At long last, the NASCAR season is finally upon us, with cars practicing today for Saturday night’s Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway (8 p.m. ET, FS1).
As always this time of year, everyone is optimistic and full of energy for the long season ahead. But more than most years, the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup campaign begins with a ton of unanswered questions.
Here are the 10 questions that are most pressing as Daytona Speedweeks begins:
What was the best off-season move?
No question about it, the boldest move was Stewart-Haas Racing moving to Ford. But will it be the best move? Time will tell. Clint Bowyer clearly upgraded his situation by moving from Harry Scott’s sinking ship to SHR.
The oddest move was Chris Buescher moving to JTG Daugherty Racing’s new second car, while remaining under contract with Roush Fenway Racing, where he’s expected to return in 2018.
Who wins his first race?
Chase Elliott came close to winning a handful of races as a rookie, but never could quite seal the deal last year. It would be a surprise if he doesn’t park the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in Victory Lane at least once this year.
Other strong candidates to win their first Cup race in 2017: Ryan Blaney of the Wood Brothers Racing squad, Toyota rookies Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones, and brothers Austin and Ty Dillon.
Is there a new champion?
Jimmie Johnson has seven championships already, and among active drivers, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have one each.
But there are a whole lot of really good drivers who’ve never won a title — Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martins Truex Jr., just to name four. Is this the year one of them finally breaks through?
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Is Carl Edwards really finished?
The strangest story of the off-season by far was the abrupt exit of Carl Edwards, who insisted he wasn’t retiring but just isn’t going to race this year. A report surfaced earlier this week that Edwards would drive for Roger Penske next year, which seems absurd and unlikely given the antipathy that Edwards and Brad Keselowski had a few years back.
But given how bizarre the timing of Edwards’ exit was, would anyone really be surprised if he showed up in a Cup car somewhere next year?
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Who will the best rookie be?
No disrespect to fellow rookie drivers Ty Dillon and Gray Gaulding, but first-year drivers Daniel Suarez (Joe Gibbs Racing) and Erik Jones (Furniture Row Racing) are driving for teams that won a bunch of races last year. Dillon drives for Germain Racing, which is winless in 280 Cup starts, while BK Racing, where Gaulding will race, is 0-for-427.
Suarez or Jones will be rookie of the year in the Cup series. The question is which one?
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Will Toyota dominate Speedweeks again?
Last year, Toyotas won what is now the Advance Auto Parts Clash and one of the Can-Am Duel 150 qualifying races. Then the five Toyota drivers went out and crushed it in the Daytona 500, with Denny Hamlin winning as Toyotas sweeping the top three spots and four of the top five.
Hard to imagine they can be as dominant this year without Carl Edwards, but they certainly should be very, very good. We’ll see if they can go back-to-back.
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Is it really Ford's year?
Think about this for a minute: Ford hasn’t won the Cup Manufacturers’ Championship since 2002 and their last driver championship was way back in 2004 with Kurt Busch. Clearly, the Blue Oval Boys are tired of losing, and the addition of the four-car Stewart-Haas Racing team gives them three proven winners driving Fords.
Team Penske is good year in and year out, the Wood Brothers are back to racing competitively on a full-time basis and now SHR is part of the Ford family. They ought to be awfully strong this year.
Will Jimmie Johnson win an eighth title?
As great as Johnson is, his tremendous talent seems underappreciated. All seven of Johnson’s championships have some in the playoff era, with formats that make winning more difficult than ever.
And yet here Johnson is, with a chance at blowing past Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty and etching is name into the NASCAR record book with a truly mind-blowing achievement. It’s no slam dunk, but I wouldn’t bet against him.
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Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. stay healthy?
Let’s be blunt here: As goes Earnhardt, so goes NASCAR. If he’s racing, fans are watching. If he’s racing competitively, his huge fan base is engaged. If he’s racing and winning, the level of interest in the sport goes way up.
After missing half of the 2016 season, many of NASCAR’s stakeholders — track operators, broadcast networks, sponsors and others — would like nothing better than to see Earnhardt have a big season in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
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Will the changes work?
So much in NASCAR is new this year: A new title sponsor in Monster Energy, a new points system, three-stage races, new inspection procedures, a change in how damaged cars are dealt with, a traveling safety team and new concussion protocols.
Individually, almost all of the changes are positive, some overwhelmingly so. But NASCAR fans traditionally don’t like changes. Hopefully, once they see them in live race settings, fans will embrace them. But until then, it’s wait and see as far as how they will react.