With the recent retirements of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle in recent years and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. following the 2017 NASCAR Monster Energy Series season, it is fair to wonder how the sport will fare in coming years.
For my money, things will be just fine. Not perfect, but fine.
Consider for a moment the following highlights from each of the three national touring series:
- A house that appeared about 80% full for a stand-alone NASCAR Camping World Truck race at Gateway Motorsports Park saw John Hunter Nemechek win his first race of 2017 driving for a woefully under-funded team. Nemechek then validated this the following week by winning again at Iowa Speedway.
- At the same aforementioned Iowa Speedway the night following Nemechek’s win in the truck series, William Byron finally broke through and won his first NASCAR race of any type in the Xfinity Series.
- A very healthy silly season has already begun in the Cup garage.
Nemechek’s first win this season is significant because of the fan support seen at Gateway for a stand-alone truck series race. There were no Cup drivers present, and no other series was visiting that weekend. Grassroots fan support will ensure NASCAR establishes an identity within a new generation and provides entertainment for that generation to follow in the coming years. The truck series also has three rookies that are currently among the Top-10 points leaders – Chase Briscoe, Grant Enfinger and Noah Gragson.
Byron’s win is significant because he is a talent that has now proven he can win and seemingly has resources and opportunities to leverage as he ascends the sport’s ladder. Fan favorite Elliott Sadler leads the point standings and drivers, in addition to Byron, with upward mobility on their radar in coming years include Daniel Hemric, Ryan Reed and Cole Custer. Custer is the son of Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) executive Joe Custer, which doesn’t hurt his chances.
As for silly season among Cup teams, there will be at least one seat available at Hendrick Motorsports to fill the No. 88 seat vacated by the retiring Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (perhaps two if Kasey Kahne doesn’t survive past this season). Earnhardt has suggested offering the job to Alex Bowman, who filled in for Dale in 2017 quite well. Roger Penske, after he almost certainly re-signs Brad Keselowski could try to lure Ryan Blaney to the mother ship and create a third full-time team (which would then open up a seat in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford.) Danica Patrick’s return to SHR is fragile at best at this point, which would open up the No. 10 seat. Also at SHR, Kurt Busch is uncertain about 2018 at this point, but considering how badly Gene Haas wanted him in the first place, letting go of him now doesn’t make much sense. Joe Gibbs is going to have to make a decision regarding Matt Kenseth at some point, and my money says that a swap is in order with Kenseth and Erik Jones. I think Jones, who has always been a Toyota favorite and now has shaken off some bad luck will be in the No. 17 car next year and Kenseth will be shipped-off to the Furniture Row No. 77 in the satellite operation.
There are others too such as Aric Almirola, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman and Darrell Wallace, Jr. Needless to say, it promises to be an exciting few months, and these are just my opinions…. let’s hear yours!