2017 Season Preview - Part 3
No. 37: Chris Buescher
Next to the Carl Edwards' abrupt announcement that he would not be driving the No. 19 Toyota in 2017, the formation of JTG Daugherty Racing's second team, the No. 37, has to rank next as the most unusual off-season 2016/2017 story.
Looking to provide a teammate to AJ Allmendinger in the No. 47 Chevrolet, JTG Daugherty Racing turned to the unlikeliest of sources - they leased a charter from Ford's Roush Fenway Racing's parked No. 16 team and secured the services of 2015 Xfinity Champ, 2016 Pennsylvania 400 winner, Cup Chase qualifier and Ford driver, Chris Buescher. For crew chief, they turned to another Ford person - Trent Owens, the recently released crew chief of Richard Petty Motorsports' No. 43 Ford of Aric Almirola. During his three years at RPM he guided Almirola to his first win - the 2014 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona and qualified RPM for the Chase for the first time since 2009. Finally, Richard Childress Racing provides engines, chassis and technical support for the fledgling team, while Bush's Beans, Clorox, Cheerios, Kingsford and others will foot the bills as sponsors.
2017 will be an exciting year for this new team of unlikely alliances. Since it began competing in Cup ten years ago JTG Daugherty Racing has been affiliated with Ford, Toyota and now Chevrolet - with limited success. This hybrid combination of Chevy and Ford may prove to be the winning ticket. It will definitely be something to keep an eye on if nothing else.
No. 41: Kurt Busch
As with all the Stewart-Haas drivers, Busch’s biggest uncertainty for 2017 is the team’s switch to Fords, and it’s really hard to see that process going completely without a hitch. Nevertheless, this has become a pretty smoothly functioning organization, and Busch certainly is a driver capable of running with the best.
Hard to believe that this guy, who started in NASCAR’s top series when he was barely old enough to sip a beer (legally, anyway) is now less than 18 months from turning 40. But Kurt has won at least one race in 13 of his 16 fulltime Monster/Cup seasons, and he still has what it takes. Last year was a small step down for the #41 team from 2015, but his seventh-place finish in the final standings was actually an improvement of one spot. Three years in with Stewart-Haas has established Busch as a front runner but not a dominator and probably not a major championship contender. Driving a Ford isn’t likely to affect positive change there, but on any given week, he’ll still likely be a threat.
No 42: Kyle Larson
This Chevy team comes from Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, and Rob Kauffman is listed as a part owner. (He’s the gentleman that left MWR after the Richmond debacle in 2013.) The team returns for 2017 intact, with driver Kyle Larson and crew chief Chad Johnson. Engines come from Hendrick Motor Sports and sponsorship from Target and Credit One. Current thinking is that Target might leave in 2018, based on the split between them and Ganassi in Open Wheel. They have backed off from full sponsorship in order to let other sponsors work with the team.
The team finished in a very respectable 9th place in 2016, garnering 10 top-5s and 15 top-10s, with one win at Michigan in August. Driver Larson has calmed down a bit as he matures and now finishes races near the front instead of in the garage. I look for good things from this team in 2017… scattered wins and a good run in the “Playoffs.”
No. 43: Aric Almirola
There’s really nothing different about the 2017 season from the 2016 season for Almirola, except that he’s short a team mate. Richard Petty Motorsports has leased the charter for the No. 44 team to the No. 32 of Go FAS Racing, because Go FAS leased theirs to the No. 21 for the Wood Brothers and Ryan Blaney. Got all that? Sponsorship remains the same, Drew Blickensderfer returns as top wrench for the team after replacing Trent Owens in 2016. The team still uses Fords, and engines come from Roush-Yates. Prediction? They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing and expecting different results. If this team wants more than rain shortened wins on plate tracks, then more things need to change.
No. 47: A. J. Allmendinger
The 47 Chevy owned by Tad Geschickter and Brad Daugherty (JTG Daugherty Racing) continues into 2017 with A. J. Allmendinger back behind the wheel. A. J. is signed to drive until 2020 in the 47. Kroger returns as a primary sponsor, along with Bush’s Baked Beans and Scott Products, among others. The Dinger will have a new teammate in Chris Buescher who will be in the 37 car this year.
Randall Burnett is expected to return as crew chief for the 47 this year. Engines will continue to be provided by ECR. Few, if any changes are expected in key personnel for the 47 team in 2017.
