It has been three months since Jimmie Johnson put himself in NASCAR’s most exclusive club with his seventh championship, joining Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. for most all-time.
Johnson’s quest for a record eighth is the obvious storyline going into a 2017 season that will showcase plenty of changes to racing’s top circuit.
NASCAR has altered its championship format once again; it has a new sponsor for its top series, Monster Energy; and plenty of drivers will have a chance to establish themselves as the next wave of greats with veterans such as Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards walking away.
Here are five stories to watch this season, which gets underway Sunday with the Daytona 500:
1. Drive for eight
No driver in history has won eight championships, but Jimmie Johnson has positioned himself to become the first. He won the knockout-style format a season ago, and there is no reason to think he can’t repeat. Johnson is the best driver of this era and is driving for a powerhouse team at Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson and 2015 champ Kyle Busch are the heavy favorites to win the title in 2017.
2. Junior’s return
Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat out the final 18 races of 2106 because of concussion-like symptoms. Losing the most popular driver is a blow to the sport and his return is welcomed. But it’s fair to wonder just how much longer the 42-year-old Earnhardt will continue racing at the highest level. He’s already built a Hall of Fame resume with 26 career wins, including two Daytona 500 victories, but is still in search of a coveted championship. If he does that, maybe Earnhardt will have a John Elway-esque exit from the sport by leaving on top.
3. Danica’s time?
Speaking of popularity, Danica Patrick continues to rank up there despite her lackluster career in NASCAR. She has never won a race, let alone finish in the top five, in 154 Cup races. Does she finally get it turned around in Year 5? Patrick is driving for a solid team, Stewart-Haas Racing, and should have no excuses not to take more strides this year. Should Patrick continue her struggles, any criticism or knock will be warranted more so than in previous seasons.
4. Future watch
Chase Elliott has been mentioned as a rising star for the past few years, and will start on the pole at the Daytona 500 for the second straight season. But will he finally notch that coveted first win? Elliott was in contention in Texas Motor Speedway’s spring race a year ago, and the track would love to be the site of his first victory. Outside of Elliott, NASCAR needs new stars and personalities to emerge. Maybe Daniel Suarez, who is replacing Edwards at JGR, breaks out, or Prosper native Chris Buescher, who could take full advantage of his opportunity at JTG Daugherty Racing, has a stellar sophomore season.
5. Texas impact
Texas is among the marquee tracks on the circuit and will debut a repaved and re-profiled surface this season. The project was a necessary evil given the length of rain delays in recent years, and should add intrigue when NASCAR returns in early April. In the meantime, the track is doing its part to create buzz about the racing season by hosting a free Daytona 500 watch party this weekend and adding former Rangers reporter Jim Knox to its Big Hoss TV crew.
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