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Saturday, February 27, 2016

2016 NASCAR Preview

The Daytona 500 is in the rearview mirror.  The Sprint Cup series is headed on to Atlanta and normalcy.  Now that the Daytona dust and confetti have settled, it is time for the Banshee Sports 2016 NASCAR preview.

Here are five things to watch for in the 2016 NASCAR season.

Talladega restart wreck
New Rules for NASCAR.  This blog has taken a lot of shots at NASCAR for their rules and officiating.  In the wake of several controversial endings to races in 2015, NASCAR has changed two key rules.  The first big change actually started near the end of last season after several controversial restarts.  That involves the institution of restart zones.  I won't bore you here with all the particulars.  If you want them, read up here.  The point is that NASCAR is trying to actually have something in writing to govern late race restarts that will reduce gamesmanship by front row cars and judgement calls by NASCAR officials.

The other major rules change has to do with overtime.  The Green-White-Checkers rules have been drastically altered in order to correct the debacle that occurred at the end of last year's fall race in Talladega.  From here on out, there will only be one attempt at GWC finishes, but there are now some actual rules governing what constitutes a real attempt at a restart.  Those rules differ from track to track, but there are now lines on the raceway that determine when a real restart has occurred.  Again, this is a step in the right direction in terms of removing arbitrary judgement calls from NASCAR officials.

SHR heats up the Chevy-Ford rivalry
Stewart-Haas Turmoil.  It appears that I could pencil this heading in for the preview every year.  Last season, I had a similar heading, but it involved a whole different set of variables.  This year, SHR has taken chaos it to a whole new level.  Heading into the season, we already knew that Danica Patrick would be breaking in a new sponsor after Go Daddy decided to get out of the sport.  We also knew that this was supposed to be Tony Stewart's final year behind the wheel.  Then the bombshells really started to drop.

First, Tony Stewart suffered a freak injury while riding an ATV in the offseason.  Stewart didn't actually wreck, but he sustained a ruptured vertebra in his back.  Smoke missed Daytona and even now there is no timetable for his return to the #14.  But, evidently the injury didn't stop Stewart from making some huge changes on the business side of the team.  Following Daytona, SHR announced that they would be leaving Chevy and joining Ford for the 2017 season.  This ruffled the feathers of fans of both manufacturers.  But, more importantly, the announcement will have repercussions for many other teams in the series as financial and equipment partnerships will have to change.  It will be interesting to see if this announcement affects the on-track performance of SHR this season.  I will also be interesting to see if the ripple effect impacts other teams this season.

Chase Elliott debuted on the pole at Daytona
Changing of the Guard.  For the first time in over 20 years, there will be a new driver in the #24 at Hendrick Motor Sports.  Jeff Gordon has retired.  Enter Chase Elliott.  Elliott proved he had financial value when he brought NAPA with him as a sponsor to Junior Motorsports.  Then Elliott proved his driving skills when he won the Nationwide Series Championship for JRM in 2014.  Unlike fellow rookie Chris Buescher who has to be the face of Front Row Motor Sports, Elliott will have the vast Hendrick resources behind him as he joins a stable of drivers that already includes Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kasey Kahne.  It is not at all unreasonable to expect Elliott to compete for a spot in the Chase his rookie season.

Return of the Wood Brothers.  The Wood Brothers have been involved in racing for 66 years, and some of the most famous names in NASCAR have driven for the team at one time or another.  However, it has been ten years since the Wood Brothers had a full time driver eligible to compete for a series championship.  This year, the Wood Brothers make their return to championship competition with Ryan Blaney driving the #21 Ford.  Blaney had a couple of top-ten finishes last year while running a partial Sprint Cup schedule.  While it is unlikely that this single-team operation will make the Chase, it is fun to have the #21 and the Wood Brothers back in the discussion.

Kyle Busch wins 2015 championship for JGR
JGR Juggernaut.  In the early 2000's, Joe Gibbs Racing gobbled up three championships in five years.  In 2015, JGR returned to championship form when Kyle Busch came back from injury to win the Chase.  But, it wasn't just Kyle Busch who had a good season.  Three of the four JGR teams qualified for the Chase with the fourth team narrowly missing out.  As we move into 2016, it looks like JGR has picked up right where they left off.  They started the season with a victory by Denny Hamlin at Daytona and strong finishes by the rest of the group.  It's important not to read too much into a single race, but this team could definitely get four drivers into the sixteen-car Chase.

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