Grab your scorecards, campers, because 2018 is the year of change in NASCAR. And for racing's sake, that's a good thing.
Some of the top names in Cup are departing. In the case of Dale Earnhardt, Jr, he's THE name that matters most to fans. His departure is seen by some as a huge loss and another example of the sports fading relevance, but retired driver and NASCAR analyst Jeff Gordon disagrees.
"I know there is a lot of focus on drivers that are stepping away that are big names and popular drivers and the impact that's going to have," Gordon said in an interview with thestate.com. "I immediately think of the young drivers that are coming in, and that is exciting."
And it will be a bunch. Come Daytona 500 in 2018, there will be no fewer than 15 drivers in the field who have 3 years or less driving in the Monster Energy Cup series. These represent the next generation of NASCAR and represent the hope of an organization worried about losing fans.
"Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, just to name two of probably a dozen guys that I'm excited about," said Dale Earnhardt Jr to bristolmotorspeedway.com. "All those guys have great attitudes, great personalities. I know them well enough to be excited about how fans are going to know them in the future."
Larson agrees, saying it's tough to build a following in the shadow of the most popular driver 14 years in a row.
"I think it's definitely a great time, especially with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. leaving," Larson told thestate.com. "He makes up, probably, three-quarters of the fan base, so with him gone next year, there's going to be a lot of opportunity for us to build our fan base."
Chase Elliott is probably the closest to grabbing the mantle of star in Cup racing. The son legendary driver Bill Elliott, Chase has garnered a large number of followers. The 21-year-old 2016 Rookie of the Year has been tough on the track and not afraid to mix it up with older drivers (see ongoing feud with Denny Hamlin). Still, he knows he has a lot to prove. He has yet to get a Cup win.
"I want fans to follow it, for sure; I'd love to have their support," Elliott told bristolmotorspeedway.com. "But, it's their choice. If it's genuine, I think it's great. That's my only request. I want it to be genuine for whoever they want to pull for, whether it's me or somebody else."
The somebody else contains a long list of names that may or may not be known. Besides Larson and Elliott, Cup racing will see relative newcomers and shortimers like Alex Bowman, Erik Jones, Gray Gaulding, Bubba Wallace, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Blaney, Ty Dillon, William Byron and many others. Among those names, Wallace has probably generated the most excitement as the new face to Richard Petty Motorsports and the iconic #43.
It's natural to expect so much young talent to be aggressive on the track, especially one built for speed like Daytona. It can make for some great racing, but also horrific crashes. That's where the influence of veteran drivers is key, demonstrating the skill and finesse needed to complement raw power. Also, how to survive the pressure of almost a year of driving.
"After eight months go by, you get to the end of the first year, have you won and can you win." Seven-time Cup winner Jimmie Johnson told triblive.com. "You've won. Can you win again? You're 15th in points. Can you be 10th? You're 10th. Can you be fifth? "The machine starts, and that part grinds on you and wears you down. That's the part that's hard."
For many of its self-inflicted problems, NASCAR's investment driver development is paying off with a stellar crop of talent that should bolster the sport for years. But in addition to all the new names, this off-season will see lots of rides change hands. That's to be expected but will add to the confusion for fans when 2018 gets underway. Probably a good idea to do a little homework ahead of February so you'll be ready when the green flag drops at Daytona.