The roar is only a few weeks away at Daytona International Speedway. But as the rumble builds toward the 2016 NASCAR season, let’s cut to the Chase, pun intended, and pinpoint the top five story lines for this season.
What does Sprint Cup defending champion Kyle Busch do for an encore? Busch began the 2015 season with a decided handicap. He was in a hospital room as the Daytona 500 kicked off, his first day on the mend after a seismic accident during the first Xfinity Series race of the season. Busch missed the first 11 races with a double compound fracture in his right leg and a fracture of his left foot. Hard to imagine what he will do now that he is healthy, but the motivation starts with the fact that he wants to win a title without any mulligans from NASCAR.
Will Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano play nice? The 2015 campaign ended with Kenseth in the NASCAR doghouse and Logano out of Chase for the Sprint Cup contention despite having the most dominant season of any driver (with six victories). This is what happens when Boys, Have At It goes on steroids. Logano crossed the line first at Kansas, taking Kenseth for a spin, and Kenseth retaliated at Martinsville, deliberately wrecking him. Everybody hits the reset button for 2016, but not really. They’ll remember and have remnants of those wrecked cars to provide any necessary motivation.
Chase Elliott, the new Jeff Gordon? Not really, but the dots are easy to connect. Elliott will take over Gordon’s ride in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 Chevy. It’s not a charitable hand-me-down; the kid deserves the opportunity. The son of NASCAR icon Bill Elliott, Chase is ridiculously humble and mature for someone who is only 20. “There are no excuses as long as I do my part to compete with really good runs,” Elliott said. No pressure, but the boss man, Rick Hendrick, predicts Chase will win a race this season.
Will the lower downforce aerodynamic package improve racing? At the risk of getting too techno-nerdy here, NASCAR will roll out a new low-downforce package this season. In regular talk: Cars are going to have less grip in the corners, requiring drivers to lift off the gas sooner, putting the driving back in their hands a bit. The new package got rave reviews during test runs at Kentucky Speedway and Darlington Raceway last season. And for the most part, drivers seem to like it. “It’s going to be insane,” said Martin Truex Jr., a Chase finalist in 2015, specifically referring to the handling issues drivers will face with the new rules at Atlanta in the second week.
Tony Stewart’s last ride: As young guns such as Elliott and Kyle Larson step into the spotlight, Stewart has a minimalist exit plan. He doesn’t want any parades or ponies (re-creating the Gordon farewell gig). “Smoke” would prefer a victory or two, something he hasn’t experienced since 2013. Will Stewart break out of his two-year slump, hopefully without any of the tempestuous turns that have marked his NASCAR career?
Tough start for Smoke
Stewart will begin his final Cup season under an ominous health watch.
The driver is hospitalized with a back injury after driving an all-terrain vehicle Sunday. The Stewart-Haas Racing team is unsure of the extent of his injuries, immediately fueling speculation about whether Stewart will be able to compete in his last Daytona 500 on Feb. 21.
Team spokesman Mike Arning told the Associated Press that Stewart is under evaluation at an undisclosed hospital and able to move all extremities. Arning indicated that Stewart’s condition will not be updated again until Thursday. Stewart is in a hospital on the West Coast.
“We have received word from Stewart-Haas Racing of Tony Stewart’s accident and injury,” NASCAR Chairman and Chief Executive Brian France said. “On behalf of everyone at NASCAR, I wish Tony a full recovery and look forward to seeing him back in our sport when he’s ready to return.”
Stewart finished 25th in the points standings in 2014 and 28th in 2015. The injury apparently is unrelated to issues with a broken leg that Stewart sustained in 2013, causing him to miss a third of the season.
In a perfect combination of cross-promotion, Jimmie Johnson, a.k.a. Superman, will face off against Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Batman) this spring.
The drivers are partnering with the upcoming movie “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Each driver will display his hero’s emblems on the hood of his race car for the Auto Club 400, scheduled for March 20 at Fontana.
“I have driven both the Superman and Batman car in the past and was able to claim a win in the Batman car,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I am excited to be a part of the program and it will definitely make the race more competitive between us.”
Scott joins Petty
Sam Hornish Jr. is out and Brian Scott is in at Richard Petty Motorsports. Why? Money matters.
Scott has not won a race in 208 career Xfinity Series starts. But he has significant leverage. Shore Lodge, which sponsored him in 20 of 33 Xfinity races last season, is owned by his family. And Albertson’s was founded by Scott’s grandfather. Sponsorship deals are in place for 16 races, and the companies will have associate placement for the remaining 20 races.
Some may call it a cold business move, but it’s also the stone-cold fact of running a NASCAR team — money fuels everything.
Denny the Bachelor
For proof that this isn’t your grandfather’s NASCAR, click onto your TV: Wasn’t that Denny Hamlin on “The Bachelor Live” the other night? Skyping in from his home in North Carolina, Hamlin checked in and mixed it up with actress Allison Williams, a self-proclaimed Mark Martin fan.
“Yeah, it was kind of an impromptu thing,” Hamlin said last week during a teleconference. “Obviously it was a great experience for my girlfriend and all of her friends. They appreciated it. But, yeah, I mean, when people ask if I really watch it, I always say, ‘Who doesn’t want to watch 25 women scratch and claw their way to one guy?’
“It’s interesting TV to say the least, so it was cool to be on there and, obviously, see that those guys were fans. I know when we went through, [show host] Chris Harrison actually said, well, I know him, ‘Put him through right away,’ so it was cool that he’s a fan. Obviously, Allison Williams, as well, appears to be a pretty big fan. She was a fan of Mark Martin in the day. We know her dad [newsman Brian Williams] was always a huge race fan, so it obviously trickled down to the next generation.”
Looking to lock in your Speedweeks itinerary? NASCAR has set its practice and race times for the inaugural run of the season, which culminates with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 21. The first track activity begins Feb 12 with Sprint Unlimited practice. Go to Nascar.com for a complete schedule.
Harvick in booth
Move over, Michael Waltrip. You’re not the only driver in the Fox Xfinity booth this season. Former Cup champ Kevin Harvick is scheduled to reprise his role as a race analyst for the Xfinity Series, starting Feb. 20. “I’m excited to be back in the booth in Daytona for the biggest Xfinity race of the year,” Harvick said. “I really enjoyed calling the races last year.”