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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).