It certainly feels good to get back to this kind of writing. It’s been far too long since this Pit Report has been posted. Talk about a crazy off-season just leading into Daytona.
There were driver changes, team additions, team deletions, and even still more controversy.
Over the course of the time away from the track, drivers and even sponsors made major moves in the sport. Some new faces have emerged in the Sprint Cup Series as part of the rookie class, but none bigger than both Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon. Larson comes in after a successful year at Turner Motorsports in the Nationwide Series, which was highlighted by both good and bad moments. His biggest highlight was the early-season battle at Bristol, where he barely lost to Kyle Busch, but got everyone excited about where he was going in his career.
The negative highlight came from the first race of the year, at Daytona, when his car hit the wall on the final lap, shattering in pieces, going into the catch fence, and even through the fence, injuring fans. Now, he’s behind the wheel of the No. 42 Target Chevrolet at Ganassi Racing, taking over the ride once piloted by Juan Pablo Montoya, who returns to Indy Car this season.
On the opposite side, Dillon comes in with both success, and a bit of controversy. Dillon is coming off a season where he won the Nationwide Series title, but did so without a victory. Consistency won the title, but that isn’t the controversy that he is bringing. Dillon is going to be driving the No. 3, the same number that had not seen Cup competition since February 18, 2001, when Dale Earnhardt passed away on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
Dillon ran the number his entire racing career, from late models, to the trucks and Nationwide Series. But, bringing the number back to Cup brings both good and bad feelings. Many die-hard fans of years past feel that the No. 3 is Earnhardt’s number, and it being driven by someone without that name in Cup competition is considered desecration. At the same time, the truth is that team owner Richard Childress owns the number, and it’s his decision to run it. So, Dillon is driving that number this year, and a new era of the No. 3 has begun.
Drivers were also on the move between teams, as Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch now find themselves part of Stewart-Haas Racing, while Martin Truex Jr. now drives the No. 78 at Furniture Row Racing, after his time at Michael Waltrip Racing ended suddenly. Even his sponsor, NAPA, went to the Nationwide Series, and the No. 55 team in essence lost all backing. Ryan Newman, who was at Stewart-Haas, takes over a ride at Richard Childress Racing in the No. 31 car, which was an open seat after Jeff Burton opted out of his final year of his contract.
Even qualifying has gotten an overhaul. No more single-car runs, but instead groups and rounds. Three rounds, with the final round determining a pole-winner.
We have already seen an incredible change in the Chase format, going from 12 to 16 drivers, and making it an elimination Chase. And all this came before the Sprint Unlimited exhibition event on Saturday night. It came down to a shootout, and a banzai pass that ended up being the deciding factor in determining the winner.
Strap in everyone, this season has gotten off to a fast start, and it is going to be intense from beginning to end.
Tune in for part two of my annual Speedweeks coverage, which will review the new qualifying format in NASCAR.
RESULTS: 1-Hamlin 2-Keselowski 3-Kyle Busch 4-Logano 5-Harvick 6-McMurray 7-Ambrose 8-Newman 9-Earnhardt Jr. 10-Kenseth
NOTABLE FINISHES: 11-Stewart 12-Gordon 16-Patrick 17-Johnson
CAUTIONS: 5 for 13 laps. Lap 30-30 (#4, 48 accident-FS; Segment break), 37-40 (#20, 14, 24, 99, 41, 17, 10 accident-FS [Red Flag-11 Mins, 35 Secs.]), 55-55 (Segment break), 61-63 (#18, 2 accident-T4), 67-70 (#9, 88 accident-T1).
LEAD CHANGES: 16 among 7 drivers. Hamlin 1, McMurray 2-10, Kyle Busch 11-16, Harvick 17-21, Hamlin 22, Harvick 23, Hamlin 24-30, Keselowski 31-34, Hamlin 35-41, Keselowski 42-43, Logano 44-46, Hamlin 47-55, McMurray 56, Earnhardt Jr. 57-63, Logano 64-71, Keselowski 72-73, Hamlin 74-75.
TIME OF RACE: 1 Hr, 18 Mins, 35 Secs.
AVERAGE SPEED: 143.16 MPH
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 0.197 Seconds