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Friday 5: Questions about the upcoming Cup season

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Many places often celebrate Friday at 5 where the weekend begins. Although there’s no NASCAR Cup action this weekend, fans can still enjoy Friday 5 with a (fun) look at the upcoming season with these five questions.

1. What is the new driver/crew chief combination that is most intriguing?

Among the new driver/crew chief combinations this year:

Billy Scott with Kurt Busch at Stewart-Haas Racing

John Klausmeier with Aric Almirola at SHR

Matt Borland with Ty Dillon at Germain Racing

Greg Erwin with Paul Menard at the Wood Brothers

Travis Mack with Kasey Kahne at Leavine Family Racing

Greg Ives with Alex Bowman at Hendrick Motorsports

Darian Grubb with William Byron at Hendrick Motorsports

The one that intrigues the most is the Grubb/Byron pairing. Grubb won a championship with Tony Stewart in 2011, led Denny Hamlin to the title race in Homestead in 2014, worked with Carl Edwards in 2015 and won the 2006 Daytona 500 with Jimmie Johnson while serving as interim crew chief with Chad Knaus suspended.

Grubb has never worked with a rookie.

Byron is more than a rookie. The 20-year-old is viewed by many to be the future of Hendrick Motorsports. Grubb will play a key role in molding Byron and that’s an important responsibility. How Byron handles the highs and lows of the season will rest with Grubb. This will be worth watching closely.

2. How will Fords compete with the other manufacturers this season?

Chevrolet brings out the Camaro ZL1 this season. Toyota won 16 races with the updated Toyota Camry last year. Ford will have the oldest model among the three.

Brad Keselowski raised issues about Toyota’s success last year and NASCAR not keeping the manufactures closer. He sounded a warning about the 2018 season moments after the 2017 season finished in Homestead

“When that (Toyota) car rolled out at Daytona, and I think we all got to see it for the first time, I think there (were) two reactions: One, we couldn’t believe NASCAR approved it; and two, we were impressed by the design team over there,” Keselowski said. “I don’t think anyone ever had a shot this year the second that thing got put on the racetrack and approved. It kind of felt like Formula 1, where you had one car that made it through the gates heads and tails above everyone, and your hands are tied because you’re not allowed to do anything to the cars in those categories that NASCAR approves to really catch up.

“As to what will happen for 2018, you know, I don’t know. I would assume that Chevrolet will be allowed to design a car the same way that Toyota was for this one, but Ford doesn’t have any current plans for that. If that’s the case, we’re going to take a drubbing next year, so we’ll have to see.”

That’s the challenge Fords could face this season. Ford won 10 races last year, but only two of the final 19 races last year. Will that trend continue this season?

3. There were three first-time Cup winners in 2017. Will that number be equaled this season?

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon each scored their first career Cup victory last season.

Among the drivers seeking their first career Cup win this season: Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Chase Elliott, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Ty Dillon and Darrell Wallace Jr. Those drivers represent Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Germain Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports.

It would seem a good bet that Elliott and at least one other driver on that list scores their first career Cup win this year. It’s possible there could be three first-time winners again.

4. For fun, who is your way-too-early final four picks at Homestead?

Let’s go with Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch.

5. For fun, in the way-too-early category, how many drivers who didn’t make the playoffs last year make it this year?

Let’s go with three. Thinking Joey Logano, Erik Jones and Alex Bowman.

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Silly Season Scorecard: Holiday edition

Photo: Richard Petty Motorsports
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Richard Petty Motorsports’ announcement Friday that it will switch to Chevrolet and partner with Richard Childress Racing in 2018 will help make it a good holiday season for both organizations.

The move continued what has been a long and eventful Silly Season in Cup. And it’s not finished with still some rides remaining.

Here’s a look at where Silly Season stands about two months before cars are back on track at Daytona International Speedway.

