For the first time in a long time, fans gearing up for the NASCAR season might need to put in a little study before Speedweeks to make sure they know who is who and what is what.
The list of changes is, to put it mildly, long and somewhat hard to believe.
The news starts at the top of the NASCAR hierarchy, as in the France family. The changes continue through the driver ranks on down to the series level and even in the way the series other than the NASCAR Cup Series will race this year.
In September, NASCAR announced Steve Phelps would be the group’s president, replacing Brent Dewar. Phelps, who came to NASCAR after stints with the NFL and Wasserman on the agency side, played key roles in negotiations with Monster Energy, Coca-Cola, Comcast and Camping World, all top-tier NASCAR backers and series sponsors.
Phelps reports to NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France and will be responsible for all business and competition decisions for the sanctioning body.
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That includes overseeing the NASCAR schedule, which has been subject to much conversation of late, and the sport’s new business model, which is set to emerge in the 2020 season. Why 2020? There are many reasons, chief among them being the fact that the first term of the charter agreements between the teams and NASCAR is set to end then, which has opened conversation on how media income (read TV money) is distributed. On the schedule front, the five-year term for sanction agreements with the tracks also expires in 2020.
The relationship between NASCAR and the Race Team Alliance, which is made up of team owners and other stakeholders in the sport, has ratcheted up of late in anticipation of the looming deadlines, and discussions are aimed at making headway on the future of the sport.
One name you might have missed is Brian France, son of Bill France Jr., and former chairman and CEO of NASCAR. Brian France is on indefinite leave from the organization after being arrested over the summer for driving while intoxicated, among other charges.
The list of changes on the team side is, if possible, even bigger.
The biggest move was not made by a driver, however. This season, Jimmie Johnson will campaign with a new crew chief for the first time since 2002. Chad Knaus, who won seven championships with Johnson in Rick Hendrick’s No. 48 Chevrolet, will guide promising sophomore William Byron’s effort, while Johnson will have JR Motorsports veteran Kevin Meendering on the pit box. Meendering guided Elliott Sadler’s NASCAR Xfinity Series campaigns the past three seasons. Iconic sponsor Lowe’s also left the team and was replaced by Ally Bank.
On the driver side, the ledger will look a lot different come the Daytona 500. Two Cup Series champions — Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch — will be in different cars, with Truex moving to the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 Toyota after Furniture Row Racing closed, and Busch switching from Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 41 Ford to Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 1 Chevrolet.
Truex replaces Daniel Suarez, who takes over for Busch at SHR, while Busch replaces McMurray, who moves to the television studio with NBC.
Ryan Newman exited Richard Childress Racing’s No. 31 Chevrolet at the end of the season to take over the No. 6 Ford at Roush Fenway Racing, which left Trevor Bayne without a ride. NASCAR Xfinity Series star Daniel Hemric will be in Newman’s former car, which will switch to No. 8.
NASCAR modified driver Ryan Preece takes over the No. 47 Chevrolet at JTG Daugherty Racing, leaving A.J. Allmendinger without a seat. Kasey Kahne retired with Matt DiBenedetto taking over the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing machine.
Matt Tifft joins Front Row Motorsports after a couple of seasons in the Xfinity Series and Corey LaJoie will take over the No. 32 Ford for Go Fas Racing. Landon Cassill will drive the No. 00 entry for StarCom Racing.
Last year was the final season for Ford’s Fusion model, as the Dearborn-based auto manufacturer will switch to the Mustang body. The Fusion went out with a bang, however, as Joey Logano won the Cup Series title at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the final race for the car.