Wednesday, December 20, 2017

2018 NASCAR Predictions

We are less than a week away from Christmas and we are in the final two weeks of 2017 and 2018 will be here before we know it. With most major series settled in the comfort of the offseason it is time to look forward. The trophies from the year are starting to collect that first layer of dust and the skid marks from celebratory burnouts are starting to fade away. We start with NASCAR, which ended a month ago and soon will be here again.

1. Martin Truex, Jr., finishes outside the top ten in at least two races at 1.5-mile tracks
The New Jerseyan and Cup champion had a historic season on 1.5-mile racetracks. Truex, Jr., won seven of 11 races on 1.5-mile racetracks. His worst finish on 1.5-mile racetracks was eighth on two occasions in 2017. As much as people loathe the cookie-cutter ovals and the number of races they host, if you run well in those races you will likely be a title contender. Truex, Jr., was the pied piper in 2017 but for all the fortune he had he is bound to have a race go against him. Whether he has an engine failure or gets an untimely pit lane speeding penalty, he will have at least two races where he isn't there. He is still going to do well at 1.5-mile ovals. He will win a few times but the luck will eventually run out.

2. Aric Almirola sets a career-high in top ten finishes in a season
The Floridian driver moves to Stewart-Haas Racing after six seasons with Richard Petty Motorsports. Last year was a difficult year for Almirola after a back injury forced him to the sidelines for seven races. Despite the absence, Almirola had a respectable season. He finished 29th in the championship and was nine points behind Stewart-Haas driver Danica Patrick in the championship. Almirola had three top five finishes and six top ten finishes compared to Patrick's one top ten finish. All three of his top five finishes came at the restrictor plate races, which Ford dominated in 2017.

Brad Keselowski might think Ford will be in trouble next season. That might be true but he is better at exaggerating than driving a race car. If Almirola can get six top ten finishes with Richard Petty Motorsports then I think he can get at least eight with Stewart-Haas Racing. He had seven top ten finishes in 2014. I think Almirola beats that in what is his one shot at a breakthrough.

3. Hendrick Motorsports wins more than three races
Hendrick Motorsports was lost last year. Jimmie Johnson won three races before the start of the summer and then the team didn't win again in 2017. Johnson and Elliott both made the semifinal round of the Chase but neither made the final four. Elliott had five runner-up finishes in 2017. The man couldn't get a break. Chevrolet is introducing a new body style for 2018, which hopefully allows the manufacture to be closer to Toyota. It was a rough end to the season as Chevrolet's final victory of 2017 came at Richmond in September.

Johnson is good for at least three victories on his own and Elliott can't have another season with five runner-up finishes. One of these races will eventually fall into his lap. Besides those two, Alex Bowman enters on a wave of confidence and William Byron is coming off a championship in NASCAR's second division. Three is setting the bar low but it is a start.

4. Ford does not win more than two restrictor plate races
The manufacture swept the four restrictor plate races in 2017 with Kurt Busch winning the Daytona 500, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., taking the spring Talladega race and the July Daytona race and Keselowski winning the autumn Talladega race. That isn't happening again in 2018. Restrictor plates are the crappiest of crapshoots and eventually Ford will be crapped on. Busch used fuel mileage to his advantage in the Daytona 500. Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin were in control for much of the spring Talladega race. The final two restrictor plate races were demolition derbies. Ford came out on top all four times but that won't happen again in 2018.

5. Team Penske does not win the autumn race at Talladega
The team has won four consecutive autumn races at Talladega. It is a numbers game that will eventually go against The Captain. If last year's race is any proof of how unforgiving restrictor plate races are you could be the best car on track and still be taken out. Five consecutive isn't happening. This roll of the dice is going to go against Penske even if the team has three rolls in 2018.

6. Darrell Wallace, Jr., is the top rookie finisher in at least 12 races
Richard Petty Motorsports was on the verge of being a dumpster fire in 2017. First the sponsor left, then Petty butted heads with the company, now it appears the company is back. I don't know. The team needs someone else running the business side of the team. Either way, the team has Darrell Wallace, Jr. He is an underrated talent in my eyes. When his ride with Roush Racing disappeared after Pocono last June he was fourth in the championship. He made one more start in a one-off at Chicagoland in September. Despite not starting 20 races, he still finished 20th in the Grand National Series championship.

