We’re 32 days out from the biggest NASCAR event of the season in the Daytona 500, a race of such importance that needs no explanation.
But what else is there to look forward to?
There are 35 other Cup points races this season and they’re not all created equal.
Here are five races to pay closer attention to this season.
– Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on Feb. 24 on Fox)
The second Cup race of the season will probably have its biggest spotlight in recent memory when the 1.5-mile track is the first to host the 2019 rules package.
Derived from the 2018 All-Star Race package, it includes a tapered spacer and is intended to provide closer racing. Cars will run 550 horsepower at all tracks 1.33 miles and larger, which includes Atlanta. At tracks less than 1.33 miles, cars will have 750 horsepower.
Oscar Mayer will sponsor Ryan Newman‘s No. 6 ride for Roush Fenway Racing in the Daytona 500 and other races this season, the team announced Thursday.
The team stated in a release that Oscar Mayer would be the primary sponsor for Newman’s car at Phoenix in March and “on a number of races throughout the year.” Oscar Mayer also will serve as an associate sponsor on Newman’s car for the entire season. In each race with Oscar Mayer as the primary sponsor, the car will have a different design to promote Oscar Mayer’s offerings across bacon, hot dogs and cold cuts.
“We’re honored to be a season-long sponsor of driver Ryan Newman and Roush Fenway Racing,” said Matt Riezman, Associate Director for Oscar Mayer, in a statement. “We have big plans to support the sport and the No. 6 Oscar Mayer Ford Mustang this year and can’t wait to share our love for tasty Oscar Mayer bacon, cold cuts and hot dogs with NASCAR fans.”
Newman, the 2008 Daytona 500 winner, moves to Roush Fenway Racing this season.
Oscar Mayer served as an associate sponsor with Roush Fenway Racing in the early 2000s and was on Matt Kenseth‘s car and Kurt Busch‘s car when they won back-to-back Cup titles in 2003 and ’04. Oscar Mayer sponsored Kenseth’s car in last year’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
The 2019 NASCAR season is now within view as we have entered the month of January.
That means a lot of highly anticipated changes in the sport will be visible on track.
Before we get to what to expect from each team specifically, here’s what Cup teams will be dealing with in 2019.
Inspired by what was used in the 2018 All-Star Race, the new rules package will feature a tapered spacer to control the engines instead of a restrictor plate. Teams will have 550 horsepower at tracks 1.33 miles and larger and 750 horsepower at tracks shorter than 1.33 miles.
Some crew chiefs, including Cole Pearn, have said the new package could result in racing that resembles what is seen in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
One team that will not be present this year is Furniture Row Racing, which ceased operations on its No. 78 Toyota after 2018 due to a lack of sponsorship.
Rick Ware Racing will field two cars with two charters. It has not announced drivers for either car.
Spire Sports + Entertainment will field the No. 77 with a charter purchased from Furniture Row Racing. A driver has not been announced.
Obaika Racing will field rookie Tanner Berryhill in the No. 97 in its first full-time season.
(Drivers are listed in order of their car number with where they finished in the points last year)
What’s new: Cassill is slated to compete full-time for StarCom Racing, which bought a charter from Richard Childress Racing. Cassill, with 29 starts, is the only driver with more than seven for the team.
What’s the same: StarCom will again compete with a Chevrolet model in its second full season of competition.
What’s new: Kurt Busch moves from Stewart-Haas Racing to replace Jamie McMurray, who drove the No. 1 for nine years. McMurray will be an analyst for Fox Sports. CGR will be the sixth team Busch has competed for in Cup.
What’s the same: Matt McCall is back to crew chief the No. 1 after four years with McMurray.
What’s the same: Crew chief Paul Wolfe and Keselowski enter their ninth season together. With the separation of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, that makes Wolfe and Keselowski the longest-tenured driver/crew chief pairing in the series.
