First Junior, then Matt Kenseth, followed by Danica Patrick.
It would be a colossal understatement to say the 2018 NASCAR campaign is going to look much, much different.
A former champion and the guy who won the next-to-last race of the season, and NASCAR’s only two transcendent stars are leaving the sport. But I’m not spouting doom and gloom for NASCAR. Those three leaving the track isn’t a harbinger of bad things for the sport.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t stepping away from NASCAR completely; he’s not pulling a Harry Gant or Ricky Rudd. He’s going to be on the NBC broadcast and he has shown to be more than competent — nay, downright good — in the booth.
Patrick will be running the Daytona 500 and Indy 500. I’m hoping she has good showings in both. For Kenseth, this may not be the end. I wouldn’t be surprised if he finds a decent ride for 2018 and decides he still has more in the tank.
2. There was a champion not from Hendrick Motor Sports, Joe Gibbs Racing or Penske.
Martin Truex Jr. drives for a (relatively) small team based away from Charlotte. If you had told me two years ago that Truex and Furniture Row would win the 2017 championship, I would have looked at you very funny.
3. Despite what people say about NASCAR trying to shove the young guys down fans’ throats, there is something special about the group of young drivers in Cup or moving to Cup next year.
Ryan Blaney is already a winner and advanced to the playoff round of eight. Chase Elliott brings a whole bunch of pedigree – even if he is yet to win. He also gained a whole heap of new fans by standing up to Denny Hamlin at Martinsville and then getting a bit rough with the No. 11 at Phoenix.
Daniel Suarez proved he belonged in Cup and Erik Jones isn’t far from his win, especially moving to Gibbs. Then you have Darrell Wallace Jr moving to Cup, driving for Petty. Alex Bowman and newly minted Xfinity champion William Byron are joining Hendrick’s Cup team.
I really don’t remember when we had as exciting of a group of young drivers in Cup in good rides.
4. The new race format works. Stages make the racing more exciting. There are points connected to running well, even if the finish isn’t always there. Most importantly, it adds some urgency, which leads to better racing, throughout the event.
Now, I’m not saying all is rosy; I’m not that naïve.
Last Sunday was a big race for NASCAR, but TV ratings were down and the crowd was suspect. The car still needs to be fixed. Lose the splitter and go back to the valance; make them less aero-dependent and give the crews the ability to make a difference with mechanical grip.
That being said, I’m excited for what 2018 holds for NASCAR.
As I am writing this, there are 88 days until Daytona and I’m ready to be there.
Andy Cagle, a former spokesman for Rockingham Speedway and motorsports public relations consultant, writes about NASCAR in a weekly column.