With the 2018 NASCAR Monster Energy Series (NMES) season just a week away, it’s time to look at five bold predictions that might just happen. The offseason featured several drivers changing teams, retirements and much more. Click here to make sure you’re caught up on everything that happened before the season gets underway!
Jimmie Johnson Misses the Playoff
A seven-time champion missing the playoff? It might not be as far-fetched as you think. Johnson scored three wins last season, so it’s tough to say it was a down year. Three wins in one season is a great feat, especially with the level of talent NASCAR has these days.
But it’s still concerning how uncompetitive Johnson was in the races that he didn’t win. He won three races over a span of seven weeks, but was never really in the running for another victory in the other 33 races.
The 2017 season featured Johnson setting several new career lows across the board. He lead the fewest laps of his career (217), had his worst average starting (16.9) and finishing (16.8) position of his career and tied his career most DNFs (seven). Plus, he scored his least top-5s (four) and top-10s (11) of his 16 full seasons.
The start of the youth movement at Hendrick may further decline his numbers. Last season, Johnson spent a lot of time helping and mentoring teammate Chase Elliott. While this helped Elliott have a career year, Johnson had his career worst in most aspects. This season, he’ll have two rookie teammates, William Byron (20 years old) and Alex Bowman (24 years old). It’s not hard to imagine Johnson spending too much time mentoring the rookies and giving away his tricks that helped him win seven titles.
Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus’ domination over the last decade has been record-setting, winning seven championships in the last 12 seasons. But as Johnson enters the 2018 season at 42 years old, could father time start to catch up with him?
William Byron gets first win before Chase Elliott
Chase Elliott has been so close to parking his Chevrolet in victory lane on numerous occasions, but he just hasn’t been able to close out races. In his two seasons, Elliott has six second-place finishes and five third-place finishes, and a total of 22 top-5s.
In his first two seasons, it’s been a combination of not being aggressive enough at the end of races and getting caught up in wrecks that weren’t his fault. At Dover in 2017, he wasn’t aggressive enough late and let Kyle Busch get by for the victory. Four races later at Martinsville, Denny Hamlin put the bumper to Elliott and sent him spinning into the wall, resulting in a 27th place finish.
William Byron enters the 2018 season as the rookie teammate to Elliott. Even though they are teammates, there will be no shortage of competition between the two for their first win. He’s coming off an Xfinity Series title where he won four races in his rookie season in the second-tier series. Elliott also won the Xfinity title in his rookie season in the series.
Byron will enter his NMES rookie season in similar shoes as Elliott, expected to battle for a win every week. If Elliott’s closing struggles continue in 2018, Byron could learn from this and ensure that he does things differently. The rookie could capitalize on his teammate’s struggles and seize his opportunity to win the first chance he gets.
19 Different Regular Season Winners
The NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series hasn’t had 19 different winners since the 2001 season. But with the variety of talent entering 2018, there’s hope that we could see 19 winners again. The most interesting thought about having that many winners is that there’s only 16 playoff spots. A win locks you in the chase, but that’s only if there’s 16 or less winners. Once you eclipse 16, then it goes by total points for those tied with one win.
Last season featured 15 different winners, the most since 2013 when there was 18. Of those 15, only Matt Kenseth will not be returning to the track this season. So hypothetically, if you count each driver that won last season for at least one win this season, that puts us at 14.
Now let’s look at the notable, talented drivers that did not win last season. First off, there is Elliott. He’s on the cusp of his first of many victories in this series, and it’s only a matter of time.
Second, Jamie McMurray. Jamie Mac hasn’t won since 2013, so he’s definitely due. He has seven career wins, and since gaining Kyle Larson as a teammate, he’s looked stronger each season. He’s coming off his best season since 2004 in terms of average finishing position. In 2004, his average finish was 13.2, and in 2017, he marked his career second-best at 14.6.
Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez, now teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing, are both entering their second full season. Jones, similar to Elliott, nearly won last season, but couldn’t get by Kyle Busch late at Bristol.