What’s new: Dillon will have Danny Stockman Jr. as his crew chief, replacing Justin Alexander. Stockman is Dillon’s fourth crew chief in six full-time seasons in Cup. Dillon won a Xfinity and Truck Series title Stockman. Dillon will also have a new teammate in Daniel Hemric.
What’s the same: Dillon’s scheme for the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona will be a tribute to Dale Earnhardt’s scheme in the 1998 All-Star Race.
What’s new: Will enter his sophomore season under the guidance of Chad Knaus, the most successful active crew chief in NASCAR. This will be Byron’s first season in NASCAR without rookie stripes after previously competing in Xfinity and the Truck Series for just one season each.
What’s the same: Jeff Gordon is still the last (and only) driver to win in the No. 24.
What’s the same: Greg Ives returns as Bowman’s crew chief on the No. 88 Chevrolet.
No. 95 Matt DiBenedetto (29th)
What’s new: DiBenedetto replaced Kasey Kahne at Leavine Family Racing after two years at Go Fas Racing. LFR will compete under the Toyota banner after being a Chevrolet team. Mike Wheeler will crew chief the No. 95.
What’s the same: 2019 will be LFR’s fourth full-time season in Cup. The team is winless since it first went Cup racing in 2011.
He wanted to keep Jason Ratcliff as his crew chief.
Bell, who will turn 23 on Sunday, got an early birthday present when his prayer was answered.
Ratcliff will remain as the crew chief on Bell’s No. 20 Toyota in the Xfinity Series for a second year.
Together, Bell and Ratcliff earned seven Xfinity wins, a rookie record. That propelled them to the championship race in Homestead-Miami Speedway where a loose race car and a late pit stop for a cut tire relegated them to a fourth place finish in the standings.
“I was very concerned (about losing Ratcliff),” Bell said Saturday at the Xfinity Awards banquet in Charlotte. “Whenever I got paired up with Jason it was a dream come true, right? Because I’m getting arguably one of the best crew chiefs in the Cup level to come down and do my Xfinity car.”
Ratcliff, who has been a NASCAR crew chief since 2000, was paired with Bell after five seasons and 14 wins Matt Kenseth in the Cup series.
“I knew that whenever things are getting shuffled around you never really know who’s safe and who’s not safe,” Bell said of JGR’s crew chief changes. “Obviously, Jason’s going to get opportunities. People are going to want him to crew chief their Cup cars, to go to different Xfinity teams. I just prayed that Jason was going to stay with me and stick with me. Very thankful that he did.”
Though Tyler Reddick managed to claim the series title, Bell is the obvious favorite for the championship next season.
Bell admitted “it’s going to be very hard to top ’18 in ’19.
“If I can go into ’19 and continue to win races and be in the (championship) four, I’m going to be happy with that.”
When it comes to getting ready for 2019, Bell is staying active behind the wheel.
“The only offseason prep I’m doing is just racing,” Bell said. “I’ve been pretty busy. Right after Homestead I went to Turkey Night out in California (where he beat Kyle Larson) and ran a midget. From there I went to St. Louis and ran a Midget. The only thing I know how to do is just race. I don’t think me losing the championship was a matter of not being prepared, I think it was just a matter of us missing it as a group.”
Bell’s offseason prep will continue Saturday with the Junior Knepper 55 in DuQuoin, Illinois. Bell is the defending winner of the USAC midget race, when he won with Keith Kunz/Curb Agajanian Motorsports. This year, Bell will race for Chad Boat and Tucker-Boat Motorsports.
Aric Almirola‘s performance this season at Stewart-Haas Racing provided validation to a driver who had not raced in the best Cup equipment before 2018.
Almirola improved 24 spots from last year to finish a career-high fifth in the points, the biggest turnaround from one season to the next in Cup since the elimination format debuted in 2014.
Part of the reason for Almirola’s jump was because he missed seven races last year after being injured in a crash at Kansas Speedway and finishing 29th in points for Richard Petty Motorsports.
