E.A. Sports Today

What’s new in NASCAR

With the green flag about to drop on the 2016 season, NASCAR enters an era with the absence of some established stars and the birth of others

After an exodus of fans the last several years, NASCAR is anticipating a popularity growth spurt as it embraces a diverse fan base. (Photos by Talladega Superspeedway)

After an exodus of fans the last several years, NASCAR is anticipating a popularity growth spurt as it embraces a diverse fan base. (Photos by Talladega Superspeedway)

By Jason Katz
For East Alabama Sports Today

With the teams and fans alike gearing up for 2016, NASCAR enters an era with the absence of some established stars and the birth of others.

NASCAR is the lifeblood that has fueled a generation of fans and drivers in East Alabama. Year in and year out they follow, cheer, laugh, cry and – sometimes – lose touch with their favorite driver and team.

There is good news on the horizon. With an exodus of NASCAR fans the past six or eight years, a return of sorts is gracing the sport unseen since the popularity of the early 90’s.

NASCAR is making a comeback — not only in the south, but across the United States and, now, in to Canada and Mexico. Diversity is in for the first time in NASCAR’S history, creating a new ethnically diverse fan base that will propel it, finally, into the 21st Century.

Buckle up NASCAR fans, a new day and a new season is dawning.

The season starts in less than a month. Here are a few of the top story lines in the sport heading into Daytona.

GORDON OUT, ELLIOTT IN

For the first time in 24 years, the No. 24 car no longer will be driven by Jeff Gordon, but by Chase Elliott – the son of famous driver Bill Elliott.

Gordon has retired to the television booth, leaving the sport without one of its favored sons for the first time in nearly a quarter century. Elliott, who is only 20, has been groomed for this position for the past few years. Hendrick Motorsports, which owns the 24, has kept Chase in the lower Xfinity series (formerly Nationwide and Busch series) for the past few seasons while he rattled off multiple wins and a series title in 2014.

This season will be Elliott’s rookie season in the Sprint Cup Series.

Moving into the 24 car will not be an easy task for Chase as he looks to fill shoes that could almost be compared to a Dale Earnhardt or, for football fans, a Bear Bryant. In other words, this is a big deal for the sport and the many faithful fans who cheered on Gordon for many years.

Along with Elliott, three other rookies will make their debuts this season. Ryan Blaney, Elliott’s best rookie of the year competition, will join the famous Wood Brothers racing team that has created an alliance with Penske Racing and function as a satellite division of Penske this year. Also, they will for the first time in recent memory, run a full schedule in the No. 21 car, which will be a welcomed sight to racing fans everywhere.

LAST LAPS FOR STEWART

Along with these young stars set to start their careers, we will say farewell to another legend –Tony Stewart.

Stewart, now the successful owner/operator of Stewart/Haas Racing, will be joined by teammates and employees Danica Patrick, Kevin Harvick, and Kurt Busch to make one last run at a championship in the 14 car. “Smoke” will run a full schedule in the hopes he can have a similar send off as Jeff Gordon did in 2015.

Stewart has not won since 2013.

Whether his season is full of success or not, Stewart will ride off into the sunset with the guarantee that his race team has a bright future.

RULE CHANGES

For the first time in recent memory the NASCAR season will not include a major change in the rules package or the car itself.

It has adopted a new low-downforce rules package for 2016. The move was a well-known change that has been on the horizon for the past few seasons. This package will include a 3.5-inch spoiler, 0.25-inch leading splitter edge, and a 33-inch wide radiator pan.

These moves, according to NASCAR, are to provide fans with better racing and more passing lanes, especially at the 1.5-mile tracks like Charlotte and Atlanta that have seen diminished passing the past decade or so.

Along with the new rules package, a new digital heads-up display will accompany the dashboard this season. This readout will give drivers adjustable real-time stats in the car. Items such as: water temps, rpm output, and adjustable track bars will be seen right from the steering wheel where once upon a time you only saw a tachometer.

TEAM CHANGES

Clint Bowyer, coming off a dismal final season with Michael Waltrip Racing (which dissolved this offseason), will look to secure his future with a new ride at HScott Racing. He will also switch manufactures from Toyota to Chevrolet. Brian Scott will join Richard Petty Motorsports as well for 2016.

Also Furniture Row Racing and Martin Truex Jr. have partnered with Joe Gibbs Racing to change the 78 from a Chevy to a Toyota.

NEW CREW CHIEF/DRIVER PAIRINGS

Darian Grubb, after working with Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards at JGR, will return to Hendrick Racing. Mike Wheeler will join Hamlin in the 11 Fed Ex Toyota and Dave Rogers joins Edwards in the 19 … Brian Patty will join Greg Biffle … Chris Heroy will pair up with Brian Scott … Chad Johnson will join rising star Kyle Larson … Billy Scott will join Danica Patrick. And, finally, Randall Burnett will join AJ Allmendinger.

These new parings are going to create an interesting change in the fabric of the sport, much like what is going on throughout the fan base of NASCAR.

Jason Katz is a contributing writer for East Alabama Sports Today. He will begin a student internship at Talladega Superspeedway in February.



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