The team might be making the switch to Chevrolet at the right time and Wallace, Jr., is in a shallow rookie class. It is Byron and Ray Black, Jr. Byron is a top driver and maybe he would have been the Grand National Series champion even if Wallace, Jr., ran the full schedule but I think age and the handful of Cup starts could play in Wallace, Jr.'s favor. It is still Petty vs. Hendrick so Wallace, Jr., has a disadvantage but he will have his days while Byron will have his eye-opening days in a Cup car.

7. A change is made to the Charlotte roval event before the race occurs
This race is bound to be a disaster. The layout might be too slow and too tight. The race is scheduled to be 500 km, over 300 miles and for comparison the Sonoma race is 219 miles and Watkins Glen is 220.5 miles. Sonoma took two hours and 46 minutes in 2017 and Watkins Glen took two hours and seven minutes, the fastest Cup race at the historic New York track. Even if the Charlotte race is as clean as Watkins Glen was in 2017 it will take about three and a half hours and there will likely be a red flag or two. Something will be done to make sure this race doesn't take five hours to complete. Or they will add a chicane on the back straightaway to create a passing zone.

8. At least five drives make the Grand National Series Chase by victory
I am really excited for the Grand National Series next year. The field looks competitive with JR Motorsports retaining Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier and Michael Annett with Tyler Reddick joining the team, who won at Kentucky driving for Ganassi last year in a part-time season. Daniel Hemric made the final four without winning a race and Matt Tifft joins him at Richard Childress Racing. Cole Custer improved throughout the season and he bossed the season finale at Homestead. Ryan Reed can only win the February Daytona race. Christopher Bell moves up from winning the Truck championship with Joe Gibbs Racing and last year we had Jeremy Clements take a surprising victory at Road America.

I listed ten drivers that wouldn't surprise anybody if they won one of the first 26 races and I didn't even include Blake Koch, Kaz Grala, who is moving up from the Truck series and J.J. Yeley. Last year, only four drivers qualified for the Chase based on victories and the rules to limit Cup drivers moonlighting get tighter in 2018. This could be a fun season in NASCAR's second division.

9. Brendan Gaughan competes in at least three of four August Grand National Series races
It appears the Las Vegas-born driver will not be full-time in 2018 but I doubt he is going away. The 42-year-old has professed his love for the month of August with road course races at Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio and Road America with Bristol in the middle of that stretch. I think he puts together a part-time schedule and figures out a way to do most if not all those races.

10. The Eldora truck race has a sixth different winner in as many years
Through five truck races at Eldora there have been five different winners. Austin Dillon won the inaugural race and Darrell Wallace, Jr., won the following year. Christopher Bell won the next year in his third career start. Kyle Larson won in 2016 and Matt Crafton won last year. The only likely returnee is Crafton. Perhaps Bell or Dillon would return but it seems Wallace, Jr., will focus on Cup and who knows what Chip Ganassi will allow Larson to do.

You have a handful of full-timers such as Johnny Sauter, Ben Rhodes, John Hunter Nemecheck, Ryan Truex, Justin Haley, Stewart Friesen and Noah Gragson who could win and possible one-offs such as Bobby Pierce, Tyler Dillon, Ryan Newman and maybe Kyle Busch goes out and tries out.

11. Ryan Truex wins a truck race
Speaking of Truex, I think the younger Truex wins a Truck race next year. He was strong with Hattori Racing Enterprises in 2017 and missed out on the Chase by a whisker. He isn't confirmed to return but 2017 was promising. I think he rides a wave of momentum off his brother's championship and he gets some of that mojo to his advantage.

12. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., runs one track he has never raced at before
He might be done with the Cup series but Dale Earnhardt, Jr., seems open to running some Grand National Series races. I think he will go to some tracks he has never been before. He will likely still want to do Bristol and Richmond and he said he wants to run Homestead but after all these years running the Cup series he hasn't been to the likes of Iowa. Maybe he goes to Mid-Ohio or Road America for fun. It depends on how many races he wants to do and how many he is comfortable doing. He retired from full-time competition because of his health. I can't see him doing anymore than three races. The limit may keep him from trying a few new places.

One set of predictions down and four more to come. Stay tuned, as the rest will come after Christmas.