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Friday 5: Key questions leading into 2019 Cup season

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Cup teams test in two weeks in Las Vegas. The Daytona 500 is a month away. The new rules package debuts in five weeks in Atlanta.

There are many questions to ponder with the Cup season nearing. Here are five key questions.

1. What will the racing be like?

NASCAR made the decision to go with a new rules package that should make the racing tighter.

Will it? Can this package lead to more side-by-side racing, more beating and banging and more drivers upset with one another?

If it does, this could be among the steps to attract more fans. If not, then what?

2. What’s next from NASCAR?

It could be argued that this year will be among the most pivotal for NASCAR.

Steve Phelps enters his first full season as President. Jim France remains interim Chairman, having taken over after Brian France went on an indefinite leave after his arrest Aug. 5 for aggravated driving while intoxicated and possession of a controlled substance in the 7th degree.

Phelps and Jim France will be among those who decide NASCAR’s direction. Phelps has twice said publicly since late September that “everything is in play” when looking at the Cup schedule for 2020 and beyond.

There has been talk of starting the season earlier and ending it sooner, midweek racing and doubleheaders.

How fans accept what NASCAR does — or doesn’t do — will be key.

3. Can Ford teams — particularly Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske — avoid the new-car blues that Toyota and Chevrolet teams experienced the past two years?

Both Toyota (2017) and Chevrolet (2018) struggled at times with their new cars in their debut seasons. If the same thing happens to Ford this year with the Mustang, it could allow Chevy and Toyota teams a chance to win races, qualify for the playoffs and build playoff points. That could be significant.

Toyota debuted the Camry in 2017 to mixed results. Although Martin Truex Jr. won three times in the first 18 races with the car at Furniture Row Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing could not get any of its Toyotas to Victory Lane until the 19th race of the season.

Things changed in the second half of the season. Toyota cars won 14 of the last 19 races and also the championship.

Chevrolet debuted the Camaro last year and also struggled in the first half of the season. Chevy teams won once — the Daytona 500 — in the first 21 races last year. Chevrolet won three times after that — all by Chase Elliott.

So can Ford teams be strong all season or will they need some time to become dominant or will they struggle much of the year?

4. Will new driver-crew chief pairings lead to wins?

The focus this season will be on Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus no longer working together on the No. 48 team — Johnson will be with rookie Cup crew chief Kevin Meendering and Knaus will be paired with sophomore Cup driver William Byron — but there are other pairings to watch.

After going winless last year, Denny Hamlin will be with crew chief Chris Gabehart, who has won in the Xfinity Series with Hamlin, Erik Jones and Ryan Preece.

Kurt Busch moves to Chip Ganassi Racing for what could be his final Cup season. He’ll look to crew chief Matt McCall to help make this year memorable.

Austin Dillon is reunited with crew chief Danny Stockman. They combined for championships in the Truck and Xfinity Series. While Dillon won last year’s Daytona 500, he wasn’t much of a threat at many other tracks. Can this pairing have success again?

Daniel Suarez lost his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing to make room for Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn. Suarez moves to Stewart-Haas Racing and looks to crew chief Billy Scott to help him succeed.

Ryan Newman moves to Roush Fenway Racing and will have Scott Graves as his crew chief. Graves came from Joe Gibbs Racing. Can these two help raise Roush Fenway Racing’s profile?

5.  Who wins first?

It was shocking that Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson each went winless last year.

Don’t count on that happening this year. Don’t be surprised to see all three win this year. As for who will be the first to win? You don’t have much longer to find out. The season is approaching quickly.

Kyle Larson ready to learn from Kurt Busch — and maybe teach him a bit, too

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Kyle Larson is looking forward to learning from new Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Kurt Busch. And Larson may even be able to teach Busch a few lessons.

Calling in from Tulsa, Oklahoma, home of this week’s Chili Bowl, Larson appeared on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” Thursday.

“Being a teammate with a champion is really cool,” Larson said of being paired with the 2004 NASCAR Cup champion. “I think I’ll be able to learn a lot off him. I think he’s going to push me to be a better race car driver, really. I’m looking forward to working with him.

Kurt Busch. Photo: Getty Images.