ANNOUNCED RIDES FOR 2018

Ray Black Jr. joins Rick Ware Racing and will drive the No. 51 car (announcement made Nov. 22)

Aric Almirola joins Stewart-Haas Racing and will drive the No. 10 car (announcement made Nov. 8)

Darrell Wallace Jr. joins Richard Petty Motorsports and will drive the No. 43 car (announcement made Oct. 25)

Jeffrey Earnhardt returns to the No. 33 car at Circle Sport Racing (announcement made Oct. 15)

Kasey Kahne joins Leavine Family Racing and will drive the No. 95 car. (announcement made Sept. 19)

Ty Dillon signs a multi-year contract to remain at Germain Racing and drive the No. 13 car. Sponsor Geico also extends its deal with the team (announcement made Sept. 5)

Chris Buescher signs a multi-year contract to remain at JTG Daugherty and drive the No. 37 car. (announcement made Aug. 18)

Matt DiBenedetto remains with Go Fas Racing in the team’s No. 32 car (announcement made Aug. 12)

William Byron will drive the No. 24 at Hendrick Motorsports, replacing Kasey Kahne (announcement made Aug. 9)

Paul Menard moves to Wood Brothers Racing to drive the No. 21 car (announcement made July 26)

Ryan Blaney moves to Team Penske to drive the No. 12 car and signs a multi-year contract extension (announcement made July 26)

Brad Keselowski agrees to contract extension to drive the No. 2 car for Team Penske (announcement made July 25

Alex Bowman will drive the No. 88 at Hendrick Motorsports, replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. (announcement made July 20)

Erik Jones will drive the No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing, replacing Matt Kenseth (announcement made July 11)

OPEN/POSSIBLY OPEN RIDES

— Nos. 23 & 83: BK Racing has not announced plans for its cars for 2018.

— No. 27: Richard Childress Racing has not announced plans for this car for 2018.

— No. 34: Front Row Motorsports informed Landon Cassill on Oct. 9 that he would not be returning to the team next season. The team has not announced its driver lineup for next season. 

— No. 41: Stewart-Haas Racing declined to pick up the option on Kurt Busch’s contract for next year on Aug. 1. Even so, the team tweeted that it expected Busch back with sponsor Monster Energy for next year. Busch said Nov. 29, a day before the Cup Awards in Las Vegas, that he is not too worried about his situation and expects to be with the team. “I think that my best chance to win races and to win championships is to be with Stewart-Haas Racing,’’ he said.

— No. 77: Furniture Row Racing sold the charter to this team. This car will not compete in 2018.

AVAILABLE DRIVERS

Matt Kenseth: Out of the No. 20 after this season. He does not have plans for 2018.

Kurt Busch: With Stewart-Haas Racing declining to pick up his option for next year, Busch is a free agent. Even with Stewart-Haas Racing’s action, there’s still a good chance Busch signs a deal to remain with the organization.

Danica Patrick: She will not return to Stewart-Haas Racing after this season. Patrick announced Nov. 17 at Homestead that she plans to drive only the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 next year before retiring. She has not completed a deal to run either race so far. 

Michael McDowellWill not return to Leavine Family Racing with Kasey Kahne joining the team next season. Has not announced 2018 plans.

Landon CassillSearching for a ride after being informed he will not be back at Front Row Motorsports. He said Oct. 10 that he did not have sponsorship to bring with him at the time.

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Matt Borland to be Ty Dillon’s crew chief in 2018

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Germain Racing announced Monday that Matt Borland has signed a multi-year agreement to be Ty Dillon‘s crew chief. Borland begins his new job immediately.

Borland was the crew chief for Paul Menard at Richard Childress Racing this past season but Menard has moved on to the Wood Brothers for 2018 and RCR has not announced who will drive the No. 27 car – or if that car will compete in 2018.

Borland replaces Bootie Barker at Germain Racing.

“Matt Borland brings a varied skill set to our No. 13 program. With his engineering skills and veteran leadership, we are looking forward to continued improvements in our team results as we move into the new season and beyond,” team owner Bob Germain Jr. said in a statement.

Dillon finished 24th in the points this past season in his rookie campaign. His best finish was 11th in the playoff races at Talladega and Phoenix.

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Keep up with all the Silly Season changes for 2018 with this scorecard

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Aric Almirola became the latest driver to secure a ride for 2018 when Stewart-Haas Racing announced Wednesday that he’ll drive the No. 10 car.

Even with that announcement, more questions remain on which drivers will be in what rides next season.

Here’s a look at where Silly Season stands as Cup teams head to Phoenix Raceway for Sunday’s playoff race.