No. 48: Jimmie Johnson
After the 2016 Cup season Jimmie Johnson and the Hendrick No. 48 team are the "Kings of the hill", the top of the heap now known as Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Their five wins was tops for the 2016 season. Three Chase wins was the most among Chasers. The win at Homestead resulted in Johnson winning his seventh Cup championship, tying him with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
2017 finds Johnson atop the heap of wins for active drivers at 80. For perspective, this is more than the next two active winning drivers-Kyle Busch and Matt Kenneth (38 wins each) combined. An average 2017 season will see him passing racing legends Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison to move him to number four on the all-time win list, behind retired teammate Jeff Gordon.
When you have the leading driver, leading crew chief-Chad Knaus, leading organization, a returning primary sponsor - Lowes, coupled with a strong 2016 finish and a ton of momentum going into 2017, the question becomes who is going to knock these "kings" off the "hill"?
It might come from one of the remaining Chase champs-the Busch brothers, Harvick or Keselowski. Are Chasers Logano or Truex Jr. up to the task? The new race format might bring the No. 48 Chevrolet down, while others think that the changes guarantees them No. 8, saying Knaus had the new format all figured out before Steve O'Donnell finished the Q&A at the Announcement.
The future and fortunes of the 48 team may have been settled by the unlikeliest of teams-the NFL's New England Patriots. You see, in the years the Pats have won the Super Bowl, Jimmie Johnson has NOT won the Cup, so the Pats record breaking victory over Atlanta earlier this month may knock the "kings" off the "hill".
Then again, records are made to be broken.
No. 77: Erik Jones
Here’s what it amounts to: Eric Jones’ brief “careers” in both the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series was, in most ways, superior to that of Chase Elliott. Elliott has a combined seven wins and 866 laps lead in 82 starts, while Jones amassed 13 wins and 2,216 laps lead in 100 starts. Elliott’s average finish was stronger in his last full season before taking a fulltime Monster/Cup ride, but Jones’ stats for last year – in a series so thoroughly dominated by Kyle Busch, impress like few others you’ll see.
So the kid (he turns 21 the week after Charlotte) has the chops, but does he have the team? Furniture Row has become a player since aligning with Joe Gibbs, but that was with one car, and Jones is driving for a team starting from scratch. That has to be a concern, but this young driver seems to be capable of anything, so don’t expect the year to lack accomplishment. If NASCAR wants to work on developing its new stars, Eric Jones is a pretty good place to start.
No. 78: Martin Truex, Jr.
Martin Truex Jr. returns to the 78 Toyota again in 2017. Martin is currently signed to drive through 2018. The 78 teams picks up a couple of new sponsors this year, namely 5 Hour Energy, which will be a primary sponsor for 2 races, and Wix Filters, which will be a primary sponsor for one race, as well as an associate sponsor for the rest of the year. Bass Pro Shops returns as primary sponsor for 16 races in 2017. Auto-Owners Insurance, Denver Mattress, and of course Furniture Row round out the 78 car’s sponsorship this year.
Truex gains a new teammate this year with Erik Jones driving the 77 car. Cole Pearn is expected to return as the crew chief for the 78. Truex had a great year in 2016, and can be expected to make another strong run for the Cup this year.
No. 88: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
He’s baaaaaaaack! Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has returned to his seat in the No. 88 Nationwide/Axalta/Mountain Dew Chevy from Hendrick Motorsports. Through either winning or scoring points, consider this team a lock for the 2017 Championship hunt as long as they can keep one driver in the car. The only thing that has changed for Earnhardt is in his personal life, as he was married over the off-season. Maybe in 20-25 years, you’ll scanning this page to see what we have to say about young Rookie candidate, Ralph Dale Earnhardt….the Third!
No. 95: Michael McDowell
This Chevy team is Leavine Family Racing with owner, Bob Leavine, driver Michael McDowell and crew chief Todd Parrott. For the first time, the #95 will run a full schedule and the driver and crew chief will remain unchanged. They run under a new Charter, purchased from Tommy Baldwin Racing. (Last year the Charter was leased from Joe Falk Racing - #33) LFR engines come from ECR and they have an alliance with Richard Childress Racing. Sponsorship however, is still questionable, with no actual primary to speak of.
Their 2016 finish was a meager 30th place, but the team only ran 31 races, so the stats are a bit deceiving. “McRacer” is a good driver and everything on the team looks solid… except the sponsorship issue. They’ve really done a lot with a little for some time, and with a bit of luck, this team could surprise in 2017. I don’t foresee “Playoffs” but a finish of 20th or so is a good possibility.
So, that is going to be the end of our season preview. We hope you enjoyed it. Be sure to check out our weekly prognostications in our Fast Forward articles that will come out weekly. Until next time, friends…