2017 Season Preview - Part 1
Welcome All! It’s time for the Race Fans Forever annual Season Preview where the staff looks at major changes which took place over the span of the off season in preparation for the 2017 Season, which could be a real MONSTER!
(See what I did there?)
No time for a smoke, a joke, or even a friendly poke, so let’s get to it!
No. 1: Jamie McMurray
2016 was a milestone season for Jamie McMurray and the Chip Ganassi Chevrolet No 1 team. McMurray turned 40, started his 500th race at Chicagoland and qualified for his second Chase in a row. However, McMurray produced no wins this season, had 2 top 5’s and 12 top 10's. Less encouraging was this was McMurray's third winless season in a row, he again was eliminated in the first round of the Chase and incredibly led no laps. His high finishes were a 4th at the spring Talladega and a 5th at the season finale at Homestead.
2017 will be the third season with Matt McCall on top of the pit box for McMurray. Hopefully, third time is a charm and the team can build on the stability and season ending strong finish to break the winless streak and continue the Chase qualifying streak.
No. 2: Brad Keselowski
If I had to pick the five drivers I thought were most likely to win the 2017 Monster championship, Bad Brad would be one of them. If you look at stats for the last five years – wins, top 5s, top 10s, and laps lead – Jimmy Johnson remains head-and-shoulders ahead of everyone else, but Keselowski is right up there in the next bunch, which also includes Harvick, Logano, Kenseth and Kyle Busch. Career trajectory puts him ahead of Kenseth, another reason to consider the brash Michigan native, who turns 33 just before Daytona, squarely in the Monster Top 5.
He’s coming off one of his best years, marred only by three DNFs, the most he’s had since 2010, and everybody associated with the #2 wants to re-establish it as the #1 Penske team. Unless there’s some slip in Ford’s competitiveness, expect Kez to be in the thick of the Chase race all season, and who knows, maybe with some gentle prodding of NASCAR by Monster, he might even be able to start Tweeting behind the wheel again.
No. 3: Austin Dillon
All of the Richard Childress Chevrolets were a bit of a disappointment last year. Austin Dillon has the backing and sponsorship to make a Chase run, but will probably have to step up his performance a bit if he going to do justice for the famous 3 car.
No. 4: Kevin Harvick
The first major off-season change, numerically anyway, happens right here on the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team. Jimmy Johns, Busch Beer, and Mobil1 are all returning to help fund the effort, the ownership is the same. So, not much new for---oh wait. The entire Stewart-Haas operation has made the change to Ford as the manufacturer. With Stewart-Haas running Chevy until the end of the season in 2016, you can bet they might be a little behind in the car production department, but this is definitely a boost, long term, for the Ford banner. The SHR teams will also be getting their horses from the Roush-Yates stable. While the team may not be super strong out of the box, it probably wouldn’t be a surprise if they actually were.
No. 5: Kasey Kahne
This Chevrolet comes from Rick Hendrick’s HMS and features engines built in-house by Hendrick Motorsports. The combo of driver Kasey Kahne and crew chief Keith Rodden hope to improve on their disappointing 17th place finish in 2016. Despite being in the Rick Hendrick stable, the #5 has not seen Victory Lane since August 31, 2014 at Atlanta and never led a single lap in 2016 and had only three top-five finishes.
Sponsorship is in place for at least 30 of the 36-race season, predominantly with Farmers Insurance (12) and Great Clips (10) along with several others.
Last year’s unenviable stats should not be hard to beat, so look for a slightly better performance level in 2017. Still, the team won’t be of Championship caliber and though it might make the “playoffs” this year, it won’t be around for the finish.
No. 6: Trevor Bayne
2017 will be an interesting year for Trevor Bayne and the Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 team. The RFR organization has gone through a major organizational shakeup and downsizing in an attempt to restore the organization to its former status as a top Ford team as it finds itself now third behind powerhouse Penske and Blue Oval newcomer Stewart Haas Racing. Kevin Kidd and Tommy Wheeler now lead the competition and organization side of operations. Greg Biffle's exit at the end of 2016 and the decision to not fill that seat or field that team but to lease the charter out should allow the struggling organization to focus its efforts in 2017 and restore its footing in the series.
These changes should greatly benefit Bayne in 2017 as his team is blessed with relative stability for the upcoming season. Primary sponsor Advocare returns for another season and veteran crew chief Matt Puccia will once again be atop the pit box. Hopefully, this refocused effort will allow the Bayne to see Victory Lane once again and put RFR back in the winner's column, a place it's not seen since 2014.
No. 10: Danica Patrick
It’s kind of hard to say much upbeat about this team’s prospects for 2017. For the first time since her rookie season, Patrick had no top 10 finishes in 2016, although her average finish (22nd) was the best of her career. Still, there are uncertainties, not the least of which is that Nature’s Bakery seems to have stopped paying for its sponsorship (it is perhaps the smallest company with a major Monster/Cup sponsorship). While Danica’s marketing appeal remains strong, it might not be what it once was, so replacing Nature’s Bakery – should that become necessary – could be a challenge.
The other uncertainty is the switch to Ford. The natural inclination is to expect some transition problems for Stewart-Haas, and that could happen, but you never know with NASCAR, and the switch could be a bonanza for the whole team and for Patrick. Despite her detractors, she IS a good driver, especially on larger tracks, and if everything falls into place, she could at least occasionally be as visible on the track as off.
No. 11: Denny Hamlin
At a late point during the Chase in 2016, it appeared that Joe Gibbs Racing was going to run away with the championship. Jimmie Johnson spoiled those plans, but Denny Hamlin almost took the day. Hamlin's team comes back ready to rumble, and Denny is no stranger to victory lane. Toyota and Denny Hamlin are going to be tough to beat at Daytona, or anywhere else.
No. 13: Ty Dillon
Bye Casey. Bootie has a new buddy! Rookie of the Year candidate Ty Dillon will be stepping into the car and taking the wheel for the No. 13 Geico/Twisted Tea Chevrolet. Bootie Barker remains the crew chief and the team gets its engines from Earnhardt-Childress Racing Engines. Don’t be surprised if Dillon elevates this ride somewhat. A win in a strategic fashion could very well happen. Dillon will be looking to take that ROTY title, but will need to contend with Gray Gaulding on a part time basis, but go full throttle head to head with the talents of Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez.
No. 14: Clint Bowyer
This is the car number driven last year by the retiring Tony Stewart and comes from Stewart-Haas Racing. The driver for 2017 will be Clint Bowyer, with crew chief Mike Bugarewicz remaining in place. The entire SHR operation switches to Ford this year, with engines to be provided by Roush-Yates Engines. Sponsorship appears to be “iffy” after losing 5-Hour Energy to another team. Mobil 1 is scheduled to be a primary on a few races. Beyond that, we may see sponsorship from Bass Pro Shops or Haas Automation, which is code for owner Gene Haas is footing the bill if need be.
Tony brought the team to a 15th place finish in 2016, after injury limited his run to only 28 of the 36-race schedule. Clint drove for an underfunded team that no longer exists in 2017, and finished a disappointing 27th on the year. It’s tough to give a prognosis with so many changes and little by way of stats. I think that the #14 might well make a run for the playoffs, and might even be in the top-16. Then again, the total readjustments everyone must make to a new car and new engine could turn around and bite SHR. I just don’t know, but let’s hope for the best.
So, that is Part one of our season preview. Come back next week and check us out. Maybe you’ll see your favorite driver and see what we have to say about him, and then you can call us names and tell us we’re silly! Until next week, friends…