EDITOR'S NOTE: The following column was produced specially for THE SHOP by John Carollo, a regular contributor to the magazine and website.
The first season of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series brought about plenty of firsts and will continue making changes to NASCAR’s top series next year. Monster began the year as NASCAR’s new title partner with a new look, a two-year contract and promises of bringing younger fans to racing.
When the dust settled at the Ford Eco-Boost 400 at Homestead in Florida for the last race, another series of firsts was highlighted with Martin Truex Jr. winning his first-ever title. Driving for the Furniture Row team out of Denver, it was a first for the located so far away from the unofficial hub of NASCAR, Charlotte, North Carolina. Truex’s No. 78 Toyota Camry held of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski—all former champions—in the final round and winner-take-all format of NASCAR’s Chase. The Playoff format starts with 16 drivers earning spots for the 10-race Chase with four drivers eliminated every round.
The No. 79 team was the big dog most of the season, winning more races (eight) than any other. Their dominance on the Intermediate tracks with seven of those wins likely helped for the final as Homestead’s 1-1/2-mile track fit the team’s successful streak. Winning the title showed a smaller two-car team could run down and beat the big mutli-car teams. Ironically, Furniture Row racing will revert to a one car team next year as their other driver, Erik Jones, is already set to drive for the biggest Toyota team, Joe Gibbs Racing.
While the races also brought about a number of lasts—such as teams' numbers, driver changes, the end of the Chevy SS, and a surprising number of drivers left without rides for 2018—fans and racers alike will be seeing more firsts next season. The single new car will be Chevy, which will race the LT-1 Camaro in ’18. Can the Mustang be far behind?
Another hardware change has NASCAR implementing new engine rules designed to have engines run in more races before rebuilding, in order to reduce costs.
One big new track item is the addition of a different type of race in the Chase for ’18. Charlotte Motor Speedway has created their ‘Roval,’ part road course and part oval. While using the majority of the famous mile-and-half track, racers also will run the newly created infield road course with its nine turns before returning to the track’s original turn one. The course will now spec out as 18 turns and 2.4 miles. The totally new event will generate interest and being part of the 2018 Chase, be a wild card with its new layout and resulting chassis setups for an elimination round event.
A big part of the Homestead event was the final race of Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a regular driver. He’ll come back for a few events in his JR Motorsports team cars. And he’s already signed to join the NBC TV team covering NASCAR events in 2018. Dale’s JRM team did have a good weekend at Homestead, winning the 2017 NASCAR Xfinity Series championship with William Bryon at the wheel. Strangely enough, Earnhardt Jr. as a team owner won championships with driver Martin Truex Jr. in 2004 and 2005 in partnership with his father’s Dale Earnhardt Inc.
It all starts over on Feb. 18 when the season-opening Daytona 500 goes green.