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NASCAR look ahead: Preview and predictions for the 2018 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup season

NASCAR season opens with the Daytona 500. NASCAR.com

With the 2018 NASCAR season right around the corner, there have been MANY changes that have occurred since the checkered flag dropped in Homestead in November. There have been more driver changes than I can remember, big name drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr, Matt Kenseth and Danica Patrick have retired, Chevrolet has rolled out its new Camaro ZL1 and NASCAR has limited how many crew members can go over the wall and go to the race on a new "roster" system. We are in a very new age of the sport and these changes have been met with criticism by some of NASCAR's older demographic; nevertheless the show must go on in 2018 and even with a younger field with the average age being 25 there is due to be some new faces up front this season. With that said, here is my predictions for the new season.

First time Winners in 2018: As I alluded to earlier, this is the youngest NASCAR field we have seen in a long time and with such youth comes parity. Of the 40 cars entered in this week's Daytona 500, 16 drivers have yet to win a race in their careers and nine of those 16 are slated to run the full season.  I think this year has the potential to have more first-time winners than we have had before. The first of those drivers will be none other than Dawsonville, Georgia's favorite son, Chase Elliott. Going into his third year of full time competition, NASCAR's newest prodigy has always been very close but has never been able to close the deal and get that elusive first win. Some fans are becoming impatient and are beginning to label him a "bust" but this young man is far from it. Look for Chase in his new No. 9 car to finally get that first win that has eluded him. I think this year he will win multiple races and become a contender for the championship. His first win this year will come at the short track in Martinsville. The reason that I am picking this race track is because he has unfinished business there. As we all know last year, Elliott was two laps away from winning the race and locking himself into the championship four before he was promptly taken out by Denny Hamlin. Look for Chase to be a championship contender in 2018. The next driver in line to win his first race is Erik Jones. With 14 top-tens and five top-fives last season, last year's rookie of the year will win his first race in the twenty car in 2018. Where will he get his first win? I say Bristol Motor Speedway. This track has easily been his best over the course of both his time in the Xfinity Series and the Cup Series. Another track I believe he can get it done at is Texas Motor Speedway. Now granted his results there on the Cup side has been meh with his best finish being 10th, but this track is special to this young man. In 2015, Jones captured his first Xfinity series win when he outran Brad Keselowski. Regardless of the track, look for last year's rookie of the year to be upfront. There will be three first time winners in 2018, with two locks in Chase Elliott and Erik Jones and a surprise winner in William Byron. After last year's Xfinity series championship campaign, it would hardly be a surprise to see the 20-year-old rookie win his first race but what is so surprising about him is how quickly he got there. In both his rookie seasons in NASCAR's "minor leagues" (Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series) this young man has a combined win total of ELEVEN WINS! That is almost unheard of. While I have made it clear that Byron is not my favorite driver out there, I would be remiss to say he doesn't have an insane amount of talent and he is a star in the making, even if his sponsor is a university that is run by a "controversial figure" (I had a bunch of other things I'd like to call him) in Jerry Falwell, Jr. Look for Byron to be a contender in 2018.

Sleepers to make the Playoffs in 2018: With NASCAR’s new Playoff system there are bound to be some unusual suspects to make the round of 16 come September. The first driver I think will surprise us this year is Alex Bowman. When given the opportunity after Dale Earnhardt Jr was sidelined with a concussion in 2016, Alex filled in and did an exemplary job and improved every chance he got. Bowman should be fun to watch this season. The last few years have not been kind to Kasey Kahne. Since 2016, he has only been able to win one race coming at the brickyard last year but now with a fresh start and a new team, I think change will be good for this veteran from Washington.

Who will be champion in 2018?

I believe that this will be the year that Kyle Larson will take his next step. Larson had a career year last year after winning four races, twice at Michigan, once at Richmond and at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. He should have had a lot more, but he made some crucial mistakes in the final laps. I think that Larson will be a much more mature race car driver in 2018, not to mention it is Larson's fifth year of full time competition in the cup series. You know who else won their first championship in their fifth season? That would be the greatest NASCAR driver of all time, Jimmie Johnson.

This should be a fun season to watch with all the changes we have seen so far. I'll Check back in November to see if any of my predictions were right.

(All stats and information used in this article is brought to you by the good folks at driver
averages.com and Racing-Refrence.com the best website for all NASCAR stats).

THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR Ford Ecoboost 500 preview

Martin Truex will try to send his team out in style. Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

This week, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads to Sunny Homestead-Miami Florida for the final race of the 2018 season, The Ford Ecoboost 500. After 36 weeks of battle, this race decides who will represent the sport as champion. Homestead-Miami  has played host for the season finale for the last 16 seasons. This is arguably the biggest race in all of NASCAR considering what is on the line and there is no better place in the world for it to take place. This track is a mile and a half in length and is known for its 18- degree banking in the corners. Over the years, the track has produced some of the best finishes in recent memory and with everything that’s at stake this week should be an all-time classic.

