Season of change awaits in 2018

Jeff Birchfield • Updated Dec 5, 2017 at 4:30 PM

More than a typical silly season in NASCAR in 2017, it was downright maddening at times with all the changes for the upcoming year. With all that movement, we will look at how the top racing organizations are currently situated for next season.

Furniture Row Racing

Monster Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. is scheduled to return to the driver’s seat of the No. 78 Toyota with crew chief Cole Pearn still on top of the pit box. After a season with eight wins and clearly the dominant car, they have to be considered the early favorites to repeat as champions.

But the No. 77 ride exists no more, with car owner Barney Visser deciding not to run the team with driver Erik Jones moving to Joe Gibbs Racing.

Joe Gibbs Racing

Series runner-up Kyle Busch, fresh off a win in the 50th annual Snowball Derby short-track event in Florida, headlines the JGR contingent.

Denny Hamlin remains the top driver in the sport without a championship, while Daniel Suarez finished second in the Rookie of the Year standings to Jones — who will be the next driver of the No. 20 Toyota with Matt Kenseth now out of a full-time ride and indicating he will retire from the sport.

Stewart-Haas Racing

Kevin Harvick was the class of the field for Stewart-Haas last season, one of the four drivers to qualify for the championship race at Miami-Homestead. While he is set in the No. 4 Ford and Clint Bowyer comes back in the No. 14, questions still surround the status of Daytona 500 champion Kurt Busch in the No. 41 Ford.

Last week at the NASCAR champions banquet, Busch told reporters he’s currently in negotiations for the upcoming season and he expects to be back in the car. Danica Patrick has just one race left for Stewart-Haas, her final NASCAR start in the Daytona 500 before wrapping up her driving career back in IndyCars at the Indianapolis 500 in May. Aric Almirola moves to her spot, leaving Richard Petty Motorsports, which filled the seat in the No. 43 Ford with Darrell Wallace Jr.

Team Penske

Brad Keselowski, the 2012 series champion, leads the Penske team after being one of the four championship finalists. Joey Logano, who ran so well in the No. 22 Ford the first part of the season, had a serious drop in performance after his Richmond win was ruled encumbered following a tear-down of his car.

Ryan Blaney will join the fold in a new No. 12 Team Penske Ford after spending the last couple of seasons with the Wood Brothers. Paul Menard replaces Blaney in the famed No. 21 Ford.

Hendrick Motorsports

Long the standard in NASCAR, 2017 was an off year to say the least.

Jimmie Johnson will again pursue a record eighth NASCAR title in the No. 48 Chevrolet. Chase Elliott could be a factor, but he won’t be in the No. 24 — instead driving the No. 9, the most famous number for his father, Bill.

Alex Bowman will take over the No. 88 Chevy after the retirement of 15-time most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. For the first time ever, there won’t be a No. 5 in the Hendrick stable as rookie William Byron, the defending Xfinity Series champion, will take over the No. 24 number from Elliott.

Chip Ganassi Racing

Kyle Larson was the toughest challenger to Truex for much of the season with four wins and five poles. But, it came apart for Larson and the No. 42 team in the final weeks before rebounding for a strong third-place finish at Homestead. The biggest change is sponsorship as longtime Ganassi partner Target leaves the team in 2018.

Jamie McMurray also made the playoffs, although his season was based more on consistency with 17 top-10 finishes, the most he has compiled in a single season since 2004.

Richard Childress Racing

Austin Dillon returned the famed No. 3 Chevrolet to victory lane at the Coca-Cola 600 in May thanks to a good strategy call. Ryan Newman also picked up an early-season win at Phoenix. Both drivers qualified for the 10-race playoff, although neither was a serious contender for the championship.

Brennan Poole, who left Ganassi’s Xfinity Series team, has been rumored to take over the No. 27 ride left vacant by Menard. That isn’t official, however, with the biggest news that Andy Petree, who led Dale Earnhardt to his sixth and seventh Cup championships, is returning to the team as the Vice President of Competition.

Roush Fenway Racing

So far, no major changes reported after two-time Xfinity Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had a breakout year with two restrictor-plate wins in 2017 and qualifying for the 10-race playoff.

Knoxville driver Trevor Bayne also posted a pair of top-five finishes and finished 22nd, one spot behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the final point standings. There have been no major changes announced for the team. It was Bayne’s second straight season finishing 22nd in the points, although he did have one more top-10 finish on his record.

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