Off-Season Moves Generating a Buzz in NASCAR Nation

The 2017 NASCAR season is finally over, but that hasn’t stopped the action off the track.

Dale Jr. and Rick Hendrick
T. Walker

NASCAR fans know all too well that the “Silly Season” typically gives us news, stories, and never-ending rumors that we hang onto like a middle-aged man who refuses to sell his Corvette for a family-sized SUV. If you follow the sport year-round, you will agree that NASCAR never stops, even when the big stories have faded and all the rumors are put to rest. If for no other reason alone, with the retirement of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season and off-season have been like no other. 

The NASCAR season is comprised of 36 races. The season kicks off in February with several exhibition races leading up to the Daytona 500 and it officially ends with NASCAR Champion’s Week, a week-long celebration filled with events including driver appearances, award ceremonies, and more. With the playoffs and Champion’s Week behind us where we celebrated NASCAR’s newest champion, Martin Truex Jr., there are still several memorable off-season moves worth highlighting. Below are the top five moves that have NASCAR fans either excited or shaking their heads in dismay.

T. Walker

Talladega, AL - May 7, 2017: Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the Talladega Superspeedway

He’s Going To Be The Daytona 500 Grand Marshal

Earlier this year, Dale Jr. announced that he would be retiring at the end of the season. NASCAR Nation is not ready to let Dale Jr. ride completely off the track, so it was only fitting that he was named the 2018 Daytona 500 Grand Marshal. As we prepare for the first “Great American Race” without Dale Jr. behind the wheel in almost two decades, the Daytona International Speedway announced that the two-time Daytona 500 winner will serve as Grand Marshal for the historic 60th running of the Daytona 500.

Fans are excited about Dale Jr. being in the booth as an analyst sharing his thoughts and opinions on future NASCAR races for NBC Sports, but it won’t be the same as rooting for him to win the Daytona 500. He has been a fan-favorite at the 2.5-mile tri-oval track during his career which spans from 1998 to 2017. Dale Jr. who has a total of 17 career victories at the world-renowned Daytona International Speedway will deliver the famous words, “Drivers, start your engines!”

Richard and Richard Join Forces

Everyone is excited about Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. driving the iconic No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports next year. Richard Petty Motorsports will not only have a new driver behind the wheel for the 2018 season, but it was announced that the team has plans to switch from Ford and field Chevrolet motorsports’ new Camaro ZL1 stock cars.

The team has also formed an alliance with Richard Childress Racing that should prove to be beneficial after a lackluster season filled with mostly lows after driver Aric Almirola sat out a portion of the season recovering from serious injuries sustained in a horrific accident. The two legendary team owners have teamed up for a technical partnership. Richard Childress Racing will provide engineering support and supply chassis for Richard Petty Motorsports hoping to make the team more competitive.

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NASCAR driver Tony Stewart 

Ladies Love Smoke

Tony “Smoke” Stewart’s first season as a retired driver didn’t come to an end without a bit of fanfare. As co-owner of the Stewart-Haas racing team, it was a bittersweet season. Danica Patrick announced her retirement. Aric Almirola was named as Patrick’s replacement behind the wheel of the No. 10 car. Clint Bowyer showed early signs that he could be a competitive driver for the team, and Kurt Busch finally resolved his unsettled contract issues by re-signing with the team for one more year. None of the Stewart-Haas drivers won the championship, but the 4-car race team was a contender with the driver of the No. 4 car, Kevin Harvick, finishing third in the driver’s standings for the 2017 season. While the team is preparing for next season, its off-the-track news--including an arrest and engagement--has picked up a lot of buzz for the NASCAR champ.

On the heels of the 46-year-old retired NASCAR driver announcing that he popped the question to former Playboy model, Pennelope “Penny” Jimenez, another woman was arrested and charged with stalking the three-time NASCAR champion. According to reports, the woman had been allegedly stalking and harassing Stewart for over a year. Ladies tend to love Smoke, and for many years he was the most eligible bachelor of all NASCAR drivers. The newly engaged Stewart may have put his single life behind him, but he definitely isn’t done with racing. 

Stewart is racing his beloved sprint car in New Zealand, 20 years after his initial invitation to compete. It's also worth noting that while he is still competing in sprint car races, a judge cleared the way for Kevin Ward Jr.'s family to present their case against him to a jury. The three-time NASCAR Cup champion was cleared of criminal charges, after the August 2014 incident where his car struck Kevin Ward Jr. who died in an Empire Super Sprints race at the Canandaigua Motorsports Park, a 1/2 mile dirt track in Canandaigua, New York. Ward's family insists Stewart should be held liable.

NASCAR Pit Crews Are Getting Smaller

NASCAR is constantly changing. Some would say evolving, but at times it really feels like NASCAR makes changes for the sake of change. Case-in-point, NASCAR’s latest offseason move.  The sanctioning body has decided to “standardize” the number of at-track individuals who work on each race car for all three NASCAR series. In an effort to “promote better competition through increased parity, to improve safety and to cast a brighter spotlight on the sport’s team concept,” Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer, announced that changes would happen on the organization level, to road crews, and pit crews.

The new changes will affect how many employees a team can bring to the track each weekend. Teams will be limited to a specific number of organizational roster spots and allotted personnel for road crews. The current over-the-wall six-person pit crew will be reduced to a maximum of five. Starting next season, teams will no longer have a jack man, a fueler, two tire changers and two tire carriers. It is suggested that teams forgo one tire carrier, which will drastically change the speed at which a pit stop is completed. Currently, most Cup teams typically complete a pit stop in 11 to 12 seconds.

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Talladega, AL - May 7, 2017: Chase Elliott at the Talladega Superspeedway

Things Are Changing At Hendrick Motorsports, But Will They Remain The Same?  

There have been so many changes at Hendrick Motorsports that it’s starting to feel like a carousel. Dale Jr. retired. It was announced that Alex Bowman would be driving Dale Jr.’s recently vacant No. 88 car. Newly crowned Xfinity Series champ William Bryon is getting a chance in the big league and will replace Kasey Kahne who is headed to Leavine Family Racing for the 2018 season. Instead of driving the No. 5 driven by Kahne, Byron will drive the No. 24 car once driven by NASCAR legend, Jeff Gordon, and teammate Chase Elliott will now drive the No. 9 car made famous by his NASCAR Hall of Fame father, Bill Elliott. Got it? Good.

The only thing, it seems, that will remain the same at Hendrick Motorsports is Mr. 7x, veteran driver Jimmie Johnson. With any luck, Johnson will get back to his old ways again; possibly win his eighth championship, and become the winningest championship driver of all-time in NASCAR history. Although Chase Elliott has yet to win his first NASCAR Cup race, Hendrick Motorsports need not worry about their future. The team is stacked with a lot of young talent that is sure to prove to be a team of winners before the 2018 season is over. Hopefully.