NASCAR 2019: Season preview

Turkey leftovers are thickly coated in frost at the back of the freezer, the Christmas tree has been ground into mulch, the New Year’s day hangover is a distant memory and Valentine’s Day candy is disappearing from supermarket shelves.Time to go stock-car racing.This weekend, NASCAR will kick off its 71st season of racing when it holds the non-points-paying but very traditional Clash for Cup Series drivers at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway oval. But first, a word from us as we take a pre-season peek at the old, the new, the whats and the whos.WHAT’S NEW: The only thing in NASCAR that has been accelerating faster than the Monster Energy Cup Series’ 750-horsepower cars over the past decade and a half is change. The cars, rules, teams and drivers for the upcoming season have all been painted by newness.Let’s start with some interesting personnel changes: Moved – Past champion Kurt Busch is out at Stewart-Haas Racing and in at Chip Ganassi Racing. Daniel Hemric, who started two races for Richard Childress Racing a year ago, will drive full time for RCR. Ryan Newman moves from RCR to Roush Fenway. Daniel Suarez switches from Joe Gibbs Racing to Stewart-Haas. 2017 Cup champ Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn land at Joe Gibbs Racing after former team Furniture Row shut down operations in November. Crew chief Chad Knaus, who won seven Cup titles with Jimmie Johnson will wrench for Hendrick Motorsport teammate William Byron.Gone – One-time rising star and driving dream boat Kasey Kahne has retired from the sport. Ditto, reportedly, for Jamie McMurray following the 500 this month.Staying put – Jim France will continue to serve as chairman and CEO of NASCAR. The son of NASCAR founder Bill France took over the job after Brian Z. France stepped away to deal with personal and legal problems in August of 2018. Jim carried the word “interim” in his title after taking over. That word has been removed.The cars: With another attempt to improve boring racing, NASCAR instituted a couple of key changes for 2019. The first is use of a smaller tapered spacer to reduce engine horsepower to a target of 550 and implementation of aero ducts to promote tighter racing on a majority of tracks of measuring more than 1 mile. Both changes will be utilized in 17 of the 36 races. Five other races will be run with the smaller spacer, but without the ducts. The 2019 Daytona 500, which will run with traditional restrictor-plate packages.Cheating: It appears wrist slaps are things of the past for teams and drivers found to be fudging on rules. Those who are found to having violated major rules in 2019 will face being disqualified from races. Those who are DQ’d will now lose points, purse money and race trophies. The runner-up will be declared the race winner.THE SCHEDULE: The Cup schedule is like the weather: It’s much discussed and much complained about, but in the end, there is simply not much that humans can do about it. Change comes in tweaks, not leaps in NASCAR scheduling. As much as competitors would like to see the number of races decreased, as much as promoters would like to the number of races increased and as much as fans would like to see new venues added, NASCAR is pretty much stuck with what they have built because of such factors as economics, tradition and, even, the weather. Perhaps the “biggest” of those changes is moving the start time of the playoff-debuting event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sept. 15. This year, the race moves to prime time.The CHASE IS ON: Once again, the Cup champion will be determined by a 16-driver, 10-race playoff that features a cut-down format with four rounds: the Round of 16, the Round of 12, the Round of 8 and the Round of 4. The field will be comprised of race-winners from the 26-race non-playoff portion of the schedule and will be filled out on the basis of championship points.Last year’s field featured the biggest names in the sport from the biggest teams in the sport and ended with Joey Logano of Team Penske winning the championship at the season-finale in Homestead, Fla.However, there were some drivers who had not reached the status of household name in the field. Joining past champions like Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski were oh-sure-I-think-I’ve-heard-of-hims like Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones and Alex Bowman. More of the latter group could creep into this year’s playoff field thanks to a continuing trend by top-team owners to replace big-contract veterans with promising youngsters who will work for, perhaps, a tenth of the vets’ former salaries.Keep an eye on Jones of the Gibbs team, William Byron of Hendrick Motorsports and Daniel Suarez of Stewart-Haas this year.ETC.: So one France (Brian) is out as chairman and CEO, and one is in (Jim). So what? So, perhaps, plenty. Brian took over the family business in 2003 and treated it exactly like that – as a business. Business professionals wearing expensive suits were brought in to run NASCAR and decisions were made based on business principals and analytics. NASCAR is not your typical business, however, and many say that Brian’s approach brought on the decline of the sport. Jim is more like his father, Bill France Sr., and his brother, Bill France Jr. He is a racer. Many believe Jim will return a racing sensibility to NASCAR’s Daytona Beach offices and to its race tracks.A major question for which an answer will surely be provided this season is this: Is the Jimmie Johnson era of Cup over, or did it just take a break in 2018? The seven-time champion fell flat last year as he strove to become NASCAR’s first eight-timer. He failed to win a race and notched just two top-five finishes. The Hendrick Motorsports driver’s playoff season ended quickly. So, has the 43-year-old Johnson’s skill set deserted him or were his 2018 woes the fault of the then-new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1’s short comings as race pieces?Dale Earnhardt Jr. is gone as a driver but will not be forgotten. Television will see to that. Last year, Earnhardt, who retired after the 2017 season, moved to the media and because of his continued popularity, was seen everywhere doing everything for NBC Sports. The guess, no, the assumption, here is that TV will find even more places to insert the extremely likable Earnhardt this year – perhaps to the extent that he risks becoming less likable.

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