New drivers in new places. A returning star. And one looking to be in a class all alone.
Those are just among the drivers NASCAR America’s analysts stated they’d be watching early in the season.
NASCAR America is back for a fourth season at 6 p.m. ET today on NBCSN. NASCAR on NBC analysts Steve Letarte, Kyle Petty, Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett and Parker Kligerman are ready for the start of the season.
With that in mind, they each talked about the drivers they will be watching early in the season.
Steve Letarte: I’m going to have a group of them. I look at Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott. The reason I list those three is we now don’t have Jeff Gordon, we now don’t have Tony Stewart, we now don’t have Carl Edwards. Who is going to step up? There is a vacancy in the star power of the sport. I don’t think who is the most creative on Twitter and who has the coolest commercials that will fill that space. People laugh, but that’s how people in Hollywood create stars. I think it’s who shows up on the race track with fireworks in victory and that person will become a star.
Jeff Burton: Everything I’ve heard about preseason testing is that Hendrick Motorsports has been stupid fast. Like not a little faster than everybody. A lot faster than everybody. I’m curious to see if that continues. I heard in Vegas that Chase Elliott was way faster than everybody else. I heard that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was way faster than everybody else at Phoenix. I’m curious to see if that can continue when it really counts.
Dale Jarrett: The top driver I’m going to be watching at the beginning, at the middle and at the end is Jimmie Johnson as he chases his eighth title. This is history that we’re talking about. I know that there will be people that will say it is a different format but that was the same way that every other driver went about winning their championship with different rules and things. I’m really anxious to see this and how Jimmie and his team perform because this is a new type of pressure. There was pressure getting to seven but now you’re talking about doing something that nobody else has done.
No. 2 on my list is Dale Earnhardt Jr. coming back. I don’t have any doubt that he’ll be back in top form at Daytona because that is his place, but how do things go from there? We’ll certainly be keeping an eye on him around any type of accidents.
Third, how does Daniel Suarez handle this situation that he really wasn’t looking at when he ended his year as the Xfinity champion? I’m sure he was expecting some races in the Cup series but not a full-time deal. How does he handle everything with that? He’s been outstanding to this point but will it continue? There’s a huge learning curve there with the different cars and the different people he will be racing against.
Parker Kligerman: I couldn’t settle on one driver to watch but rather a specific group. The 26-and-under age group. This group is spectacular and will garner intense attention all season.
Austin Dillon – If he/ RCR can start the season strong like last year, especially at 1.5-mile tracks, I see Austin breaking RCR’s winless streak and being a player in the playoffs. New formats could hurt him in the playoffs though, as will he chase points for segments?
Kyle Larson – I look for very much the same performance as last year unless Ganassi has found a big advantage in the offseason. I don’t see them being much better, but no worse. They will make the playoffs.
Daniel Suarez – This will be one of the most interesting stories to watch all year as we see if he can adjust to the Cup cars. No prediction, just will observe.
Erik Jones – I feel with Daniel moving up now, Erik has something to prove. He let his similarly experienced but lesser-heralded teammate get the better of him for a championship. Erik won’t be successful focusing on one driver in a series like Cup, but I find it will be inevitable to compare the two. He won’t want to let Daniel better him again or these two could be in for a rockier relationship as the future of Toyota and JGR.
Ty Dillon – He will be an X factor. He showed slight promise in his limited Cup starts, and Germain Racing has benefited from its RCR relationship but not to the level of JTG Daugherty. I wonder with what will obviously be increased support from RCR, what this team will be capable of? Nonetheless, he adds again to the incredible under-26 crowd.
Ryan Blaney – I want Ryan to win a race this year. He without a doubt has the talent to do it. He has the race craft, and is one of the most calm drivers I have ever witnessed. Will his 21 team be able to cut out some of what seemed to be growing pains last year? He will also need to cut out slight mistakes late. The future is bright here in typical Penske fashion. Execution will be key.
Chris Buescher – Wow, what a change of fortune. There will be growing pains here, but I look for Chris to be a solid top-20 car in points come the end of the season. Once again if he pulls something extraordinary again, we could be talking about a fringe playoff car. All I do know is with this addition and Ty Dillon, the top 20 in points has gotten insanely competitive.
Chase Elliott – Must win a race. Can win a race. Will win a race. He will be a solid contender in the playoffs and garner the largest portion of the fan base out of this whole group.
Joey Logano – Insane he is even included in this group. He will win races; many in fact. He will be a formidable contender in the playoffs if he and crew chief Todd Gordon can clean up some late-race strategy issues. As every year since 2014, I think they can be champs.
Landon Cassill – Is actually 27 now, but I wanted to write “Do you even snap bro?” Also some curious things are occurring at that small Statesville, North Carolina, shop, looking ahead to 2018.
NASCAR America begins its fourth season at 6 p.m. ET on Monday, Feb. 13 on NBCSN