Daytona Speedweeks kicks off Friday and with that comes the return of the NASCAR XFINITY Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series next week. Like the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, these two series are also changing their formats to match the Cup Series. As the season gets underway, here are a few drivers to watch.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
As the defending NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion, Johnny Sauter has one thing on his mind: back-to-back championships. The 38-year-old is looking to become the second driver to complete that feat in series history (Matt Crafton, 2013-2014). “I’ve been racing long enough to know I need to put last year behind us because quite frankly, it’s yesterday’s news,” said Sauter. “It’s cool and I’m proud of the accomplishments of a year ago, but we’re on the verge of a new season.”
Ever since Sauter became a full-time driver in the Truck Series in 2009, he’s finished in the Top 10 each season while in six of those seasons he finished in the Top Four. Sauter is poised to continue that trend as he defends his championship.
Sauter can attribute some of his recent success to starting strong at Daytona. He’s no stranger to Gatorade Victory Lane at Daytona, having won the season opener twice in the past four years, including last year.
If Sauter can win his third Daytona opener in 2017, he’ll be well on his way to defending his title.
Matt Crafton will certainly have an impact on whether or not Sauter can win back-to-back championships in the series. As the only driver to accomplish this feat, Crafton will look to regain his championship form after finishing runner-up to Sauter in 2016.
A member of ThorSport Racing, Crafton is an important piece in what they are calling a rebirth of their team. Seven months ago, ThorSport’s facility was destroyed by a fire. Led by veteran Crafton, ThorSport is fielding a four truck team this year with the other trucks filled by talented rookies Cody Coughlin and Grant Enfinger as well as 19-year-old Ben Rhodes, who is competing in his second full-time season in NASCAR.
Crafton will run in his 17th full season in the series this year and after only winning two races in his first 12 seasons, he has racked up 11 victories in the past four seasons (including two at Kansas Speedway).
The veteran hopes to continue his winning ways in 2017 and again contend for the championship.
NASCAR XFINITY Series
Entering his third year in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, Bubba Wallace has the opportunity for a breakout season. While he took a slight step back from his rookie season last year, he was still one of 12 drivers that qualified for the playoffs. Wallace made it to the Round of 8, but the final four races weren’t kind to him.
After qualifying fifth at Phoenix and carrying the weight of his grandmother passing a few days prior, Wallace was having one of his best races of the year until contact sent him into the wall, ending his chances at extending his playoff run.
“My grandmother was giving me the ride of my life," said Wallace following the Phoenix race. "That's the most fun I ever had all year and just circumstances took us out, so it's just hard.”
During NASCAR’s media tour, Wallace recalled the ending to the 2016 season with a positive message for 2017:
"You get to throw away last year, but still keep thoughts in your mind of where you can learn from," Wallace told NASCAR.com. "Phoenix was such a tough day, tough weekend for us, for myself personally. Having one of the fastest cars on the race track and having it taken away was such a bummer. But now, this year, you move on to it.”
Now that he’s had a taste of the playoffs, he knows what it takes to contend for the championship.
“Our goal is to be at Homestead for the season finale and win the XFINITY Series championship,” said Wallace. “We've still got the same mindset of going in to win every race, do the best we can each and every weekend and put ourselves in the right position, especially with this new format. I'm going to really enjoy it."
Don’t be surprised if JR Motorsports has half (or more) of the Championship Four drivers at Homestead in November (once again).
Both Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier are coming off arguably their best seasons in the sport, both contending for the NASCAR XFINITY Series championship last year. Since they both became full-time drivers in the XFINITY Series, Sadler and Allgaier have yet to finish outside the Top Six in the XFINITY Series standings. Last season, Sadler and Allgaier finished second and third, respectively.
With the addition of Michael Annett and rookie William Byron, who won seven NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races last year (a record for a rookie), JR Motorsports is running four solid drivers all season long..
"We've got four teams that I feel are capable of going out each and every week and winning races," Allgaier told ESPN. "All four of us will work really well together. If you tell me all four of us make the playoffs, it wouldn't surprise me."
William Byron will greatly benefit from being around the veterans, which will ease the 19-year-old’s transition to the series. With two of the Championship Four contenders moving to the Cup Series, it’s entirely possible that JR Motorsports will have three (and maybe even four) drivers contending for the Championship at Homestead.