The first set of 2017 predictions is here and we will look at NASCAR's top three divisions. Heading into 2017, Cup has a new title sponsor, there is a new rule to prevent Cup drivers from moonlighting in the lower divisions and more races will be starting later in the day than ever before.
1. Toyota Does Not Repeat as Manufactures' Champions in Cup
The Japanese manufacture ended Chevrolet's 13-year reign as top manufacture in the Cup series as the manufacture won 16 of 36 races to Chevrolet's 12 victories and Ford's eight victories. Toyota's margin of victory in the manufactures' championship was 25 points. I think Toyota will still be competitive and winning races but it is a numbers game and Toyota is looking at eight full-time cars, two of which belong to BK Racing. I think Hendrick Motorsports doesn't have that rough patch in the summer. Ford bulked up its lineup with Stewart-Haas Racing. The four Joe Gibbs Racing and two Furniture Row Racing entries are good but I think they take a step back and end up losing the manufactures' championship but by a close margin.
2. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Makes it to the Semifinal Round of the Chase
After having his 2016 season ended prematurely at Kentucky, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will return to full-time competition. Many are skeptical of his return especially with his history of concussions and many are concerned one big hit could end his career on the spot. However, I think Earnhardt, Jr. will pick up on where he left off. He was in position for a Chase spot when he was sidelined and I think he will drive smarter than ever. If he gets a victory early in the season, say before the All-Star break, the summer will be more about avoiding hairy situations and bringing the car home in one piece. Once he is in the Chase it is a crapshoot but I think his smart driving can get him to be one of the final eight.
3. Stewart-Haas Racing has Fewer Victories, Top Ten Finishes and Drivers in the Chase than 2016
After being a Chevrolet team dating back to the 2004 season after being a Pontiac team in Haas CNC Racing's first season the year before, Stewart-Haas Racing moves to Ford for 2017. Ford was the bottom three of the manufactures but also lacked depth. Outside of Penske, Ford's only other victory in 2016 was Chris Buescher's victory in the shortened Pocono race. Roush Fenway Racing hasn't won in two years. Richard Petty Motorsports had one top five and two top tens finishes in all of 2016. Stewart-Haas taking a step back isn't just because Ford might be down on Chevrolet and Toyota but transitions take time. Penske left Dodge after 2012 and moved to Ford and the team went from five victories to two and defending champion Brad Keselowski missed the Chase. Stewart-Haas Racing had six victories, 57 top ten finishes and three drivers in the Chase in 2016. Tony Stewart is gone and Clint Bowyer is coming off a disastrous season with HScott Motorsports but hasn't won in the last four seasons and scored fewer and fewer top five finishes and top ten finishes over that time. Kevin Harvick seems to be a lock for a Chase and Kurt Busch is consistent enough to make it. Outside of that, the team's first year with Ford could be a headache.
4. Jimmie Johnson is Fourth All-Time in Cup Victories by the End of 2017
By winning at Homestead, Jimmie Johnson capped his 2016 season not only with his seventh championship but with his 80th victory making him the seventh driver all-time to reach that mark in the Cup series. He is three victories behind Cale Yarborough and four victories behind Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison. He needs five victories in 2017 to reach fourth all-time. By winning three of the final seven races, Johnson ended 2016 with five victories, the most in the Cup series, making it the second consecutive season he won five races. In his 15 full seasons in NASCAR, Johnson has won five races or more in a season ten times. Even though he is 41 years you don't expect Johnson to slow down.
5. Less Than Five of the Chase Drivers are Different From 2016
The 2016 Chase saw five new drivers from 2015. Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, Tony Stewart and Chris Buescher in. Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer out. Looking at the 2016 Chase drivers, I can't see more than four not making it back. We know Tony Stewart won't be in the 2017 Chase so that is one spot. It is likely Chris Buescher won't qualify in 2017. Outside of that, it isn't just who won't make it but who will make it? Kasey Kahne has failed to make the Chase the last two seasons. Ryan Newman hasn't won since Indianapolis 2013 and had two top five finishes last season. Ryan Blaney could steal a race victory. Jamie McMurray and Austin Dillon finished 13th and 14th in 2016 and led between them 17 laps, all 17 laps Dillon were responsible for.
