Column by: SHANE CARLSON / RPW – EAST BETHEL, MN – The 2018 NASCAR season has finally dawned. With the arrival of the new season comes new faces in new places, a new track modification, a new manufacturer body and plenty of fresh storylines.
The changing of the guard, from the veteran drivers to the fresh young guns is well underway. Even though, 0ne thing is for sure: There’s plenty of star power up for grabs.
Here’s a quick-hit list of things to watch develop and unfold as the 2018 season plays out.
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
1. Clint Bowyer will have a breakout season. Bowyer hasn’t visited victory lane since 2012, but there is hope he can turn that ugly trend around. Last season, he got out of the gates well but faltered down the stretch in the last 10-12 races.
With one full year under his belt at Stewart-Haas Racing, running a Ford, he’ll win a race or two, and make the playoffs. It should also be noted Bowyer is working with crew chief, Mike Bugarewicz for the second consecutive year, whereas he had three crew chiefs the previous two seasons. This consistency will benefit the No. 14 group in 2018.
2. At least three drivers will score their first win this season. With so much young talent now at the Cup level, the door is wide open for young drivers to establish themselves. Erik Jones, Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez, William Byron, Ty Dillon, Alex Bowman, and Bubba Wallace are all names fans shouldn’t be surprised to see at the top of the board at the end of the race.
There’s a great mix of youthful exuberance and stoic veteran presence in the sport, and the veterans had the upper hand last season. Now it’s up to the young guys to show everyone why they’re racing in NASCAR’s premier series.
3. Last season, Toyota introduced a new body to the Cup Series, and won 16 races…the most of the three manufacturers. This year, Chevrolet introduces the Camaro ZL1 to the circuit.
So far in Speedweeks, the Chevrolets have been fast and captured the pole for the Daytona 500 with Alex Bowman in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Each manufacturer is upping the ante, as we saw Toyota dominate and take home the title with Martin Truex Jr. with an eight-win effort.
It’s tough to think Chevy would bring a car that’s not better than the SS model that they ran last year, though it may take some early-season growing pains. Expect Chevrolet to challenge Toyota for the most wins.
NASCAR XFINITY Series
4. Elliott Sadler is on a mission to win his first title, and won’t be denied. After sustaining yet another heartbreaker at Homestead-Miami in 2017, the fan-favorite Virginia native is out to avenge not only last year’s title shortcomings, but also 2011, 2012, and 2016 where he finished runner-up in the standings. If he can find a way to close out some races, he should be the favorite in Miami.
5. Roush Fenway Racing isn’t far away from regaining their perch as a weekly contender. Ryan Reed has established himself in the No. 16 car, but the No. 60 Mustang will be a car to keep an eye on.
With three drivers splitting seat time, Ty Majeski, Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric, all will show the depth the RFR program has started to develop. Each of the three aforementioned drivers will get 11 races behind the wheel and contend for wins.
6. Road courses provide some of the best racing the series has to offer. We’ve seen it over the past few years, and the roadies also have some of the series’ most popular wins of the season.
Jeremy Clements won his first race in his family-owned No. 51 Chevy at Road America last year, a track which has been a tremendous asset to the series. Road courses, more than other track configurations, are more hold-your-breath-type races with the sheer unpredictability. Many of the smaller teams now place a higher importance on building cars suited for road courses with the ability to make the playoffs. In other terms, road courses are basically like restrictor plate tracks in that any driver has the ability to win, no matter the quality equipment they have.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
7. Among the biggest moves in the off-season was ThorSport Racing changing manufacturers. After the past six years running Toyota Tundras, and winning two driver championships and 19 wins, ThorSport announced they would switch to run Ford F-150s this season.
One of the most consistent teams on the circuit, ThorSport usually has a truck capable of winning every time they’re on the track. Generally, when a team switches to a brand new manufacturer, it takes some time to adjust to the newness. With Brad Keselowski Racing shutting down their operations after last season, ThorSport is now Ford’s banner team in the Truck Series.
8. Much like the Cup Series, there’s a ton of young talent chasing the veterans. Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter are perennial title contenders, with the most experience in the series of any drivers.
Now that 2017 champion Christopher Bell moving up to the XFINITY Series, there’s a hungry pack of young guns destined to grab some wins this year. Noah Gragson, (Kyle Busch Motorsports) and Justin Haley (GMS Racing) are just a few of the names you can expect to see battle it out at the front of the field.
9. One of the drivers to watch that no one’s talking about much is Stewart Friesen in the No. 52 Halmar Friesen Racing Chevrolet Silverado. Known for his dirt racing background, Friesen had a good run last year at the Eldora Dirt Derby, ultimately finishing second, a career best.
The team now has a technical alliance with GMS Racing and tallied four finishes of seventh or better in the final six races of the season. I put him as the early favorite to win at Eldora this season, and maybe add a win or two elsewhere.