Bump & Run: Forecasting what to watch for in 2018

Dustin Long
NBC Sports

1. Of the changes taking place this season, what is the one you’re most interested in seeing how it goes?

Steve Letarte: I guess it’s a combination of inspection, rules and a new body for Chevrolet. There was so much talk last year about aerodynamics and perhaps Toyota had a little more efficient car than the other two manufacturers, according to the other two manufacturers or the teams that raced for them. Is the combination of the new inspection station, perhaps some rule tweaks … and the new Chevrolet body style, will that combination change the racing we see at the mile-and-a-half and 2-mile tracks?

Kyle Petty: I honestly don’t have an opinion on the changes. It always seems to me it’s not so much the change we talk about as we move through the season as it is the ripple effects of those changes. I’ll wait to see how large the waves are.

Nate Ryan: Schedule. It’s been the least discussed but could have the greatest impact — particularly on the Round of 16’s complexion, which could feature major cutoff drama in the debut of the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course.

Dustin Long: I’m most intrigued in how Hendrick Motorsports performs this season with all the changes that organization has made on and off the track. Even though the organization won four races last year, even car owner Rick Hendrick noted the lack of competitiveness and ability to lead laps much of the year. Will the management changes, the driver changes (William Byron and Alex Bowman) and the cultural changes (closer working relationship among the four teams) lead to greater success or more frustration? How these changes perform will have an impact on the playoff picture.

2. Of the drivers with a new Cup ride this year, who are you most intrigued about?

Steve Letarte: I think that is going to drive some excitement into the sport to have all those changes. The name that I have highlighted that I’m going to watch is Erik Jones. Aric Almirola (to Stewart-Haas Racing) has been around a while, we kind of understand where he is. Ryan Blaney did win a race, I think his transition (to Penske) will be smooth. William Byron I think kind of gets a freebie. He’s run so well at everything. It’s his rookie year, he’s so young. Come, learn. I would add Alex Bowman as well. Erik Jones and Alex Bowman. I think those two have to prove they deserve to be in the cars they are. Erik Jones is remarkably talented, and I have no doubt that he has the ability. But the ability is not the same as going to Victory Lane. At some point you need trophies. Now that he’s driving that 20 car, a car that won with Matt Kenseth, a company that knows how to win, I really look for Erik Jones to show up this year. He’s probably the one I’m most intrigued about and I’m going to watch the closest.

Kyle Petty: Blaney and Byron. Blaney because of his talent in the car. We saw a glimpse of that last year but as much because of his personality. He has something and has tapped into something that NASCAR and the sport has been missing! A driver who has fun, has personality … and can WIN! Novel idea! Byron because of his ability at such a young age to face pressure and stare it down! He appears wise beyond his years as a person and as a driver. His personality will develop. I’m not sure in what direction it will go, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Nate Ryan: Darrell Wallace Jr. With even a modicum of success, he could trigger positive shock waves of good cheer throughout the team and NASCAR. But if he falters, it will raise questions about the long-term viability of RPM and “The King’s” tolerance for hanging around NASCAR as an also-ran.

Dustin Long: I want to see what Kasey Kahne can do with Leavine Family Racing and a single-car operation. Can he help raise the organization’s performance level or will he be stuck in the middle of the pack? With a one-year contract, there’s a lot at stake for Kahne.

3. Which one of the drivers who raced for a championship in Miami last year (Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski) has the best chance of returning?

Steve Letarte: Kevin Harvick seems to always be there. So that means the odds are something is going to happen that maybe he won’t. Brad Keselowski, I put him in the same bucket as Harvick. I have some concern where the Fords are. Toyota had good speed last year. Chevrolet has made a body change. I’m really waiting to see at the beginning of the year what the Fords have to counteract that. As much as Martin Truex Jr. was so dominant last  year, I have to say Kyle Busch. I think Kyle Busch has the ability to dominate at different types of race tracks, so I think he has the best chance to go back to Miami.

Kyle Petty: Kevin Harvick … because he’s Kevin Harvick. Enough said

Nate Ryan: Martin Truex Jr. because of his No. 78 team’s continuity. The contraction of the No. 77 could make Furniture Row Racing even better considering how far it went as a single-car team in 2015 and ’16.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch. He’s done it three years in a row. It’s easy to see him making it four in a row.

4. Who wins first — Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Darrell Wallace Jr., Ty Dillon or someone else?

Steve Letarte: It should be Chase Elliott or Erik Jones but something in my gut tells me that it never works that way. I think William Byron breaks through super early in his career. I do think of this list, Chase Elliott wins, Erik Jones wins, William Byron wins. Those three I’m confident to say will win a race this year. Hopefully, for Alex Bowman and Daniel Suarez they can join the list, but I’m going to have to see something at the beginning half of the year to be able to move them on to the winning list.

Kyle Petty: Erik or Daniel. I don’t see JGR or Toyota getting weaker and I see Erik and Daniel getting stronger and better. The experience of last year should pay dividends this year.

Nate Ryan: Chase Elliott, maybe as soon as the Daytona 500. He’s long overdue for a breakthrough, and after the first victory with the number his father made famous, many more soon will follow.

Dustin Long: Chase Elliott. He’s been too close too long. His time is coming.

* NASCAR America returns to NBCSN on Feb. 26 after the Winter Olympics  

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