Is It Speedweeks Yet?

Photo Courtesy: Hendrick Motorsports

Rajan Khanna/News Editor

With only a week until the beginning of Speedweeks at Daytona, many questions are still left unanswered in the NASCAR world. Danica Patrick announced she would race the 2018 Daytona 500 and the 2018 Indianapolis 500 when she retired late last year. Her longtime sponsor, who supported her through INDYCAR and the beginning of her NASCAR career, Go Daddy, has stated that they will sponsor her Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 entries. Recently, Premium Motorsports announced that Patrick would drive the No. 7 Chevrolet Camaro for them in the Daytona 500. She has not announced an INDYCAR ride yet. Patrick, however, has solidified her future as a full-time entrepreneur. She has worked hard to evolve her fitness apparel brand and wrote her first book. She also has shown interest in creating her cooking show. It is unknown whether she will compete in any more races pending her negotiations with teams for rides. Aric Almirola will take her place in the Stewart-Haas No. 10 car.

As both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth retired last season, they have young talent taking their place. Alex Bowman will drive the No. 88 car and Erik Jones will drive the No. 20 car. 2018 will be Bowman’s first full season. He filled in for Earnhardt Jr. during the latter half of 2016 due to injuries. Although he is young, he has proven his ability to drive. He took pole position at the 2016 Can-Am 500 and led most of the laps. He also won at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the NASCAR Xfinity Series driving for Chip Ganassi Racing. Erik Jones has quickly proven that he is a contender for wins. He won the 2015 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Championship and won many races throughout his NASCAR Xfinity Series career. He also spent 2017 in the Furniture Row Racing No. 77 car to develop experience for his future in the premier series. Both Bowman and Jones will contend for wins at every track.

An exciting new development for Chevrolet will arrive at Daytona International Speedway soon. The brand-new Camaro ZL1 stock car will replace the SS as their Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (MENCS) race car, which the industry met with positive feedback upon its unveiling. Pre-season testing has shown the car is excellent. It topped the speed charts at Las Vegas in the recent test. Many teams also unveiled their paint schemes for the new vehicle. One notable scheme is William Byron’s vehicle. His scheme pays homage to Jeff Gordon’s 2015 Axalta “flame” scheme. He is sure to have a significant fan base as soon as his first MENCS start.

Photo Courtesy: Motor Trend

NASCAR has tweaked the ruleset to improve the on-track product. They reduced the downforce created by the rear spoiler to 1650lbs. This is said to create a shift in the balance of the car at speed. They will be more unstable as the majority of the weight will be in the back pushing down the rear tires. When the vehicle has less downforce on the front, the front tires are much less efficient at turning the car which makes the car much harder to drive. The new downforce requirement will prove to be a challenge for crew chiefs and drivers. An improvement many fans will be excited about are the changes to the splitter. During the final laps of the 2017 Monster Energy Open, Erik Jones attempted to pass both Daniel Suarez and Chase Elliott for the lead. He was blocked in every lane on track, so he had to get creative.

Remembering what NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt did in 1987, Jones went for the elusive “pass in the grass.” The downforce of his car pushed the splitter into the grass and destroyed it. He ended up spinning in the turn and had to retire the car. A sad end to a heroic move. The 2018 answer from NASCAR is to enforce a “common flat splitter.” This splitter has a more “valence” front than prior Gen. 6 stock cars. This change will also reduce the engineering advantage that one car might have over the other as all splitters are standard. A significant difference that will only be active at restrictor plate race tracks is the elimination of a minimum or maximum ride height. This is said to increase safety by increasing liftoff speed. Liftoff speed is the speed where the car starts generating lift, and the tires leave the ground. It is a hazardous event for both the car and the driver. These changes have increased that speed by almost thirty miles per hour, a considerable improvement. The low downforce changes coupled with a flatter front splitter should not only make the cars harder to drive, but also increase their top speed.

Overall, the new season will bring many surprises. These new rules might help mitigate the advantage that one manufacturer may have over the other. The new returning drivers will have to battle in new ways as NASCAR changes. One thing is for sure; The 2018 Daytona 500 is sure to be a fascinating race for all.