2017 Season Preview - Part 2
No. 17: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
There is a saying in racing, dog sled racing, that's says if you aren't the lead dog, the view never changes. In 2017, with the exit of Greg Biffle and the decision to not field the No. 16 this year, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. now finds himself the senior driver, the lead dog in the Roush Fenway Racing organization. With this and other changes he hopes to see a change in scenery-from being a 2016 mid-pack finisher to a 2017 contender.
Off-season downsizing and personnel reassignment created scenery changes throughout the RFR organization. Nick Sandler, Stenhouse's crew chief for the last two seasons, now finds himself RFR's Director of Engineering. Veteran crew chief, Brian Pattie closed 2016 leading the now-defunct No. 16, but opens 2017 in the same position on Stenhouse's No. 17. This new combination will be tested right out of the box as Stenhouse had top five finishes in the last two plate races of 2016-Daytona and Talladega. Can they make it three top-5s in a row on February 26?
Stenhouse posted strong showings at Fontana (5th) and a personal best at Bristol (2nd) and in 2016 scored his highest number of top-5s(4) and top 10s (6) in his four seasons running a full Cup schedule. With the series visiting his four strongest tracks in the first 10 races we'll soon see if Stenhouse's view is going to remain the same, looking at Chase contenders through his front windshield or if it's going to change, with more top-10s, more top-5s and his 2016 running mates in his rear view mirror. I predict slight improvement over 2016.
No. 18: Kyle Busch
Doubtless, Kyle Busch is another of that small group of drivers at the very top of the NASCAR pecking order, with only Jimmy Johnson clearly ahead, based on the last five years’ wins, top 5s, top 10s and laps led – and despite impressive overall numbers, Busch has run 11 fewer races than most of the others, thanks to his 2015 injury. The fact that he drives a Joe Gibbs Toyota just adds to his lofty standing.
2016 wasn’t really a banner year for Busch, thanks in part to five DNFs. He’s a risk-taker and has a slightly higher DNF rate than most other top-tier drivers, but the new point system will reward chargers, and he’s averaged leading more than 1,000 laps per season over the past five years, so Monster Series Year #1 might just play into this bad boy’s hands. The question mark about his temperament remains lurking in the background, but if that demon’s largely behind him, Kyle Busch has to be considered a favorite to win it all in 2017.
No. 19: Daniel Suarez
Suarez is now the driver of the #19 Toyota Camry recently vacated by Carl Edwards. Daniel brings with him an Xfinity Series Championship, as well as driving experience in not only Xfinity, but also the Camping World Trucks Series, the K&N Series (East and West) as well as the ARCA series. Daniel Suarez will have veteran crew chief Dave Rogers on the pit box, and that, with a champion caliber crew will probably be able to bring Suarez up to speed in a hurry. This young man obviously has a lot of talent, and it would not be out of the question to see him win in his rookie season, given the talent and experience of his crew. Driving Toyotas for Joe Gibbs Racing, Daniel is already a strong talent. Carl Edwards’ surprising departure made Daniel Suarez the logical choice for the driver’s seat of the 19 car for Joe Gibbs Racing. Arris, Subway, and Stanley will be returning as sponsors for the 19 team. Suarez is certainly no stranger to Arris, which sponsored the majority of his Xfinity and Trucks efforts.
Suarez was born in Mexico, and before racing in the United States, he raced in the NASCAR Mexico series, where he won 10 races. Daniel Suarez is an impressive young driver and with the help of an experienced crew, likely will have very few problems transitioning into the Monster Energy Cup Series for 2017.
No. 20: Matt Kenseth
Everything appears to be the same for Matt Kenseth and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Team this season, aside from the loss of Dollar General as a main sponsor. DeWalt is on the car for the majority of the races, and it looks as if Tide will be picking up a few as well. That said, it does seem as if the team is looking for some sponsorship help for a few races. Kenseth’s contract runs out at the end of this season, and there are no indications either way of a re-sign or a resign. As long as he remains competitive, which he and the team should continue to be this season, look for Kenseth to continue to drive for as long as the drive is present.
Look for Kenseth to make the season end showdown based on the fact that a win gets you in. Beyond that, Championship hopes are determined by actions in and out of your own control.
