South Dade News Leader: Matt Becherer

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Matt Becherer

Thursday 01/18/2018
Change is Coming

Each of the moves made during the NASCAR offseason will make an impact on the 2018 campaign.

   Two weeks ago in this space we looked into some of the changes that have occurred in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series during this offseason. Some of those included changes to the Cup Series schedule, which will now have a new look with variations in dates and venues next season, in addition to numerous drivers switching racing teams.

   Each of the moves made during the NASCAR offseason will make an impact on the 2018 campaign. But it is without a doubt, that some of the moves made will be bigger than others with drivers ascending the NASCAR ladder from the NASCAR XFINITY Series to the Cup Series.

   Last year, the crop of drivers who moved up to NASCAR’s top series put together some impressive performances and campaigns. Erik Jones, who drove for Furniture Row Racing and was a teammate to 2017 Monster Energy Series champion Martin Truex Jr., had five top-5 finishes this season, which included two third-place showings – Pocono 400 and Pure Michigan 400 – and a career-best finish of second at Bristol Motor Speedway in August. Jones’ performances throughout the 36-race season earned him the 2017 Sunoco Rookie of the Year honor.

   Battling Jones for much of the season for that award was Mexican driver Daniel Suarez, who transitioned to the Cup Series in 2017 after winning the 2016 XFINITY Series championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Suarez enjoyed 12 top-10 finishes during his Monster Energy Series rookie campaign, which included a career-best third place showing at Watkins Glen International in August, where he led 14 laps. This year’s class hopes to draw the same amount of attention, as they look to make a name for themselves in their rookie seasons.

   One of NASCAR’s racing teams that will be taking on a much different look in 2018 is Hendrick Motorsports. Chase Elliott will be switching from the No. 24 to the No. 9 car, which was previously employed by his father and 1988 Cup Series champion Bill Elliott. Alex Bowman will be taking over the reins of the No. 88 car after Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired from the sport at the conclusion of 2017. And the No. 5 car will not be run in 2018 after it was announced during last year’s season that Kasey Kahne would not be returning to the team.

Hendrick Motorsport’s biggest move of the offseason, however, came in the ascension of one of NASCAR’s top young prospects – William Byron. Byron, who competed for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2016, impressed tremendously. In his only season in the series, Byron collected seven wins, including capturing the checkered flag in the 2016 Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. His seven-win total is a rookie record in any of NASCAR’s three national series. 

   In 2017, Byron catapulted to the XFINITY Series where he ran for JR Motorsports, a team co-owned by Dale Jr., his sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller and Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick. At just 19 years of age, Byron put on a show in the series collecting four wins, 12 top-5 and 22 top-10 showings. His strong performances and consistency throughout the year led him to a spot in the XFINITY Series Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In the 300-mile showdown, Byron finished with the best overall position among the other three Championship 4 drivers (3rd), securing the series title. Now, Byron will transition to the Cup Series where he will pilot the No. 24 car that was made famous by four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon and was most recently run by Chase Elliott in 2016-17.

   Joining Byron as a rookie in the Cup Series is Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. who has already had the chance of competing in a few races in NASCAR’s top series. Bubba piloted the No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports for four races in 2017, while Aric Almirola recovered from injuries sustained at Kansas Speedway in May. When Bubba got behind the wheel in his first Cup Series start, he became the first African-American driver since Bill Lester in 2006 to compete in the Monster Energy Series.

   Wallace’s journey to the Cup Series as a full-time driver is an interesting one. The 24-year-old is a graduate of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program and a member of the inaugural NASCAR Next class (2011). In 2013, Wallace collected his first career win in the Truck Series, becoming the first African-American driver to win a NASCAR national series race since Wendell Scott in 1963. Then, after two full-time seasons in the XFINITY Series (2015-16), Roush Fenway Racing announced that it was suspending operation of Bubba’s No. 6 team after the 12th race of the season, leaving him without a ride.

Unknowingly, Wallace’s release from the team opened up the opportunity for him to race in the Cup Series for those four races. His impressive performance in his short time with the team made him the lead candidate to take over the No. 43 car once Almirola departed for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018.

   Byron and Wallace have the potential to become one of the best rookie classes in Cup Series history. It will be fun to watch them compete against the best drivers in the world and fight their way to make a bigger name for themselves amongst NASCAR’s greats.

UPCOMING EVENTS AT HOMESTEAD-MIAMI SPEEDWAY

Jan. 19-20

24-Hour Ultra Skate

Jan. 20

Miami Exotic Auto Racing

Jan. 21 Performance Driving Group

Feb. 2

Fast Lane Friday Presented By The Ticket Clinic

Feb. 2

Miami Exotic Auto Racing

Feb. 3-4 Chin Motorsports Car Club

Feb. 10-11 Championship Cup Series Motorcycle Racing

Feb. 17-18

Formula & Automobile Racing Association

2018 HOMESTEAD-MIAMI SPEEDWAY NASCAR DATES

Nov. 16

Ford EcoBoost 200 Camping World Truck Series Championship Race

Nov. 17

Ford EcoBoost 300 XFINITY Series Championship Race

Nov. 18

Ford EcoBoost 400 Monster Energy Series Championship Race

Posted in Opinion, Columnists, Matt becherer, Sports on Thursday, January 18, 2018 9:36 pm. Updated: 9:52 pm. Comments (0)

MATT BECHERER

Matt Becherer is President of Homestead-Miami Speedway. This long-time motorsports executive is one of the good guys, and he leads a team of 40 that operate the track. If you would like to talk to Matt, he can be reached at chatwithmatt @homesteadmiamispeedway.com.

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