6. AJ Allmendinger Makes The Chase
The JTG Daugherty Racing had two top five finishes and nine top ten finishes in 2016 but as long as there are two road course races, Allmendinger has a shot at the Chase and eventually he will breakthrough again. However, not only does Allmendinger run well on road courses but short tracks. He finished second at Martinsville in the spring. He started in the top ten at both Martinsville races, both Bristol races, and at Richmond and Loudon as well as both road course races and Kansas. A few drivers will make the Chase on points. Allmendinger could find himself in one of those spots even if he doesn't win a race.
7. Erik Jones' Average Starting Position is 3.5 Points Lower than His Average Finish
Jones won the most races last year in NASCAR's second division and averaged a starting position of 3.1, the best of the full-time drivers. However, Jones' average finish was 11.6, the worst of the top four drivers in the championship. Furniture Row Racing is coming off a tremendous season with Martin Truex, Jr. and the alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing has helped bolster the team as a title contender and has allowed Jones to move up to the Cup series on loan. While Truex, Jr. had a great season and we are coming off Chase Elliott having a spectacular rookie season in the Cup series I think Jones will have a season that mirrors Ryan Blaney's 2015 season. Blaney averaged a starting position of 14.9 but his average finish was 18.5 in 2015. Jones may have benefitted from being on the team that is head and shoulders above anyone else in the Grand National Series but he has a tendency to get his nose in harm way. He might be able to carry his qualifying success into the Cup series but races are another thing and it could be a rough year for Jones.
8. Championship Ineligible Drivers win more than 16 of the first 26 Grand National Series Race
NASCAR has new rules for full-time Cup drivers competing in the lower national touring divisions. While the likes of Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski will be limited to ten races in the Grand National Series, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones will be Cup drivers who can go beyond the ten-race limit. The race limits might not change much as Busch, Logano and Keselowski could still end up winning six races each but the likes of Blaney and Larson might get more starts and more starts without competition from the likes of Busch, Logano and Keselowski. This could be a rule change that NASCAR thought would fix a problem but end up not changing anything at all.
9. All Four JR Motorsports Drivers Make the Chase
The team had Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier make the final round of the inaugural Chase in the Grand National Series and now the team adds William Byron from the Truck series and Michael Annett. The bar is quite low to make the Chase in NASCAR's second division. Ryan Sieg was in the Chase and had no top five finishes and three top ten finishes the entire season. Blake Koch nearly was one of the four championship contenders and didn't have a top five finish. All four JR Motorsports drivers are going to end up with ten top ten finishes on accident. They will all be in the top 12 and don't be surprised if two are in the final four again.
10. A Rookie is in the Top Four of the Truck Championship
Last year, rookie Christopher Bell made the final four in the inaugural Truck Chase and William Byron was an engine failure away from making the final four and despite being eliminated, Byron still won seven races as a rookie. Noah Gragson replaces Byron at Kyle Busch Motorsports and Austin Cindric will run full-time for Brad Keselowski Racing. I wouldn't rule out either to make the Truck Chase and I wouldn't rule either out for the top four either.
11. Someone Becomes the 28th Driver to Win in All Three National Touring Divisions
This one might be the longest shot but active drivers who have won in two of the three national touring series are Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and Martin Truex, Jr. Truex, Jr. has yet to win in the Truck series, the rest haven't won in the Cup series. I think Elliott is clubhouse leader to accomplishing the feat.
12. There Will Not Be Any Fights In Any of NASCAR's Three National Touring Series
Last year, Spencer Gallagher and John Wes Townley looked like schmucks at Gateway and John Hunter Nemechek and Cole Custer looked like schmucks at Mosport. That's not going to happen again.
Round one of 2017 predictions are in the books. Look out for round two next week.