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.
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.
“This is a tremendous opportunity to go out and win races and have a shot at the championship,” Busch said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
The 40-year-old replaces Jamie McMurray in the No. 1 car with Ganassi’s team. Busch has won at least one race in 15 Cup seasons. He has 30 career Cup victories.
“It’s not oftentimes that a NASCAR champion, a Daytona 500 winner becomes available and I think when you got a guy that is a racer like Kurt … I think somebody like that comes along, you’ve got to take a serious look at him,” car owner Chip Ganassi said on the conference call Tuesday. “It didn’t take me long to say yes when he became available.”
Busch said he has considered that 2019 could be his last season in Cup.
“For me, I know right now I’m all in, no matter what it’s going to be, whether it’s going to be 36 races and a championship run or as a pact like Chip and I have talked about, along with Monster, that if we come out of the gate like gangbusters and have five wins by July Daytona, let’s talk about 2020,” Busch said.
“For me, the way everything has panned out from my switch to SHR to Ganassi Racing, I had always talked about 2019 and that being my 20th full-time year. That’s a number I have in my mind. Any time you get an opportunity like this and now seeing everybody on the shop floor this morning, you don’t know what’s around the next corner as far as motivation and challenges. For right now I see it as all in, and we’ll see how it goes from there.”
Busch said that Matt McCall, who has been the No. 1 team’s crew chief, will remain in that role with him.
With the move, Busch will be a teammate to Kyle Larson.
Busch said the deal was done earlier, but he held off announcing until now.
“Why I wanted a small delay in the announcement was really strictly me being selfish and wanting a really cool introduction, the smoke show that Monster brings, the glitz, the glamour and the fun,” Busch said. “It also dovetailed a fantastic 2018 season that I had at SHR. That group knew midsummer that we weren’t going to be together. I have to commend Greg Zipadelli and Tony Stewart in the way they approached the playoff races. When Chip and I struck our deal and Monster confirmed, Chip and I looked at each other, and said ‘You know what? As long as you’re championship eligible … we’ll just delay the announcement.’ It just worked out perfect. My final day was the final day of November for SHR, and here it is December 4, and I wish today was February 4. I wish we were going to Daytona next week. I’m all pumped up to get going and get to the track.”
Ganassi said an announcement will be coming on McMurray. He has been offered a ride in the Daytona 500 in a third Ganassi car and then move into a position with the team.
“I do expect Jamie to stick around,” Ganassi said.
Ganassi also said that sponsors McDonald’s and Cessna will remain.
What else could the seven-time Cup champion try his hand at?
“I’d look at anything,” Johnson said after the car swap. “Anything is open. I’m far from done. I want to keep driving and hopefully I can find some good opportunities.”
Johnson’s contract with Hendrick Motorsports goes through 2020. Then the 43-year-old driver could have a lot more time on his hands if he doesn’t renew with the the only team he has ever raced for in Cup.
Johnson, who mentioned his interest in IndyCar road course races, also has had his eye on possibly competing in the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals, a six-night event held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in January.
NASCAR drivers have a rich history in the Chili Bowl. Xfinity Series driver Christopher Bell is the two-time defending winner of the event. Former Camping World Truck Series driver Rico Abreu won the two years before that.
Three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart won it in 2007 and 2002 and former Cup driver Dave Blaney won it in 1993.
“I’m looking forward to the future & new opportunities ahead!” Busch said in the post.
The 40-year old driver won six times in the No. 41, including once in 2018 at Bristol. He qualified for the playoffs with the win and finished seventh in the standings. He also earned a season-best five poles.
This year marked Busch’s 18th full-time season in the series.