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ESPN Stats 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season preview

TOP THINGS TO KNOW

1. Martin Truex Jr. won last season's championship with a dominant season, becoming the 1st driver to win 8 races and lead 2,000 laps in a season since Jeff Gordon in 1996. He'll try to be the first driver to win back-to-back titles since Jimmie Johnson won a record 5 straight from 2006-10.

2. Jimmie Johnson won the 2016 championship, and despite 3 wins last season, had his worst season last year in terms of average finish (16.8) and top 5 and top 10 percentage. Johnson enters the season on a 23-race winless streak, 1 away from matching the longest winless drought of his Cup Series career.

3. After Dale Earnhardt Jr. joined Jeff Gordon in retirement, Hendrick Motorsports has undergone a youth movement. As the average age of its 4 drivers has dropped from 39 in 2015 to 27 at the start of the 2018 season. That includes 42-year-old Jimmie Johnson.

4. Chase Elliott has a new car number this year, changing from the 24 to the 9, the number his father, Bill, had the bulk of his success in, with 38 wins. Elliott will look to replicate that success, including capturing his 1st Cup win. He does have 7 runner-up finishes in his Cup career. His father had 8 runner-up finishes before he got his 1st win.

5. Darrell Wallace Jr. is set to make history this year, becoming the 2nd black driver in series history to run a full schedule, joining Wendell Scott, who ran 495 races in the 1960s and 70s. "Bubba" Wallace made 4 Cup Series starts last year as an injury substitute, improving his finish in each, topping out with an 11th at Kentucky.

TOP 2018 STORYLINES

Can Martin Truex Jr. Repeat His 2017?

Last year was ridiculous for Martin Truex Jr. Not only did he win his 1st Cup Series championship, he became the first driver since Denny Hamlin in 2010 to win at least 8 races in a season. Add in his laps led total (2,253), and you get a season not seen since Jeff Gordon's prime.

New, Younger Lineup at Hendrick Motorsports

Jeff Gordon retired following the 2015 season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired and Kasey Kahne was not brought back after 2017. They were replaced by Chase Elliott (now 22 years old), Alex Bowman (24) and William Byron (20). They join the greybeard of the group, 42-year-old Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson has already cemented his spot as one of the top drivers in series history, with a record-tying 7 championships and 83 wins, tied for 6th-most all-time. His 3 teammates are all still looking for their first wins. In fact, Johnson has more wins than any of the other 3 have career Cup starts.

Hendrick looked like it needed an infusion of fresh blood last season. Despite 3 wins from Jimmie Johnson (none in the final 23 races of the season), the team finished with 4 wins, its fewest in a season since 2000 (also 4).

The Youth is Inheriting NASCAR

And that doesn't include Joey Logano (27) or Daniel Suárez (26). Only 3 different drivers have ever won a Cup Series championship at 26 or younger (Larson turns 26 during the season).

Last year, there were 3 first-time race winners (including Blaney). With Elliott, Bowman, Byron, Jones and Suárez still looking for their 1st wins, it could challenge the Modern Era (since 1972) record for most first-time winners in a season (5 in 2011, 2002, 2001).

Byron and Wallace are the true rookies out of the group, both running their first official Cup season. If Byron keeps up his winning ways (he won 7 times in the Truck Series in 2016 and 4 times in the XFINITY Series last year), he could challenge his new teammate, Jimmie Johnson, along with Tony Stewart for the rookie wins record. Wallace didn't run full-time last year after his XFINITY team ran out of sponsorship money.

New Faces in New Places - Notable Driver Moves This Offseason

• Alex Bowman replaces Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Hendrick Motorsports
• William Byron replaces Kasey Kahne at Hendrick Motorsports (car number will change from 5 to 24)
• Erik Jones replaces Matt Kenseth at Joe Gibbs Racing (Jones' seat at Furniture Row Racing was not filled)
• Aric Almirola replaces Danica Patrick at Stewart-Haas Racing (Patrick will run Daytona 500 for Premium Motorsports and then retire from NASCAR)
• Ryan Blaney moves from Wood Brothers to Team Penske (replaced at Wood Brothers by Paul Menard)
• Chase Elliott's car number changes from 24 to 9

BREAKING DOWN NASCAR'S CHAMPIONSHIP SYSTEM

Regular Season
• 26 races
• Races broken into stages (3 for all but 1 race, 4 at 600-mile race at Charlotte)
• Championship and playoff points awarded at end of each stage
• Race winners get 5 playoff points; stage winners get 1 point
• Championship points: 40-35-34-etc for end of race; 10-1 for top-10 in each stage

Making the Playoffs
• 16 drivers make playoffs
• Regular season points leader automatically qualifies
• Next 15 spots are decided by most wins
• Ties are broken by points position (including for no-win drivers)

Championship System
• Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs (term "Chase" is no longer used)
• 4 rounds; 1st 3 rounds are 3 races each
• Drivers advance to next round with win (unless previously eliminated)
• Bottom 4 drivers eliminated after 3rd, 6th, 9th races
• Highest finisher among 4 remaining drivers in season finale win championship (regardless of race finish)

OTHER NOTES AND GRAPHICS

Hendrick Motorsports has 249 career Cup wins, and their next will be the organization's 250th Cup win. They'll join Petty Enterprises (a different organization than the current Richard Petty Motorsports) as teams to reach that milestone.