“I’m excited to learn from him and how he gets around Martinsville and the road courses and during the races and stuff like that. Those are my biggest weak points and I feel like those are some of his strongest race tracks.

“Kurt has always been very into knowing about his race cars. I think he’ll be able to have some input on changes to our chassis or anything on our race cars to try and help us out at places where he thinks we might struggle.”

Due to offseason schedule conflicts, Larson and Busch haven’t been able to spend much time together yet. But the new teammates are slated to get together once Larson returns to the Charlotte area after the Chili Bowl concludes Saturday night.

And while Larson is looking forward to Busch’s mentorship, he also feels he can maybe teach Busch a few things, as well.

“I think the style of racing has changed some from, say, a decade ago,” Larson said. “There’s a lot of younger, it seems like, really aggressive drivers out there.

“Just with (Busch) being able to see me and my aggression even more so up-close and being on the same team and looking at the driver data, yeah, maybe there’s some things he can learn.”

Larson admits because he’s been focused during the offseason on racing both in the U.S. and overseas, including the Chili Bowl, he hasn’t spent much time thinking about the 2019 NASCAR Cup season.

But that’s about to change.

“I don’t really think about NASCAR season until the checkered flag waves here on Saturday,” he said. “I think it’ll be a good year for us. The rules package is going to be way different, so I’m not really sure what to expect there and how we’ll be, but I’m looking forward to get going.”

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Roush Fenway Racing adds Oscar Mayer as sponsor for Ryan Newman

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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.

New Cup driver, spotter combinations set for 2019

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A number of Cup drivers will have new spotters this season, including former champion Brad Keselowski.

Coleman Pressley will be Keselowski’s spotter this season, Team Penske confirmed.

Pressley replaces Joey Meier, who had been Keselowski’s spotter since 2006. Meier announced in November that he would no longer be Keselowski’s spotter.

Meier will spot for Paul Menard this season, a team official confirmed to NBC Sports.

Pressley, the son of former NASCAR Cup driver Robert Pressley, had been the spotter for AJ Allmendinger at JTG Daugherty Racing from 2015-18.

With rookie Ryan Preece taking over the No. 47 car for Allmendinger this season, Preece will have Stevie Reeves as his spotter, a spokesperson with JTG Daugherty confirmed to NBC Sports. Reeves had previously been the spotter for Menard at the Wood Brothers.

Former champion Kurt Busch also will have a new spotter this year. He’s moving from Stewart-Haas Racing to Chip Ganassi Racing. Tyler Green, who had been the spotter for Jamie McMurray, will remain with the team and work with Busch this season.

Michael McDowell also will have a new spotter this year. He’ll work with Frank Deiny Jr. Rookie Matt Tifft will have Chris Monez as his spotter. Monez worked with multiple drivers in the Xfinity Series last year.

Matt DiBenedetto moves to Leavine Family Racing this season and will be paired with Doug Campbell, who was the team’s spotter last season.

Drivers to take part in Cup Las Vegas organizational test

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Las Vegas Motor Speedway has announced a roster of 14 drivers who will take part in the first Cup organizational test of the year on Jan. 31-Feb. 1.

The test on the 1.5-mile track will be one of the first opportunities for teams to test the 2019 rules package that includes a tapered spacer.

The drivers who will take part:

Brad Keselowski (Team Penske)

Jimmie Johnson (Hendrick Motorsports)

Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing)

Kurt Busch (Chip Ganassi Racing)

Ryan Newman (Roush Fenway Racing)

Austin Dillon (Richard Childress Racing)

Clint Bowyer (Stewart-Haas Racing)

Landon Cassill (StarCom Racing)

Matt DiBenedetto (Leavine Family Racing)

Ryan Preece (JTG Daugherty Racing)

Paul Menard (Wood Brothers Racing)

Ross Chastain, David Ragan and Drew Herring are also scheduled to be at the track. They will be driving manufacture wheel force cars.

The test will be the first on-track time for Kurt Busch, Newman, Preece and DiBenedetto with their new teams.

The test is tentatively scheduled to run from 11 am to 9 pm ET on Jan. 31 and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET on Feb. 1.

A section of the main grandstands and pit road will be open to fans at the test.

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