Last week at Phoenix, Kyle Busch took the checkered flag to officially cement his spot in the championship four. He did so after his brother Kurt Busch was involved in a multi-car crash involving him, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott. In the closing stages of the race, Hamlin entered turn four and got into the side of Kurt Busch causing both to hit the wall bouncing back into Chase Elliott.

Hamlin was criticized for his “lack of respect” for the situation that Busch and Elliott were in contending for a championship. At first glance it was easy to understand why fans were upset but upon further review of the video, it would appear that the track was not maintained properly by NASCAR’s clean up crew.  On NASCAR Race Hub Radioactive segment, Defending champion Martin Truex Jr. was quoted as saying “they didn’t clean up the bleeping track for one thing. Everyone went down there and it was like ice. They just don’t get it.” His Crew Chief Cole Pern responeded by saying “yeah they do, it creates excitement. That’s their plan.”

These are fairly serious allegations but it isn’t so farfetched seeing NASCAR has made some pretty dumb calls regarding track maintenance in the past. For example, last season at Dover, they decided to restart the race without fully cleaning the backstretch. This oversight caused Ty Dillon to spin and collect multiple cars with him in the crash. While it may not be intentional and it is definitely difficult to manage these instances but they are proof that NASCAR could do a much better job at track maintenance and cleaning up the track. Let’s hope they have learned their lesson from last week because it has cost two drivers a chance at a championship.

Of the four drivers, Joey Logano enters Homestead as the only one who has never won a title. He has however made it to the championship race three times including this year in 2018. Each attempt has ended in heartbreak whether it be dropping the car off the jack during a pit-stop in 2014, or being involved in a late race crash in 2016. This year Logano hopes that history won't repeat itself and will finally claim his first championship. If he is to win it, it will have been well deserved seeing how he has an excellent season. This year, Logano has 12 top fives, 25 top-10s and two victories including the win that got him here at Martinsville. While he has lurked in the shadows of his competition, he has consistently been in around the front all season. While Logano has a good chance to win the title, the one variable that he must be weary of are the drivers that he  has upset over the duration of the season including Martin Truex Jr and Aric Almirola. Regardless, Logano looks to have a real shot at winning his first title.

Easily, Martin Truex Jr, enters this race as the sentimental favorite to win the championship. As most fans know, Furniture Row racing will cease operations after this race. Truex and his crew chief Cole Pearn have been the spark that have made this team a championship winning organization and now he has a chance to come back and send his team off with one last championship, This has been a rollercoaster type season for him though and while he has been in contention, Truex has yet to win a race since the announcement of his teams closure. In the end though, I don’t foresee this being an issue at Homestead. This is a track where Truex has struggled although as he has the lowest average finish of the group but he has shown that he can win here. Truex has a lot working against him but he still has a great shot at winning his second title.

After last week’s debacle, Kevin Harvick comes to Homestead with a chip on his shoulder. After his win was disallowed two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway, he looks to come in and prove his doubters wrong by claiming his second championship. If he does pull it off, he has definitely earned it with how incredible he has ran this year. Overall He has 22 top fives and 28 top tens with an average finish of 9.0! In percentages, he has finished in the top 10 in 80 percent of the races this year. This has easily been the most dominant season of his career as he has won more races now than ever before even in his championship winning season in 2014. Come Sunday, Harvick is going to be hard to beat.

While Harvick has had the best season statistically, Kyle Busch has come pretty close to matching the success of his championship rival. This year, Busch has eight wins, twenty-one top fives and twenty-seven top tens, nearly identical to the stats that Harvick has been able to put up. After winning last week at Phoenix, Busch comes to homestead with the most momentum on his side and when you get this 18 team in a rhythm they are hard to catch. Besides no one has made it to Homestead more than Kyle Busch as he has only missed the final round one time since the sport adopted this format in 2014. Look for Busch to be around the top three for most of the day as he looks to clinch his second NASCAR Championship.

Over the past four years that we have seen this format, I think this is easily the best four drivers we have ever seen make it to Homestead. Unlike the previous years, we won’t see a driver who got on a hot streak at the end of the season like we did with Ryan Newman in 2014 or Jeff Gordon in 2015. This is the cream of the crop and that’s why I think this will be one of the most memorable championship battles of all time. I look forward to seeing who gets to hoist the trophy come sunday evening.

(All stats and information used in this article is brought to you by the good folks at driveraverages.com and Racing-Reference.com the best website for all NASCAR stats).

 

 

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