Almirola also showed what he could do in his first year at Stewart-Haas Racing.
“For me, there was always some amount of self-doubt, how much am I a contributor to the performance not being where I want it to be,” Almirola said this week in Las Vegas ahead of Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “Sometimes you have to take that long, hard look in the mirror. I think for me … with my future and career being uncertain, one thing I was really hopeful for was that I would get an opportunity in a really good car to be able to know, hey, is it me or not? If I get that opportunity, can I make the most of it? Can I compete?
“I was fortunate enough that things worked out for me that I was able to get that opportunity. Some people never get that opportunity. But I was able to get that opportunity with Stewart-Haas Racing. I’ve got the best equipment in the garage area, and I was able to go out and compete. I ran up front and won a race and finished in the top five in points. It was a great year for me personally.”
“Now that we’ve got a year under our belt, and I feel like we achieved quite a bit, we can really focus in on our weaknesses and where we didn’t perform at our best and try to make that better. We can circle back to some of the tracks we ran really well at and figure out what we need to do to capitalize on some of those races where we felt like we could have won and didn’t do it. It’s very reasonable to have higher expectations going into next year.”
2. Not going anywhere
For those who wondered — and there were some whispers in Miami — Brad Keselowski will be back with Team Penske for the 2019 season.
“I don’t know where that came from,” Keselowski said Wednesday in Las Vegas of questions at the end of the season that he might retire. “As far as I’m aware (all is good). I will be at Team Penske driving the No. 2 car this year to the best of my knowledge. I’m under contract to do so.”
What does a racer do when the season ends? Race, of course. At least that is what Alex Bowman will do.
He’ll compete in a midget at the Gateway Dirt Nationals today and Saturday at The Dome at America’s Center, the former home of the St. Louis Rams NFL team before they moved to Los Angeles.
Bowman also plans to run a midget at the Junior Knepper 55” USAC Midget event Dec. 15 in the Southern Illinois Center in Du Quoin, Illinois in preparation for the Chili Bowl in January in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also has entered a midget for C.J. Leary for the Chili Bowl, which will be Jan. 14-19.
Not every driver will race in the next few weeks.
Ryan Blaney says he’ll leave Saturday for Hawaii. It’s his first trip there.
“It wasn’t my first choice, but the group I was with wanted to go,” he said Wednesday in Las Vegas. “I would like to go somewhere other than America to try to change up the culture, but I think that’s enough of a culture change in Hawaii to experience new things.”
He also plans to do some snowboarding before being home in January when his sister gives birth to her child.
Erik Jones said he’ll do some ice fishing – “go sit out in the cold and look at a hole in the ice, it’s just relaxing for me.” He said he plans to spend time with family in Michigan enjoying the holidays.
Denny Hamlin said he’ll go to St. Barts for a friend’s 50th birthdaycelebration. “Just going down there for some vacation time in the next few weeks and after that just spend some time at home relaxing.”
Austin Dillon said he expects to be in a deer stand for some time before Christmas.
When the K&N Pro Series West raced at the Vegas Dirt Track in September, the conditions were so dusty that it impacted the racing and viewing for fans.
“I think for them to both be able to showcase how cool the event is, the track needs to be right, the way it is prepped needs to be right,” Larson said this week. “That’s the only thing I”m nervous about, judging how the (K&N West) race went a few months ago.
“I just hope that the track is good so fans can get the opportunity to see some good racing in a few different series.”
5. Together again
Among those joining Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn in moving to Joe Gibbs Racing will be car chief Blake Harris and an engineer, Truex said in Las Vegas.
Having Pearn in the JGR shop should prove beneficial for all, Kyle Busch said.
“Adam (Stevens’) and Cole’s offices will be right next door to one another instead of being on a chat all the time,” Busch said of his crew chief and Pearn.
Busch likened Truex and Pearn helping the organization as much as Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth did. Joe Gibbs Racing won 26 of 72 races in 2015-16 when both Edwards and Kenseth were there.