ANNOUNCED RIDES FOR 2018

— Aric Almirola will join Stewart-Haas Racing and drive the No. 10 car. (announcement made Nov. 8)

Darrell Wallace Jr. will join Richard Petty Motorsports and drive the No. 43 car. (announcement made Oct. 25)

Kasey Kahne will join Leavine Family Racing and drive the No. 95 car. (announcement made Sept. 19)

Ty Dillon signs a multi-year contract to remain at Germain Racing and drive the No. 13 car. Sponsor Geico also extends its deal with the team (announcement made Sept. 5)

Chris Buescher signs a multi-year contract to remain at JTG Daugherty and drive the No. 37 car. (announcement made Aug. 18)

Matt DiBenedetto will remain with Go Fas Racing in the team’s No. 32 car (announcement made Aug. 12)

William Byron will drive the No. 24 at Hendrick Motorsports, replacing Kasey Kahne (announcement made Aug. 9)

Paul Menard moves to Wood Brothers Racing to drive the No. 21 car (announcement made July 26)

Ryan Blaney moves to Team Penske to drive the No. 12 car and signs a multi-year contract extension (announcement made July 26)

Brad Keselowski agrees to contract extension to drive the No. 2 car for Team Penske (announcement made July 25

Alex Bowman will drive the No. 88 at Hendrick Motorsports, replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. (announcement made July 20)

Erik Jones will drive the No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing, replacing Matt Kenseth (announcement made July 11)

OPEN RIDES

— No. 27: Richard Childress Racing states it will announce plans for a third Cup team at a later date with Paul Menard joining the Wood Brothers for next season. Key will be sponsorship money on what happens with that car.

— No. 34: Front Row Motorsports informed Landon Cassill on Oct. 9 that he would not be returning to the team next season. The team has not announced its driver lineup for next season. 

— No. 41: Stewart-Haas Racing declined to pick up the option on Kurt Busch’s contract for next year on Aug. 1. Even so, the team tweeted that it expected Busch back with sponsor Monster Energy for next year. Busch said Nov. 3 that “we are in negotiations’’ to remain in the No. 41. Co-owner Tony Stewart said Nov. 5: “That’s our goal, is to have Kurt back in that car for next year.’’

AVAILABLE DRIVERS

Matt Kenseth: He said Nov. 4 on the NASCAR on NBC podcast that he has “decided to take some time off” after the 2018 season. Kenseth isn’t using the word retirement but says he has no ride for 2018.

Kurt Busch: With Stewart-Haas Racing declining to pick up his option for next year, Busch is a free agent. Even with Stewart-Haas Racing’s action, there’s still a good chance Busch signs a deal to remain with the organization.

Danica Patrick: She will not return to Stewart-Haas Racing after this season. Patrick has not announced any plans for next season. She’s not looking for a ride in the Xfinity Series. “Cup only,’’ she said.  

Michael McDowellWill not return to Leavine Family Racing with Kasey Kahne joining the team next season.

Landon CassillSearching for a ride after being informed he will not be back at Front Row Motorsports. He said Oct. 10 that he did not have sponsorship to bring with him at the time.

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Bootie Barker to finish season, but Germain Racing will have new crew chief in 2018

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Germain Racing announced Tuesday that veteran NASCAR Cup crew chief Robert “Bootie” Barker will finish the season with the team in that position, “but will not be with Germain Racing in 2018.”

Barker, 46, has been crew chief at Germain Racing, primarily for the No. 13 car, since 2010. Ty Dillon replaced Casey Mears as driver of the No. 13 Chevrolet this season. Dillon has struggled; his best finish in his first full Cup season has been 11th at Talladega four weeks ago.

The team did not state who would replace Barker.

Barker has served as a crew chief primarily in the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series since 2001. Drivers he has worked with include Dave Blaney, Mike Bliss, Ward Burton, Jason Leffler, Jeff Green, Johnny Sauter, Jeremy Mayfield, Scott Wimmer, Blake Feese, Scott Riggs, Patrick Carpentier, Max Papis, Michael Waltrip, Casey Mears and Dillon.

In 479 Cup races as a crew chief, Barker has no wins, three top-five and 17 top-10 finishes. In 94 Xfinity Series races, he has four wins, 20 top fives and 39 top 10s. He also served as a crew chief in the Truck series for three races.

UPDATE: The team announced Wednesday that, like Barker, technical director Chris Andrews and engineer Scott Whitehead will complete the current season but will not return in 2018.