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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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Leavine Family Racing gives Kasey Kahne much needed ‘fresh start’

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Kasey Kahne says it’s “been a while” since he has looked forward to a test session.

But at 37 and entering his 15th Cup season, that’s the case for the former Hendrick Motorsports driver.

Because as his new crew chief, Travis Mack says, “It’s all about Kasey.”

When Kahne next gets in a Cup car, it will be in January at an open two-day test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It will be his first time behind the wheel of a car owned by Leavine Family Racing.

After six years driving the No. 5 Chevrolet as one of four HMS drivers, Kahne will be LFR’s lone focus in the No. 95 Chevrolet.

The Las Vegas test will be the most significant test Kahne has been part of in at least three years.

“I haven’t had a test in three years that wasn’t at a repaved road course or a short track or a Kentucky repave that we come back with completely different tires from what we tested,” Kahne said Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, where LFR revealed his Daytona 500 car. “To me it’s the first time in three years that I’ve actually been able to go and learn things and you can use them at an upcoming race. This will be completely different. It’s good for myself, it’s good for our team to have that going into a new season.”

New season, new team, new crew chief, new car number.

Kahne admitted the 2018 season may be the first time he’s ever really had a truly “fresh” start in his career, despite having competed on four teams through the first 504 starts of his Cup career.

“It’s a fresh start all the way around,” Kahne said. “It’s not just a different owner or a different manufacturer. It’s a fresh start everywhere. I think that’s really good for me. I think it’s probably the first time ever that it’s fresh, completely new in all aspects. So yeah, it’ll be interesting but I think it’s good.”

And Kahne needs to be good.

In his last three seasons at Hendrick, Kahne earned just one win –  the 2017 Brickyard 400 – while accumulating nine top fives (three each season). In 2012, his first year at Hendrick, he placed fourth in the final standings. In the following five seasons, he never finished better than 12th.

In September, it was announced Kahne wouldn’t be returning to Hendrick. He’ll be replaced by rookie William Byron in 2018.

Despite the lack of recent success, the 18-time Cup winner says his passion for racing on Sundays hasn’t wavered.

“I don’t understand why I would be done,” Kahne said. “I don’t understand why I can’t go out and win like I’ve won other years in the past. To me, I still have the desire and the passion that I’ve always had, so I don’t understand why any of that has changed, I feel really good and think in the right situation can still do really, really well.”

But Kahne understands why his time at Hendrick ended. And he’s kind of relieved.

“I think if results were better, I would still be there,” Kahne said. “But the results weren’t good enough. It’s hard to really understand where (the cause of) that lies or why or whatever. But that’s just the way it is and it’s racing.

“I’ve moved on and they’ve moved on and it’s all perfectly fine. I don’t have any bad feelings at all. I think Mr. H(endrick) is a great guy. My team and all those guys put in a huge effort. I don’t have any hard feelings, but I’m glad I’ve moved on, because what we were doing there was not working. To have that over with is great.”

He heads into the new chapter of his career with a rookie crew chief in Mack, who also arrives from HMS, where he had worked since 2004. Last year, Mack served as the car chief on the No. 88. He got his first chance to crew chief in the regular-season finale at Richmond after Greg Ives was suspended one race.

Kahne, Mack and the rest of LFR — roughly 30 employees in total — will begin to grasp what the No. 95 team is capable of with the Las Vegas test.

“I feel like it’s great place to get two full days, 15, 16 straight hours of just driving and communicating and learning each other, learning the car, learning setups,” Kahne said. “Between myself, Travis, the engineers at LFR, working with the RCR group, it’s just a completely new deal. So to have 15, 16 hours to work on all that stuff is awesome. I didn’t think we would get that test going into the year. I just thought we would show up to Daytona to race, go to Atlanta, race. With that, I feel it’s really a big benefit for us.”

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Kasey Kahne looks ahead to new team, more racing in 2018

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A new season will mean a new ride for Kasey Kahne and he’s ready to get going.

Kahne, who had spent the past six seasons at Hendrick Motorsports, moves to Leavine Family Racing for the 2018 season. The 18-time Cup winner will pair with new crew chief Travis Mack, who also moves over from Hendrick Motorsports where he was the car chief on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team.

WATCH: NBCSN to air special NASCAR America at 7 p.m. ET Thursday, followed by Cup Series Awards Show at 9 p.m. ET. (Watch Cup Awards Show online here)

“The whole deal is going to be new and different, all new people, Travis being one of them,’’ Kahne said this week in Las Vegas. “I don’t know Travis that well. We’re starting to get to know each other better now that we’re working together. He seems very motivated, excited for the role and so am I. I think it’s going to be a fun relationship.’’

Kahne, who won this past season’s Brickyard 400 and finished 15th in the points after making the playoffs, moves to a single-car team. He replaces Michael McDowell, who finished 26th in the points. McDowell’s best finish for the team was fourth at Daytona in July. It was his only top-10 finish. He had 15 top-20 finishes this past year.

Kahne said he spent a day on the shop last week with his new team and says “we’re heading in a good direction.’’

Another change for Kahne is that he plans to do more racing outside NASCAR. He said he plans to be at the Chili Bowl next month and may run at Volusia Speedway Park in Florida before the Feb. 18 Daytona 500.

“I plan on doing a lot of racing next year, working on that,’’ he said.

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Travis Mack named crew chief for Kasey Kahne in 2018

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Kasey Kahne will be paired with crew chief Travis Mack in 2018 in his first season in the No. 95 Chevrolet owned by Leavine Family Racing.

It will be Mack’s first full season as a Cup Series crew chief. He currently serves as the car chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Hendrick Motorsports.

Kahne will replace Michael McDowell in the No. 95 after six seasons driving the No. 5 for Hendrick.

Mack experienced his first race as a crew chief this season in the regular-season finale at Richmond when Greg Ives was suspended.

A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Mack joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2004. He moved to JR Motorsports in 2013, where he served as car chief for Regan Smith and Chase Elliott during Elliott’s 2014 championship season in the Xfinity Series. He became car chief on the No. 88 Cup car in 2015.

“As crew chief, Travis brings leadership and a solid experience to Leavine Family Racing,” said Jeremy Lange, VP and general manager of LFR in a press release. “His passion for racing and desire to win will fit well in our organization and, collectively, we all are looking forward to 2018 and beyond.”

Mack will remain with the No. 88 team through the end of the season.

MORE: Travis Mack delivers own baby daughter