Warmer weather, brighter skies, and the roaring of engines – NASCAR is back.
The 2017 edition of NASCAR’s premiere cup series is set to get underway Feb. 26 when drivers line up for the 59th running of the Daytona 500.
After Jimmie Johnson emerged as NASCAR champion last season, a handful of riders will waste no time in an attempt to stake their claim to the Hendrick Motorsports driver’s crown, beginning with “The Great American Race.”
Before they do, however, here’s what you need to know for Sunday’s event, as well as a brand new NASCAR season.
New look, new rules:
So long “Sprint,” hello “Monster Energy.”
NASCAR swapped title sponsors for its premiere competition ahead of the 2017 season, opting for a new partnership with the energy drink producer in a bid to attract a younger audience across North America.
But races won’t look different this season thanks to only a new sponsor.
Beginning Sunday, NASCAR will break up its races into different stages, with three sections making up the Daytona 500 at the 60-, 120-, and 200-lap marks. Each driver in the top 10 at the end of each stage will be given 1-10 points, while winning the race entirely will earn a driver 40 points.
Finally, damaged cars won’t be allowed to continue in a race unless necessary repairs are minimal enough to be done within a very specific pit window. The decision, announced earlier this month, is expected to eliminate safety hazards for other drivers by not allowing severely damaged cars back on the track.
Goodbyes, comebacks, and family debuts
NASCAR will say goodbye to Michael Waltrip after Sunday’s race, as the 32-year racing veteran revealed in January that his 30th Daytona 500 will be the last race of his career. Waltrip, a two-time Daytona winner, will likely finish his Cup Series career with four won races and 132 top-10 finishes.
While Waltrip’s final race may be sad for some, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s return should help alleviate any bittersweet feelings. Earnhardt missed the entire second half of last season when he was diagnosed with concussion-like symptoms in July. After missing 18 races, however, Earnhardt was finally medically cleared to return in December, and the vet is ready to begin his 19th Cup Series.
He may face some competition from his own blood, though.
His nephew, Jeffrey Earnhardt, the grandson of NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt, will make his long-awaited Daytona 500 debut Sunday, and the 27-year-old would love nothing more than to emerge from his uncle’s shadow with a dominant display at the iconic track.
Historic repeat on the cards?
Who wouldn’t want a finish like last year’s Daytona? Well, apart from Martin Truex Jr., that is.
Denny Hamlin shocked everyone at last year’s season-opener when he emerged the victor thanks to a photo finish with Truex. Hamlin’s last-second sprint was enough to earn him the win by only 0.010 seconds, ranking as the closest finish ever in NASCAR history. Truex admitted earlier this week he’s still haunted by Hamlin’s unprecedented comeback.
“I will have to relive that moment the rest of my career unless I win it,” he said.
Though only three drivers have gone back-to-back at Daytona – Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, and Sterling Marlin – Hamlin is confident he can become the fourth man to pull off a successful defense.
”If anyone can go back-to-back, this is the year for us,” Hamlin said last weekend.
If repeating history is a factor, the 36-year-old will be buoyed by qualifying results: Chase Elliot, who won the pole position for the 2016 event, will once again begin in the No. 1 spot Sunday.