Feb 21, 2016; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers take the green flag to start the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
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The start of each NASCAR season is met with both excitement and apprehension from each driver. A great start could mean the kickoff to a great season while a bad start could put a driver’s NASCAR career in jeopardy.
In just a few short weeks 40 drivers will start the Daytona 500 and begin the road to Homestead. Some will have a new ride, manufacturer, or crew chief. Others will be looking redeem themselves from the 2016 season with a fresh start. With the exception of 2016 champion Jimmie Johnson, 39 other drivers have something to prove in 2017.
Here are five drivers who need to get off to a great start in 2017.
Apr 24, 2016; Richmond, VA, USA; Sprint Cup Series driver Danica Patrick (10) high fives fans during driver introductions prior to the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports
Let’s start with the most obvious. Danica Patrick’s stats haven’t been impressive through her fourth full-time season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Her career consists of zero wins, zero top fives, and only six top ten finishes. The writing’s on the wall for Danica Patrick.
As the start of her fifth full-time season looms “Danica Mania” has all but gone away and it’s time for some solid results. That doesn’t necessarily mean a win but it does mean posting some top ten finishes and making the playoffs. With reports that sponsorship money is drying up there is more pressure than ever on Patrick to run up front and get more TV time.
The start of 2017 will be crucial and will set the tone for where Danica Patrick goes next with her racing career.
Apr 24, 2016; Richmond, VA, USA; Sprint Cup Series driver Clint Bowyer (15) high fives fans during driver introductions prior to the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports
After a disappointing season at HScott Motorsports, Bowyer will take control of the No. 14 car at Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR). Bowyer hasn’t won a race since 2012 and recorded only seven top fives in the last three seasons. The move to SHR may be Bowyer’s last chance to resurrect his career.
Bowyer doesn’t necessarily need to win at the start of 2017 but he must post some solid finishes inside the top 15. Tony Stewart didn’t have a great season in 2016 but he did make the playoffs and Bowyer needs to do the same. The switch to Ford for SHR will bring some unexpected challenges throughout the year but that will be no excuse for a lackluster 2017 season.
Nov 20, 2016; Homestead, FL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Ryan Newman during the Ford Ecoboost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The 2016 season was tough for Ryan Newman. He only recorded two top five finishes and missed the playoffs ending up 18th in points. While Austin Dillon is the flag bearer for Richard Childress (RCR) racing Ryan Newman is the seasoned veteran that needs to make things happen.
What RCR needs more than anything is a win. Richard Childress’ last trip to victory lane was with Kevin Harvick at Phoenix in 2013. Oddly enough Newman’s last win was also in 2013 at Indianapolis.
Contracts are on longer an issue as Newman and Childress signed a multi-year extension last October. It’s time go out and get a win early in 2017.
Kasey Kahne is set to start his fifth year driving for Hendrick Motorsports in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. While the first two years included a number of solid performances, the last three have been underwhelming to say the least. Kahne has recorded only one win and nine top five finishes combined in the last three years.
It’s no secret there are drivers knocking at the door to driver for Hendrick Motorsports. Most notably William Byron who will make his Xfinity Series debut with JR Motorsports. Without a great 2017 Kahne is most likely just keeping the seat warm to Byron. However, if Kahne can get off to a solid start this year and carry that momentum through the season it will make the decision much tougher for Mr. Hendrick.
Martin Truex Jr. is coming off the best season of his NASCAR career. He won four races during the 2016 campaign and looked like the car to beat until his championship hopes went up in smoke at Talladega. 2017 is Truex Jr.’s year for redemption. How he rebounds in the first five races of the season will set the tone for the rest of the year.
This year Truex Jr. is also gaining a teammate in Erik Jones. How will a second team at Furniture Row change things? In the past we’ve seen the results go both ways. However, with the help of Toyota I don’t see either team missing a step.