DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — NASCAR officially began its 2016 season as the cars reved up Friday (Feb. 12) afternoon for some practice runs at Daytona International Speedway.
Everybody might be a bit rusty (Turn left! Turn left!) — even the fans. So we’ve put together a handy cheat-sheet to prep you for the next eight days that include the Sprint Unlimited race Saturday night and qualifying for the Daytona 500 on Sunday, culminating with the Great American Race on Feb. 21.
Here’s what to expect:
1. Fancy digs
It’s not your grandfather’s NASCAR anymore, race fans. Daytona International Speedway recently completed a major facelift called Daytona Rising. It’s a $400 million grandstand transformation that includes new “injectors,” escalators and elevators, 11 new football field-sized concourses and five new entryways into one of the most iconic venues in motorsports racing. Don’t bother looking for the backstretch grandstand. It’s gone.
2. Traffic jams
Grab a Snickers bar if you are making the commute to Daytona. The Interstate 4 widening project between State Road 44 and Interstate 95 is now 10 months behind schedule, meaning it won’t be completed in time for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 22 as originally planned.
3. New School
Chase Elliott is the “kid” behind the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, taking over Jeff Gordon’s ride. The kid reference is a tad facetious. At 20, Elliott is smart, savvy and experienced and comes from a racing blue-blood family (see Elliott, Bill). No pressure, but boss man Rick Hendrick expects him to win a race this season.
4. Old School
Morgan Shepherd recently announced he will be competing in Xfinity Series season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 20. Shepherd is 74. You will either celebrate his resilience or scream at him to get off the track because his left-rear blinkers are on and his time is way past due.
5. Where’s Waltrip?
The Michael Waltrip Racing team blew up after last season and is no more. The business model exploded for simple reasons: not enough money and sponsorships. MWR driver Clint Bowyer will join HScott Motorsports this year before taking over Tony Stewart’s ride in 2017 for Stewart-Haas Racing. HScott is a midsize two-car team based in Spartanburg, S.C., owned by businessman Harry Scott.
6. Where’s Tony?
Speaking of Stewart, NASCAR’s most troubled soul won’t be racing to try to win his first Daytona 500. Stewart suffered a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in an all-terrain vehicle accident while in Phoenix recently and may be out as late as May. Brian Vickers is expected to be named as the fill-in Friday.
7. Where’s Jeff?
Jeff Gordon retired after a brilliant career that included four Cup titles. But don’t shed a tear for him. He will transition nicely into the Fox Sports booth as a race analyst and now has time to do things like host a Daytona/Sports Illustrated swimsuit-issue VIP party on a yacht the night before the Great American Race.
8. Did you forget Junior?
Of course not. NASCAR’s favorite son has been solid in recent years but not good enough to make the Final Four in Homestead or win a title. Why not now? Good question. Everything is in place for Dale Earnhardt Jr., including a stable personal life and a fiancee he adores in Amy Reimann.
9. Will Cup champ Kyle Busch compete in the Xfinity race this season?
10. Chasing Consistency
NASCAR will expand its Chase format into both the Xfinity Series and the Camping World Truck Series. The Xfinity format will feature 12 drivers and three elimination rounds that will take place over seven races. In the Camping World Truck Series Chase, eight drivers will qualify for a similar seven-race three-round format. Cup drivers will not be eligible to compete for a title in either of the other series.
11. Shot Clock
The Camping World Truck Series will feature a new 20-minute caution clock built into all races. When the green flag is displayed, 20 minutes will be placed on the clock. If the clock expires, a competition caution will be thrown.
12. Hey, you forgot to mention Danica Patrick!
Don’t worry; there’s plenty of time.