The 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup season starts with the “Great American Race,” the Daytona 500 from Daytona International Speedway on Sunday, Feb. 21, on FOX. Top contenders include Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., 2015 Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano and reigning Cup Series champion Kyle Busch. Chase Elliott is the youngest driver ever to start the Daytona 500 in the pole position. Recently retired driver Jeff Gordon joins Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip in the FOX broadcast booth.
Here’s what else is new at the races in 2016:
So Long, Smoke Gordon had his farewell tour last season, and 2016 will be the Cup Series swan song for Tony Stewart. It’s off to a bad start for Stewart, as he’ll miss the Daytona 500 at the least, due to a broken vertebra he suffered in an ATV accident. It’s the latest in a string of unfortunate incidents that have plagued him in recent seasons. Since making his Cup debut in 1999, Stewart has won three driver season championships (2002, 2005 and 2011) and 48 race victories. But “Smoke” has suffered through a 77-race winless streak, and he hoped that new crew chief Mike Bugarewicz could help him go out on top. But Stewart again proves to be his own biggest obstacle.
Daytona Rising TV viewers will see a different Daytona International Speedway, as the three-year, $400 million project to update the track’s seating and amenities is complete in time for Speedweeks.
Down With Downforce The Cup Series base rules package for 2016 reduces the size of rear spoilers, front leading splitter edges and radiator pans. The result will mean less downforce, slower speeds in the turns and more passing opportunities.
The MWR Effect Michael Waltrip Racing will not field a full-time Cup team in 2016, leading to a dispersal of its drivers and crews to other teams. Clint Bowyer races with HScott Motorsports in 2016 before replacing Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2017. In other changes, Billy Scott becomes Danica Patrick’s third crew chief in as many years. Elliott takes over Gordon’s No. 24 Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports. Furniture Row Racing switches from Chevy to Toyota for Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78.
Sprint Signs Off It’s the final season in which NASCAR’s top series will be known as Sprint Cup, as Sprint didn’t renew its title sponsorship beyond 2016. NASCAR is believed to be seeking a 10-year deal worth $1 billion.
Xfinity And Truck Series Chases A new playoff elimination system for the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series will determine their champions this season. Twelve drivers start in the Xfinity Chase grid, and eight drivers will be eligible for the Truck Series Chase. The Truck Series will also have a new “caution clock” in which a yellow flag will fly for a competition caution if 20 minutes of continuous green-flag racing pass.
NASCAR on TV FOX and NBC enter the second year of a 10-year, $8.2 billion broadcast deal with NASCAR. FOX and FS1 air the first half of the Cup and XFINITY schedule, with NBC and NBCSN taking over July 2 at Daytona. Due to the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the Aug. 7 race at Watkins Glen will air on USA Network. FOX adds Gordon to its race broadcast team of Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip, with Larry McReynolds now serving as an in-race analyst. The Camping World Truck Series remains on FS1 with incoming play-by-play announcer Vince Welch.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 2016 Key Dates
Feb. 13: Sprint Unlimited (Daytona), FOX
Feb. 14: Daytona 500 Qualifying (Daytona), FOX
Feb. 18: Can-Am Duels (Daytona), FS1
Feb. 21: Daytona 500 (Daytona), FOX
May 20-21: Sprint Showdown/All-Star Race (Charlotte), FS1
May 29: Coca-Cola 600 (Charlotte), FOX
July 2: Coke Zero 400 (Daytona), NBC
July 24: Brickyard 400 (Indianapolis), NBCSN
Sept. 18: Chase begins: Chicagoland 400 (Chicagoland), NBCSN
Nov. 20: Season finale: Ford EcoBoost 400 (Homestead-Miami), NBC
Chase Elliott: Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images
Tony Stewart: Credit: Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images