With the Daytona 500 just days away, it’s time to make some predictions about what’s to come in the 2017 NASCAR Cup season:
Daytona 500 winner: The season-opening race takes so much offseason preparation for teams that it’s not often a very good predictor of how the season will play out. It has also been won by drivers from seemingly out of nowhere – Trevor Bayne (2011), Jamie McMurray (2010), Ryan Newman (2008), Ward Burton (2002). It’s going to happen again on Sunday, with Wood Brothers Racing driver Ryan Blaney winning the Great American Race. Blaney, who had three top-five finishes in his rookie season of 2016, is in good hands: The Woods have five Daytona 500 victories (including Bayne).
Cup champion: Jimmie Johnson will face the question all season: Can you win a record eighth Cup title? He will say yes and he will be right that it’s possible. But Martin Truex Jr., who has had perhaps the best and most consistent car on the Cup circuit over the past two seasons, will take advantage of the new points system and win his first championship.
The final four: Truex will be joined by Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson’s No. 48 team will have another summer slump, costing it valuable playoff bonus points.
Rookie of the year: There were a limited number of Cup seats coming open this season and rookies Daniel Suarez (Joe Gibbs Racing), Erik Jones (Furniture Row Racing), Ty Dillon (Germain Racing) and Gray Gaulding (BK Racing) grabbed four of them. Jones (Trucks, 2015) and Suarez (Xfinity, 2016) have won NASCAR championships before and will be in top-notch equipment. Suarez wins rookie of the year based on what he is stepping into: Carl Edwards’ already ultra-competitive No. 19 Toyota.
Controversy in waiting: New rules in NASCAR often seem to have unintended consequences (lug nuts, anybody?). With the new segments format and the bonus points that come with it, restarts will be at a premium early in races. And with cars going to the garage no longer allowed back in races (another new rule), causes of wrecks that come from overly aggressive restarts will really be under the microscope.
Danica Patrick’s best finish: Patrick, who has yet to record a top-five finish in four seasons as a Cup driver, will break through this season. It won’t be Sunday at Daytona, where she won the pole in 2013 and finished fourth in last week’s Clash. It will come at Daytona’s July race, where she won’t win, but will get a top-five in a race on a restrictor-plate track where she has been relatively successful (two eighth-place finishes).
Next gimmick (or rule change): NASCAR loves to tweak the playoffs. It has made the regular season more meaningful this season by adding bonus points. Watch for the next step to be announced late in the year for 2018: perhaps a first-round bye for the regular-season points leader.