Six weeks to Daytona 500 – and five burning questions NASCAR faces for 2017 – Charlotte Observer

As NASCAR’s 2017 season draws near – only six weeks until the Daytona 500 – here are five burning questions facing the sport, with more coming periodically over the next few weeks:

What kind of impact will new sponsor Monster Energy have on the Cup series?

NASCAR has moved on from 12 years of sponsorship by telecommunications companies to an edgy energy drink company. With the sport’s attendance and television ratings on the decline, a jolt of new thinking and marketing to a younger demographic is desperately needed. How Monster accomplishes this remains to be seen, but it likely won’t be through television commercials or other more traditional ways of marketing.

Will even less downforce mean even better racing?

It should. After a new aerodynamic package featuring lower downforce was introduced in 2016, NASCAR is going a step further this season with another reduction in downforce. Lower downforce means more about performance is left in the hands of drivers, which is what they want. The package was a success last season. This one should only build on that.

What’s next for Jimmie Johnson?

Johnson’s championship in 2016, which tied him with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt atop the all-time list with seven, assures him a spot in the highest pantheon of NASCAR greats. If Johnson wins another title – and at 41 he is showing no signs of slowing down – he’s all by himself. The shift in perception by fans and the media of Johnson possibly being the greatest driver ever, ahead of even Petty and Earnhardt, would be interesting to watch.

Which driver will emerge from the shadows?

Running just behind the sport’s superstars for the past two seasons has been Chevy-driving Kyle Larson. He won his first race (at Michigan) in 2016 and made the Chase. Watch for Larson, 24, to win multiple times this season and contend for the championship. He’s been that fast in his first three seasons at the Cup level. Now he has the experience to take the next step.

What does this season’s rookie class look like?

It will be difficult to top the group of first-year drivers from 2016, when Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Chris Buescher, Jeffrey Earnhardt and Brian Scott formed a formidable and deep class. But the news earlier this week that Daniel Suarez will replace Carl Edwards at Joe Gibbs Racing means that this season’s class – which also includes Erik Jones and Ty Dillon – could be as strong. All three come in with strong credentials. Suarez won last season’s Xfinity title and three races. Jones will be the second driver in Front Row Motorsports’ newly expanded operation, joining Martin Truex Jr. Dillon has the bloodlines – he’s the brother of Cup driver Austin Dillon and grandson of Richard Childress Racing owner Richard Childress. Ty Dillon will start out in Germain Racing’s No. 13 Chevy.

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