Changes are coming for NASCAR as Daytona 500 approaches

Changes are coming for NASCAR as Daytona 500 approacheshttps://d2d49q62n92ko8.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/09155828/2020-Daytona-500.jpg

Changes are coming for NASCAR as Daytona 500 approaches. The sky isn’t falling yet — or at least it doesn’t seem that way — as NASCAR goes into the first of two seasons full of change.

Three months since Kyle Busch won his second championship, NASCAR took its awards ceremony to Nashville, TN, and was eagerly embraced. Last month, the Hall of Fame ceremony focused on Joe Gibbs and his elite organization, which won a NASCAR record 19 of 36 races last season as Busch earned Joe Gibbs Racing its fifth Cup Series title.

Daytona 500

Drivers will debut for 2020 to the track at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday and the season-opening Daytona 500 is Feb. 16.

“We’re coming off of a very good year, I felt like last year, where we’re really getting some momentum back,” NASCAR Chairman Jim France said. “It’s exciting now, going into this coming year.”

Since taking over for his nephew as head of the family business in August 2018, Jim France has been a steady force for a series trying to stop a slide in every important metric. Attendance and television ratings possibly have bottomed out, but sponsorship money is as hard to find as ever and cost-cutting is a major priority across the entire industry.

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So the final full season for 7-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson is also the final year for the current race car. The “Next Gen” car is on schedule to race in the 2021 season, and the project is supposed to save millions from team budgets because its parts and pieces will require a smaller workforce.

Even prior to that, NASCAR made long overdue tweaks to the schedule with a few seismic shifts: Phoenix will host the championship-deciding finale race in November, Martinsville Speedway has both a night race and the penultimate playoff race, Daytona gave up its traditional July Fourth weekend to Indianapolis Motor Speedway (and will now host the final regular season race) and Pocono Raceway is going to host two Cup Series races in one weekend.

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NASCAR made these changes despite five-year contracts that had given track owners stability. But fans have complained about the weak schedule and 2020 was NASCAR’s first opportunity to make even small changes.

The contracts end this year, and NASCAR will have the ability to change the entire schedule for 2021. NASCAR, a private company owned by the France family, last year got rid of International Speedway Corp., giving Jim and Lesa France Kennedy his niece, the power to do just about anything they want.

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“It makes a big difference,” Jim France said of the merger. “It gives us an opportunity to respond quicker to the changing environment out here with the economy and all the things that are going on that impact motorsports. It was a major big step that we needed to make probably for quite a while.”

This year, NASCAR will debut a new sponsorship model in which the elite Cup Series won’t have a single entitlement partner. The Winston Cup/Nextel Cup/Sprint Cup/Monster Energy Cup will now be just the Cup Series going forward, with “premier partners” Busch Beer, Coca-Cola, GEICO and Xfinity taking on major roles.

As Jim France and Lesa France have found progress, the stock car series has shown flexibility as well: After acknowledging the rules package was no good at short tracks and road courses, NASCAR made changes for those specific venues.

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Adapting to everything will be Johnson, who said this year will be his final as a full-time NASCAR driver. His 19th season will be his final attempt to win a record eighth Cup championship, but Johnson said he no longer has the pressure of chasing Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt and plans to enjoy his time in the No. 48 Chevrolet.

“I’ve been able to have some clarity and to really understand it on a deeper level,” said Johnson, now 44. “One thing that I’ve come to grips with and I’m enjoying letting go of is: I feel like I’ve been a bit out of character and a bit focused on a number, a statistic — and I’ve never in my life been that way. I’ve never raced that way.”

“”I’m out there one final time,” he added. “This is just one final time, and it feels so good to be able to let go of that chasing part.”

The chase will be on when drivers try to fill Johnson’s seat at Hendrick Motorsports. Alex Bowman is also in a contract year driving Rick Hendrick’s #88, meaning the top two seats at an elite team are in rare play.

Two of the drivers in a free agent crowded pool are former series champion Brad Keselowski and teammate Ryan Blaney, who were both involved with Team Penske. Seeking a spark after failing to get any of their cars into the championship-deciding finale, Penske changed crew chiefs for all three of its drivers, two of whom are in contract years.

“I personally needed to be challenged,” Keselowski said. “A lot of us were pretty comfortable and this certainly removes any feeling of comfort.”

Kyle Larson is the top free agent in this year’s pool and likely has three options: He can stay with Chip Ganassi, who lets him race sprint cars; move to Stewart-Haas Racing and drive for Tony Stewart, who may be even more lenient than Ganassi has been; or he can scale back the extracurricular racing and drive for Hendrick.

Larson has only won six career Cup races, but is supposed to be the best of NASCAR’s next generation and only 27 years old. His desire and ultimate decision will likely impact all other major driver negotiations.

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It’s a complete house at Joe Gibbs Racing, which places three Toyotas in the final four last season and returns its entire lineup, with Christopher Bell finally earning his promotion to the Cup Series in a satellite ride for Leavine Family Racing. It was the only place to put Larson’s sprint car-loving buddy, who was ready for the big leagues but stuck in Gibbs’ crowded system.

Bell will be in a race for top Cup rookie alongside Cole Custer and two-time Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick. They raced each other for the Xfinity title the last two seasons.

The race for the last four slots at Phoenix is wide open, assuming teams figure out how to equal Gibbs on the track. Busch hasn’t missed a beat and spent most of January in a sports car, making his debut at the prestigious Rolex 24 at Daytona in his own attempt to stay sharp.

His push for title #3 begins with the Daytona 500, a race he has’t won. Busch was second to teammate Denny Hamlin in last year’s 1-2-3 Gibbs sweep, and he very much wants to win the race himself.

Busch gets to show what he’s got starting Sunday with both an exhibition race and qualifying for the Daytona 500.

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