A new NASCAR season is only a few weeks away, with some of the sport’s top drivers switching teams in hopes of winning a Sprint Cup title.
They include veterans Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman, and they’ll start getting ready for the season Jan. 9-10 when the series holds its “preseason thunder” test at Daytona International Speedway in Florida.
That’s in preparation for the season-opening race, the Daytona 500 on Feb. 23, in which the drivers who changed teams will get to see the first result of how their new marriages are working out.
Harvick and Busch are moving to Stewart-Haas Racing, the team co-owned by three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart. That should bolster Stewart-Haas’ effort to better challenge powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, whose Jimmie Johnson won a sixth championship this year.
Most of the changes were announced over the final two months of this season. If you weren’t keeping tabs, here’s an overview:
Harvick: The 2007 Daytona 500 winner capped a 12-year career with Richard Childress Racing by finishing third in this year’s Sprint Cup standings in the No. 29 Chevrolet. Harvick, 38, will drive the No. 4 Chevy at Stewart-Haas and his teammates will be Stewart, Danica Patrick and Busch.
The chemistry at Stewart-Haas will be closely watched next year because Stewart, Harvick and Busch all are intense, often temperamental drivers. Patrick, meanwhile, will be trying to improve on her disappointing rookie season, in which she finished 27th in points.
Busch: The 2004 Cup champion moves to Stewart-Haas — where he’ll drive the No. 41 Chevrolet — from Furniture Row Racing. Although Furniture Row is only a one-car team, Busch, 35, made the Chase for the Cup title playoff this year and finished 10th in the standings.
Newman: Despite qualifying for this year’s Chase and winning one of NASCAR’s marquee races, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Stewart-Haas opted not to renew Newman’s contract.
So Newman, 36, who has won 17 Cup races in his career, including the Daytona 500 in 2008, moved to Childress, where he’ll take over the No. 31 Chevy from the departed Jeff Burton.
Martin Truex Jr.: Truex, 33, takes over for Busch in Furniture Row’s No. 78 Chevrolet after a scandal effectively forced Truex out of his ride at Michael Waltrip Racing.
The scandal centered on MWR team efforts to manipulate the last race before the Chase so that Truex would earn a berth in the playoff.
Truex didn’t make it after NASCAR penalized him and the team. Then Truex’s sponsor, NAPA auto parts, dropped its multimillion-dollar sponsorship and MWR was forced to cut back to two full-time cars instead of three, with Truex the odd man out.
MWR still will have a third car next year, the No. 66 Toyota, but it will be entered in only a limited number of Cup races.
Burton: The 21-time Cup winner opted to leave Childress after this season and Burton, 46, later announced he would help test and race the third MWR car in its limited schedule.
Burton’s duties initially also include testing the No. 55 Toyota normally driven by Brian Vickers, 30, who’s on medical leave until late January because of a blood-clotting condition.
In addition to the veteran drivers changing teams, two young drivers of note are moving up to the Cup series:
Austin Dillon: The 23-year-old Dillon, who won this year’s title in NASCAR’s second-level Nationwide Series and is team owner Richard Childress’ grandson, will drive the No. 3 Chevrolet. That’s the iconic number used by the late Dale Earnhardt, who won six of his seven titles driving for Childress.
Kyle Larson: The 21-year-old Larson also was promoted from the Nationwide Series to take over the No. 42 Chevy in the Cup series for the team named Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.
The car had been driven for several years by former Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, 38. But Montoya, who finished 21st in the Cup standings this year, was not re-signed and has returned to IndyCar racing, where he’s driving for Roger Penske.