No. 21: Ryan Blaney
This Ford team is from Wood Brothers Racing, with owners Glen and Eddie Wood and will run this year on a charter leased from Go-Fas Racing. Driver Ryan Blaney and crew chief, Jeremy Bullins remain in place from last year and as with all Ford teams, engines come from Roush-Yates Engines. Sponsorship comes from Motorcraft/Quick Lane and SKF.
The #21 team finished last year in a disappointing 20th place in points. It might be a well-worn cliché in racing, but “they raced better than they placed.” #21 has an alliance with Team Penske, which at the moment is the undisputed leader among the Ford teams. I see them making the “Playoffs” but not in contention for the Championship near the end.
No. 22: Joey Logano
Joey Logano's 2016 season in a single race, Homestead. Race hard, take chances, overcome adversity to only come up a little shy of the prize. In the race he finished fourth, his fifth top four finish in the final six races. If he had found Victory Lane there he would have not only won his first Cup Championship but would have won three of his final six races. Fewer drivers finished the 2016 season stronger than Roger Penske's 26 year old driver of the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford and we can only expect that momentum to freight train on into 2017.
The team, led by crew chief Todd Gordon returns for the 2017 campaign and all are greatly encouraged by Logano's quick adaptation to this season's new aero package. Driver, crew and team are poised to make another championship run this season with the only apparent obstacle before them is can they figure out the new Enhanced Race Format in time. Expect the Middletown, CT native's ninth season to be another strong one, but whether a Cup Championship awaits at Homestead is too difficult to predict.
No. 23: Gray Gaulding/Joey Gase
With veteran David Ragan driving in 2016, this team managed two finishes in the top 20 and was outside the top 30 in more than half the season’s events, finishing 33rd in points. So what are we to expect in 2017 from an 18-year-old with a modestly successful three years on the K&N Tour and some Truck Series starts on his resume? Nothing against the young man, but there are plenty of drivers with records that give them a better claim on a Monster Series ride, if only performance was more important than having sponsor money in your back pocket.
When BK Racing first came along – from the ashes of Red Bull Racing (remember them?), there was some thought that things might trend upward, but they’ve seemed to head the other way (and now they’ve sold one of their charters). This team spent 2016 at the lower end of the middle tier of non-big-money teams; holding that position might be a challenge in ’17.
Chase Elliot, #24 Chevrolet
Chase Elliot, driver of the 24 NAPA Chevrolet starts his sophomore season in 2017, with very few changes for his team. Chase had no wins in the Cup series last year, but will likely to be charging hard with a little experience under his belt now. Alan Gustafson returns as crew chief, and most other sponsors, including Kelley Blue Book, Mountain Dew, and SunEnergy1 will have supporting roles as sponsors. Hooters will reportedly be sponsoring the 24 Chevrolet for 2 races this year as well. 3M possibly will return as a sponsor, though there is no word yet.
The 24 team, under Gustafson’s leadership will likely be very strong this year. Chase is a very talented driver, and with all the experience that helped Jeff Gordon be the winner and champion he is, it is likely that Chase Elliot will be winning races and competing for championships as early as this year.
No. 27: Paul Menard
The glaring change for the No. 27 Richard Childress Racing team and Paul Menard for the 2017 season is the addition of Matt Borland as the crew chief. Previously with Stewart-Haas, Borland brings experience and a wealth of technical knowledge to a team which over the years has continued to struggle. Unfortunately, it still may not be enough to get Menard into the winner’s circle. A playoff spot may be possible based on points, but unless a surprise plate race win happens, it may be more of the same history for this team.
No. 31: Ryan Newman
Everything remains in place for 2017 on this Chevy from RCR and owner, Richard Childress. Driver Ryan Newman signed a multi-year contract and crew chief Luke Lambert still sits atop the pit box. Engines come from ECR and primary sponsors remain Caterpillar and Grainger.
The #31 team finished a mediocre 18th in points last year, scoring only 2 top-5s and 10 top-10 finishes on the year. To be honest, with a 39-year old driver that hasn’t won a race since Indianapolis in 2013, I’d look for more of the same mediocrity this year. The #31 will struggle to make the playoffs and probably will be edged out.
So, that is Part Two of our season preview. Come back next week and check us out for the final installment where we'll cover Kylw Larson, Martin Truex, Jr., Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and more!. Until next week, friends…