Suarez, NASCAR’s first full-time Mexican driver, had a very strong second half of the 2017 season. He was fast and lead at the restrictor plate tracks and put together 12 top-10s in his rookie season. It wouldn’t be a shock to anyone if he parked his 19 machine in victory lane this season.
That brings us to 18 winners. Next, you can look at the rookie drivers, William Byron, Alex Bowman and Darrell Wallace Jr. Byron is coming off an Xfinity Series title and is stepping into the 24 car at a competitive Hendrick team. He’s got the raw talent behind the wheel to pick up a win in his rookie season and make some noise the playoffs.
Bowman has substituted in the NMES in recent years and put together some strong runs. Subbing for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Phoenix in 2016, he led a 194 of 324 laps and finished sixth. Just like Byron, he’s joining a competitive Hendrick team that will give him the equipment necessary to run up front.
Wallace Jr. takes over the 43 car at Richard Petty Racing this season. While subbing for an injured Aric Almirola for four races in 2017, he impressed enough to get a full-time ride with RPR. In his two full Xfinity series seasons, he accumulated six wins and 23 top-10s. His third Xfinity season was cut short after 13 races due to lack of funding, but still scored an impressive eight top-10s.
If just one of these three rookies can put together a full race and make the right moves at the end, we could see 19 winners once again.
Erik Jones makes the round of 8
Jones is coming off his rookie campaign where he took home Rookie of the Year honors. Jones showed poise and composure all season long which helped him earn a ride with JGR after his one-year contract expired with Furniture Row Racing. He nearly won the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol, but was narrowly topped by Kyle Busch. He led a race-high 260 of 500 laps, but eventually finished second to the veteran.
During his rookie season, he totaled five top-5s, 14 top-10s, and one pole. In 2018, he’ll be driving the 20 car for JGR, taking over for Matt Kenseth. Last season, he was teammates to the champion, Martin Truex Jr. This season, he’ll be teammates with another NASCAR champion, Kyle Busch. Jones already has a strong relationship with Busch and will look to build on that as the two are now official teammates. He’ll no doubt take what he learned from Truex Jr. and apply it to what he’ll learn from Busch. With this wealth of knowledge from NASCAR champions, expect him to notch his first victory during the regular season.
In the playoffs, there’s a few tracks that Jones has run well at: Richmond, Dover and especially, Phoenix. In the Round of 16, NASCAR will run it’s first ever race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course, otherwise known as the “Roval.” The Roval could really be anyone’s race because no one has ever run a race there before. The Round of 12 includes Dover, where Jones could go to victory lane and lock himself into the Round of 8.
With the success he experienced in his rookie season, combined with the wealth of knowledge he’ll gain with JGR, it’s not crazy to imagine Jones racing his way into the Round of 8.
Joey Logano wins his first championship
Joey Logano is coming off a tough season where he missed out on the playoffs, but not because he didn’t win. He started the season hot, with seven top-10s in the first eight races of the season. He followed that with his only win of the season at Richmond in the ninth race. Following the race, his winning car was found to be in violation of rear suspension dimensions, so his win was encumbered (doesn’t count as a playoff berth). The encumbered win truly took the wind out of the 22’s sails. In the next five weeks he finished 21st or worse and averaged a 17.81 finishing position following the encumbered win.
2018 looks to be a bounce-back year for Logano. He picked up a new teammate in Ryan Blaney, and already has a NASCAR champion, Brad Keselowski, as his other teammate. Blaney, whose coming off a breakout year with technical alliance team Wood Brothers Racing, could competitively push Logano to be better.
Across the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons, he combined for 14 wins and was consistently leading laps week in and week out. During those three seasons his average finishing positions were, 11.3, 9.2 and 10.5 respectively. In the 2016 season, Logano pieced together three wins and finished second in the championship standings behind only Jimmie Johnson. He looked like he was going to be a perennial contender for the title for the remainder of his career.
Logano’s 2017 down season must be looked at as an anomaly, he simply has too much raw talent to not battle for a championship in Homestead. Look for Logano to bounce back very strong in 2017 with multiple wins throughout the regular season and the playoffs.
It may have only taken one playoff-less season to motivate Logano to go get his first NASCAR Monster Energy Series title.
Featured image from tvinsider.com
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