As the new season begins, 40 drivers are dreaming about winning a championship and they all know that winning the Daytona 500 would be a big step in that direction. As drivers and teams work with a new race format this year, here are some drivers to watch.
Jimmie Johnson knows that better than just about any current driver. Johnson, who is coming off his seventh NASCAR championship, has won the sport’s biggest prize in four different formats. If Johnson were to win his eighth championship in 2017, it would place him as the sport’s most-decorated driver.
“Another couple of takeaways for me is that it’s all about winning and finishing the best that you can. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Duels, or what it is, there’s incentive to go out there and perform,” Johnson told Yahoo Sports last month. “As a competitor, it’s tough to say that’s going to change much of what I do. But, I know there will be opportunities where that point matters for someone.”
Expectations for Johnson are pretty simple: winning back-to-back NASCAR championships. After each championship he’s won, he has immediately focused his attention on winning the next one. It’s impossible to disagree with his approach as it has worked pretty well so far.
Like all drivers, Johnson knows the new race format will take adjusting to. Once Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, figure out a strategy that works, the quest for Championship No. 8 will be on.
Joey Logano’s championship hopes were dashed in the closing laps at Homestead in 2016. After trying to pass Carl Edwards on a restart with 10 laps to go, Logano and Edwards wrecked. While Edwards was knocked out of the race, Logano’s car was able to complete the race but was severely hindered by the damage. Despite the damage, Logano finished fourth in the race and was runner-up to the championship winner, Johnson.
After getting a taste of the Championship Four, Logano will try to top his best ever finish in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. With 14 wins in the last three seasons, Logano is in his prime and will contend for championships in the years to come.
Logano’s penchant for strategic pit stops should create interesting scenarios with the new race format.
Logano’s counterpart at Team Penske, Brad Keselowski, is another driver that should thrive under the new race format. Going into the playoffs last year, Keselowski led the NASCAR point standings while tied with Kyle Busch for most wins (four).
Two costly incidents for Keselowski (wreck at Kansas and blown engine at Talladega) in the second stage of the playoffs proved costly for the 32-year-old. It is possible that new race format could have kept his hopes alive an additional round of the playoffs.
Keselowski, who is arguably coming off the second best season of his career, has a chance to rinse away the bad taste of 2016.
Martin Truex Jr.
If there was any driver who could empathize with Keselowski, it would be Martin Truex Jr. After winning two of the first three races in the 2016 playoffs, Truex looked poised to make a deep run. A blown engine early in the race at Talladega dashed his championship hopes. Like Keselowski, his four wins during the season weren’t enough.
In 2017, Truex looks to build off the most successful season of his career. Truex will have a teammate in rookie Erik Jones for the upcoming and with their continued relationship with Joe Gibbs Racing, Truex will again benefit from the partnership and look to solidify himself as one of the 10 best drivers in NASCAR.
Kyle Busch defended his first NASCAR Cup championship all the way to Homestead. Like Keselowski, Busch was unable to secure a victory in the 2016 playoffs but outside of his 30th-place finish at Talladega, he finished in the Top 10 in each race.
Considering Busch’s strategy at Talladega was to run in the back to avoid wrecks to advance in the playoff, Busch’s quest to become the 11th driver in NASCAR history to win back-to-back championships was very impressive.
Immediately following the conclusion of the race at Homestead, it was easy to tell he was already thinking about 2017 and getting redemption for finishing third. Now Busch’s focus is on becoming the 16th driver to win multiple NASCAR championships.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
After missing the final half of the 2016 season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is refreshed and ready to return to NASCAR. Earnhardt, who enters his 19th season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, missed the final 18 races because of concussion symptoms and concerns about the future of his health.
If there were any concerns about his enthusiasm for racing, he erased them last week after testing at Phoenix.
“I’m freaking pumped up about this,” said Earnhardt at a news conference following testing. “It’s been a fun day and it really didn’t take long to get acclimated or adjusted to anything.”
NASCAR’s most popular driver 14years running turned 42 in October and wants to compete again but doesn’t believe he has anything to prove, at least to himself.
“My fans want me to win and to go out and have a great year and win the championship” said Earnhardt. “I don’t know if I feel like I have something to prove, but there is that expectation to compete and go do well.
“But I’ve said 100 times: I’ve done more than what I set out to do. I’ve accomplished more than what I thought I would accomplish. I never thought this would happen. I look at my trophies and I can’t believe they’re mine. I’m pretty happy with what I did. I’m blown away how fortunate I’ve been.”