In a sense, change is the only true constant in NASCAR.
Over the past few years, most of the sport’s stars from the late 1990s and early 2000s have evacuated their seats. Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle. They’re all gone.
Now joining them are dirt-track bound Kasey Kahne, 2003 Cup champ Matt Kenseth, and soon-to-be retired Jamie McMurray, who will hang it up after next month’s rapidly approaching Daytona Speedweeks.
Sixty-seven Cup wins and a pair of championships are on the move for 2019 as Kurt Busch takes over Chip Ganassi’s No. 1 Chevrolet from McMurray, Martin Truex Jr. shuffles Daniel Suarez out of Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 Toyota, and Ryan Newman replaces the combination of Kenseth and Trevor Bayne in Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 Ford.
Suarez found one of the softest landing spots imaginable, moving into the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 Ford vacated by Busch. Other old faces in new places will be Matt DiBenedetto in the Leavine-Family Racing No. 95 Toyota — formerly occupied by Kahne — and Corey LaJoie taking over DiBenedetto’s old ride, the No. 32 Go FAS Racing Ford.
The rookie of the year battle has shaped up to include Daniel Hemric in Richard Childress Racing’s No. 8 Chevrolet, Ryan Preece in JTG-Daugherty Racing’s No. 47 Chevrolet and Matt Tifft in Front Row Motorsports’ No. 36 Ford, a new third entry for the team.
It’s all part of NASCAR’s constantly evolving identity.
The future of that identity will continue to hinge on the success of a group of young race-winners. Even though the Old Guard — 10-year experienced drivers like Truex, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski — continued to lead the way in most categories last season, the sport still is counting on young whippersnappers like Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and Erik Jones to carry the torch.
Whether the old guys keep their advantage or the young guns steal the show this year, it also will be because of how these other preseason headlines shape up throughout the year:
New aero package
We had our first taste of this year’s aero package in last year’s All-Star Race in Charlotte, which produced some tightly bunched racing on an intermediate track but ultimately sent Harvick, the season’s winningest driver, to victory lane anyway.
The 2019 version won’t be the full-blown package put in for the all-star, but rather a happy medium of sorts. The package doesn’t go into effect at Daytona, so it will be hard to know exactly what to expect from it until the series arrives at Atlanta the following week.
NASCAR has experimented with so many rules tweaks over the past five years that it’s hard to keep them straight, but this is the first time it has committed to something like this for a full season.
The Mustang’s debut
After more than a decade of fielding the Fusion, Ford will switch to its most famous brand in Cup. The Mustang, which has been in use in the Xfinity Series since 2010, will be the Blue Oval’s car of choice in the premiere series starting at Daytona.
It’s complicated timing, considering Ford had its best season in a decade with its first driver championship since 2004 with Logano and its first manufacturer championship since 2002, both with the old Taurus.
The Mustang looks the part on the Gen 6 body style, but everyone involved with Ford’s NASCAR program surely is praying their transition comes more easily than when Chevrolet found itself playing catch-up with the new Camaro ZL1 all of 2018.
All new for Jimmie
After 17 seasons, seven championships and 83 race victories, the Jimmie Johnson-Chad Knaus-Lowe’s triumvirate is no more.
Following a first-ever winless year and a first-round playoff elimination, longtime crew chief Knaus and sponsor Lowe’s are gone from Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Replacing them will be new crew chief Kevin Meendering, promoted from the JR Motorsports Xfinity team as Knaus moves to the No. 24 with William Byron, and new backer Ally Financial, which formerly sponsored Hendrick rides when it was known as GMAC.
Justin Epley is a sports writer for The News Herald. He can be reached at email@example.com or 828-432-8943.