We've all seen it a bazillion times before, haven't we, race fans? When a new car, sponsor or paint scheme sits right there in front of us, teasing as it hides beneath a drab car cover. Then that cover is yanked off with a flourish, and the latest sparkly, racy, shiny object is suddenly revealed all at once.
Well, they've yanked the cover off the 2019 NASCAR season. Finally. Now we just need to figure out exactly what it is we're looking at.
With no big offseason announcements or preseason media tour to make said announcements, this has been the quietest -- and, as a result, seemingly the longest -- offseason in a couple of decades. Last week that changed in a hurry. The days that had long been reserved for the now-shuttered media tour were filled with production days (aka photo shoots and media partner interviews) and a two-day test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
In less than two weeks, those cars will be on a racetrack for real. Sort of. Daytona 500 Speedweeks will get underway with whatever it is that we're supposed to call the Busch Clash these days.
So, what will this season, after being stuck in double secret probation for three months, look like once the green flag finally drops?
The pack is back
Speaking of that Vegas test, did you see the video coming out of the high desert last Thursday? Holy stock car swarm! If the results of NASCAR's new intermediate aero package look familiar, that's because it's inspired by the breathtaking show put on in the 2018 All-Star Race. Air ducts and smaller tapered spacers will be in place for 17 of 36 races, and the spacers also will be in play at five other events, creating a sort of mini-plate racing situation. So, no, those rules won't be in place for the Daytona 500, but the goal is to make all those other races feel like the Daytona 500. Last week, Kurt Busch called it the most significant changes to Cup cars since the 2007 rollout of the Car of Tomorrow. Will constant door-to-door action keep fans tuned into a race for 3½ hours during midsummer, or are they killing the All-Star goose looking for more golden eggs, making the excitement around such racing become, err, tapered?
A lot of familiar faces are gone
It's hard to recall a worse seven days within the NASCAR community than Jan. 11-18. It started that first Friday morning when dozens of NASCAR employees were laid off, almost all long-tenured, and many names and faces long recognized by stock car racing fans, from the guy you've all watched run Victory Lane for the past decade to the men who were most recently running the Cup series. That night, Joe Gibbs Racing co-chairman J.D. Gibbs died after a long battle with a degenerative neurological disorder. One week later, NASCAR Hall of Famer Glen Wood, the gentle godfather of Wood Brothers Racing, died at the age of 93. Meanwhile, the No. 78 of Furniture Row Racing, perhaps the greatest rags-to-riches story of NASCAR's modern era, has been shuttered. Matt Kenseth has retired (again), as have Kasey Kahne and former Cup mainstay Elliott Sadler is done after eight years in the Xfinity Series. Jamie McMurray will be joining them in the retirement home after the Daytona 500. Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson, entering his 18th full-time Cup season and the first without Chad Knaus calling the shots, is coming off of his first winless season and will once again find himself constantly peppered with retirement questions.
Young Guns II: Revenge of the Chosen
This time last year we already had our first big controversy raging, despite the fact the season had yet to start. When NASCAR trotted out 2018 preseason marketing that felt way focused on the sport's youth movement, the old guard pushed back verbally. Once the season did begin, those veterans pushed back with their bumpers. Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500 and fellow millennial Ryan Blaney visited Victory Lane, too, but both were early playoff exits. Chase Elliott finally broke through with three wins, but he failed to make the Homestead final four. That quartet included the leaders of the "they aren't the stars yet -- we are" complainers, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, along with Martin Truex Jr., 38, and eventual champion Joey Logano, who is only 28 but also in his 10th full Cup season. However, Father Time remains undefeated. So, expect to see more success sooner than later from the youngsters, whose best friend might very well be the new aero package. Last week, Kyle Busch said that the new package will reward those who are most willing to take the most chances -- success favoring the bold and all that. When it comes to young race car drivers, abundance of boldness has never been an issue.
Speaking of Shrub ...
Kyle Busch haters need to brace themselves for 2019, because his name will be in a lot of headlines as it continues to move up all of the "all-time" lists. Busch enters the season ranked 11th on the Cup series career wins list. He entered last season with 43 victories, ranked 17th on that list, but leapfrogged Bill Elliott, Buck Baker, Herb Thomas, Tony Stewart, Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett via his eight wins and left his career count at 51. If he has even a slightly below-his-average season in 2019, he will move past Lee Petty (54) and Rusty Wallace (55) and end the season ranked ninth all time. It's a big jump to the next tier, where Dale Earnhardt waits with 76 wins, but Busch is still only 33 years old. He's already the all-time leader in Xfinity wins and needs only one more victory to break his tie with NASCAR Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr. to sit atop the Truck series totem pole. Meanwhile, Harvick is also moving on up. He also won eight Cup races last year, making a big leap in the rankings up to 17th on the list (45 total Cup wins) and now among that same crowded group of Hall of Famers where Busch started last season.
Most of the talk in 2019 will be about 2020
Heck, most of the talk at the end of 2018 was already about 2020. Among those familiar faces who will be missing this season will be former NASCAR chairman/CEO Brian France, who has been in absentia since his August 2018 arrest for DWI and possession of a controlled substance. Ever since his uncle Jim France and former vice president Steve Phelps took the reins, speculation about the sport's future has moved into overdrive, many hoping that the sport's governing body will finally take some bigger swings, particularly when it comes to scheduling. Phelps has said "nothing is off the table" moving forward. Meanwhile, the sanctioning body continues to move toward buying up International Speedway Inc. stock in an effort to merge the two entities and continues to court those who might be interested in buying up the entire sport. So, will 2020 be the year that brings midweek summer prime-time races at short tracks like the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, run by the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Cup Series, now owned and operated by the Liberty Media Corp.? Maybe. Maybe not. But throughout 2019, the discussion and speculation about 2020 and beyond will be racing around the NASCAR news cycle like a bunch of race cars with tapered spacers.