Meen­der­ing, who worked with El­liott Sadler in the Xfinity Se­ries. HMS was look­ing to shake things up with this change, and it might be what both John­son and Knaus need to get back to win­ning.

Other no­table win­less driv­ers from last sea­son were Denny Ham­lin and Kyle Lar­son.

3. How will three key driv­ers fare on their new teams?

There are sev­eral key driv­ers com­pet­ing for differ­ent teams this sea­son. 2017 Cup Se­ries champ Martin Truex Jr. moved to Joe Gibbs Rac­ing, along with crew chief Cole Pearn, af­ter Fur­ni­ture Row Rac­ing closed up shop in a grim turn of events at the end of last sea­son. The suc­cess­ful driver-crew chief duo re­main to­gether be­hind the wheel of a Toy­ota, the No. 19, and shouldn’t miss a step, es­pe­cially since FRR pre­vi­ously had an al­liance with JGR. Not much has ac­tu­ally changed for Truex, out­side of spon­sor­ship and the num­ber on the side of the car, so he should be just fine.

Kurt Busch left Ste­wart-Haas Rac­ing and is driv­ing the No. 1 car for Chip Ganassi Rac­ing, mov­ing from Ford to Chevro­let. Busch found suc­cess and speed with SHR and his team­mates, win­ning six races since 2014, in­clud­ing the 2017 Day­tona 500. Now he has only one team­mate, Kyle Lar­son, and is with a man­u­fac­turer that strug­gled last sea­son, par­tic­u­larly against the Fords. It will be in­ter­est­ing to see how he han­dles this shift and if he can win a race or two this sea­son.

Re­plac­ing Busch at SHR in the No. 41 Ford is Daniel Suárez, who was re­placed by Truex at JGR. Suárez is a young and tal­ented driver — he was the 2016 Xfinity Se­ries cham­pion — but he’s still look­ing for his first Cup check­ered flag. In his first two Cup Se­ries sea­sons, the now-27-year-old driver won his first pole in 2018 at Po­cono Race­way, and his best ca­reer finish was sec­ond in that same race. Per­haps he’ll find some chem­istry with his new team­mates on the track, plus a miss­ing piece that kept him out of vic­tory lane.

4. Which driver will be the first to get dis­qual­ified?

Harsher pun­ish­ments are com­ing for NASCAR teams bend­ing the rules, also known as cheat­ing. Un­like pre­vi­ous sea­sons with fines, sus­pen­sions and loss of points for win­ning cars that failed pos­trace in­spec­tions, teams will (finally) be straight-up dis­qual­ified, and the runner-up will be de­clared the win­ner. That is par­tic­u­larly no­table be­cause while driv­ers couldn’t use a win in an il­le­gal car to qual­ify for or ad­vance through the play­offs, it would still count to­ward their over­all win to­tals. Not any­more.

NASCAR will also do the in­spec­tions at the track in­stead of days later with sub­se­quent an­nounce­ments al­ter­ing the im­pli­ca­tions mov­ing for­ward. So with 36 races this sea­son, the sport’s new rule is bound to come into play at some point.

5. When will we have our first NASCAR feud?

Driv­ers get up­set with each other for so many rea­sons, rang­ing from petty com­ments to ac­tual rac­ing is­sues.

Last year just days be­fore the Day­tona 500, Denny Ham­lin kicked off the feud­ing by claim­ing that 70 per­cent of NASCAR driv­ers are il­le­gally us­ing Ad­der­all. Nat­u­rally, that “offended most ev­ery­body in the garage,” Kevin Har­vick said.

So at that rate, it shouldn’t take too long for a few guys to be an­gry with each other, es­pe­cially since the sea­son starts at a typ­i­cally chaotic track like Day­tona.

6. How long will driv­ers com­plain about NASCAR’s new rules pack­age?

NASCAR’s new rules for 2019 im­pact the front split­ter, rear spoiler and horse­power and are de­signed to re­duce horse­power and add more down­force. It should slow the cars, keep them rac­ing in packs more of­ten and make it more chal­leng­ing to pass. It could, how­ever, be ar­gued that this is man­u­fac­tured com­pe­ti­tion, and af­ter test­ing last week, some driv­ers are al­ready frus­trated with it.

Not one to hide his opin­ion, Kyle Busch thinks it has “taken the driver skill away from the driv­ers,” and any­one “can go out and run wide open there,” ac­cord­ing to long­time NASCAR reporter Jeff Gluck.

So is this go­ing to be some­thing driv­ers will com­plain about all sea­son or will they get used to it at At­lanta Mo­tor Speed­way, the first 2019 race where they’ll use this pack­age, or not long af­ter?

MATTHEW O’HAREN/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Jim­mie John­son has 83 Cup wins but none since the Dover race June 4, 2017.

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