Every new year brings with it new stars and revelations, but also heartfelt goodbyes and (sometimes) tough changes. That’s no different in the sports world, and the same applies specifically to NASCAR. What old storylines can finally be put to rest, and which new ones will rise to fill those voids? Here are four of the biggest changes NASCAR fans can expect to see in the 2018 season:
No more Danica, Dale or Matt, which means lots of star power needs replacing: This one pretty much goes without saying. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been NASCAR’s most popular driver 15 times in a row now, and those fans are going to have to go somewhere. The interesting thing will be whether they latch onto another driver, maybe an up-and-coming one, or if they drift out of the sport like Earnhardt.
As for Danica Patrick, technically she wants to run the 2018 Daytona 500, but her talks with Chip Ganassi Racing stalled, so it’s up in the air whether or not that will happen. Patrick was never as dominant a NASCAR driver as she was in IndyCar, but she still paved a road for future female drivers and earned a loyal following along the way. Matt Kenseth, the former champion, also had a legion of fans who will now have to turn elsewhere with him no longer racing.
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Danica Patrick announced Nov. 17 that 2017 will be her last season driving in NASCAR, and she only wants to be remembered as a great driver. Brendan Marksbmarks@charlotteobserver.com
(A bonus here: Earnhardt is also going to try his hand at broadcasting in 2018, and if he brings the sincerity and honesty to the booth that he did to the racetrack – which he almost certainly will – then he should be a success at that, too.)
... enter Charlotte’s Will Byron, who might just be NASCAR’s next elite driver: Maybe this is heaping too high of an expectation of Byron, who is just 19. But if his performance the last two seasons – one in the Truck Series, the other in the Xfinity Series – is any indication, he’s destined to become one of the sport’s best drivers in a short time. Byron won the Xfinity Series championship in his lone campaign this year, and now he’ll team with Jimmie Johnson, Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott at Hendrick Motorsports.
Expecting Byron to immediately go out and compete for Cup Series wins is ambitious, but to say he’ll make the playoffs as a rookie isn’t an unreasonable goal, for him or his fans. Byron has shown a natural talent that should carry over, and if he can string together some quality finishes early on, he may earn some fans among those following departed drivers.
Fan favorite Earnhardt Jr reflects on his winning against his father and wanting his fans to be happy. David T. Foster IIIdtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
New faces in new places, after drivers changed teams: Aric Almirola to Stewart-Haas Racing. Ryan Blaney to Penske. Erik Jones to Joe Gibbs Racing. Kasey Kahne to Leavine Family Racing. That’s two playoff drivers and another who barely missed the cut, all with new rides in 2018. The wild card there is Almirola, who will be looking for his second career win in much better equipment.
Charlotte’s new ‘Roval’ course could swing the playoffs: As of 2017, Talladega has been the most unpredictable of the playoff tracks. Not anymore. Charlotte Motor Speedway will unveil its new ‘Roval’ course for the 2018 postseason, and it’ll be the first road course ever run in the 14-year history of the NASCAR playoffs.
When several playoff drivers commented on the course earlier in 2017, they seemed ... less than thrilled with its inclusion. That’s likely because who knows what could happen on a hybrid road course in the playoffs? Maybe it turns out to be a slower, less exciting race – but that doesn’t seem probable. More likely, it’s exciting, hotly-contested – essentially, just what you want from a playoff race.
"Danica" is produced by EPIX in conjunction with Brainstormin Productions. The film is edited by Tim Mullen and written by Aaron Cohen. Jackie Decker, Jill Burkhart and Valerie Bishop Pearson are producers; Carmen Belmont serves as line producer a McClatchy