By CHRISTOPHER SORBEY
Jimmie Johnson- Now sporting a wickedly awesome beard, newly crowned seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson begins his quest for title No. eight. By season’s end, the legend of Johnson certainly has a chance to grow leaps and bounds. Should J.J. capture six wins in 2017, he would rank fourth on the all-time wins list, just seven behind his mentor Jeff Gordon.
Johnson is a two-time Daytona 500 champion, winning the Great American race in 2006 and then again in 2013.
Joey Logano- JoLo has gone through a complete career metamorphosis since joining Team Penske in 2013. In a short period of time, Joey Logano arguably has become the absolute best driver on the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series tour. For all he’s accomplished in the last four years, one statistic still hampers Logano’s remarkable turn around. He has yet to capitalize on coming dangerously close to winning a championship on two occasions where he was in complete control of his own destiny, only to crack under the pressure. Can he get it right in 2017?
The 2015 Daytona 500 champion is fresh off winning the Clash last Sunday at Daytona.
Kyle Busch- Falling short of becoming the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series’ first back-to-back champion in seven years, Rowdy will have championship aspirations on the brain once the green flag drops on the 2017 campaign. With all the uncertainty surrounding the entire JGR organization entering the 2017 season, Busch’s team seems to have all the pieces in place for a deep playoff run, minus the distractions of a contract year, sponsor woes or a steep learning curve.
Kyle Busch is 0-11 all time in the Great American Race.
Matt Kenseth- Putting the one that got away far from the ol’ memory bank can be extremely difficult. Winning a third Daytona 500 would unquestionably erase those unkind memories and put them straight out of orbit for Matt Kenseth. If JGR’s savvy veteran can get another chance to shine in the closing laps of this year’s Great American Race, he will further cement his legacy in what is sure to be a Hall of Fame career once he hangs up the helmet for good.
Denny Hamlin- Defending Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin has one clear objective heading into Speedweeks 2017 — prove last season’s triumph in the Daytona 500 was no fluke. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone out there that believes Hamlin’s win was a fluke, but you can’t fault a guy for wanting to exceed expectations. We can expect another stellar year out of Chesterfield’s finest if he doesn’t let the contract year blues get him down.
Kurt Busch- It’s been well over a decade since Kurt Busch last piloted a Ford in NASCAR Cup competition. Entering his fourth season with SHR, Busch may perhaps feed off some of that past blue oval success in 2017; remember, he won his only Cup title driving a Ford. Could he make a serious run at title number 2 driving a Ford, yet again? Let’s not forget he won a title in his fourth season with Roush Fenway Racing. Just putting it out there.
Busch is 0-16 in the Great American Race, finishing 2nd on three separate occasions.
Kevin Harvick- As a new era is set to begin for SHR, one constant that’s likely to remain unchanged is Kevin Harvick’s extraordinary run of supremacy. Yes, the critics will over-analyze SHR’s switch to Ford, if the team struggles out of the gate. But if the Harvick we have come to know and admire over the past three years shows up on a weekly basis, that conversation won’t last longer than the time it takes to order a Jimmy John’s sandwich.
The 2007 Daytona 500 champion has finished inside the top-five in the last two Daytona 500 races.
Kyle Larson- Winning his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race one year ago fulfilled a master plan car owner Chip Ganassi set for his young prodigy when he hired him nearly four years ago, despite enormous skepticism. Check that one off the list. Next up is elevating Kyle Larson’s game to the next level and competing for a championship. That one could be crossed off a lot sooner than we all think.
Larson finished seventh in the 2016 Daytona 500.
Chase Elliott- Winning back-to-back Daytona 500 poles is mighty incredible. Putting the demons that plagued Chase Elliott at Daytona in 2016 behind him would be astounding for the second year driver as he attempts to put his own stamp on the Elliott Daytona legacy.
Martin Truex Jr.- The would-be defending Daytona 500 winner had knack for winning the big ones in 2016. If that trend continues in 2017, winning the 2017 edition of the Daytona 500 would be the ultimate thrill for the clam prince of New Jersey.
Brad Keselowski- Speaking of ultimate thrills, Brad Keselowski experienced the thrill of a life time when he tasted victory at Daytona last July. Adding a Daytona 500 win to his already extraordinary resume would mean so much to a driver that has a deep respect for NASCAR’s rich traditions.
Keselowski’s best Daytona 500 finish was third in 2014.
Jamie McMurray- King of the upsets, Jamie Mac shocked the world at Daytona back in 2010 when he scored the biggest win of his career in the Daytona 500. Since then, Jamie Mac’s Daytona 500 performances have been anything but memorable, finishing no higher than 14th in 2014.
Austin Dillon- Driver #3 will be joined by his younger bro Ty on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup tour in 2017. Fresh off an impressive accounting for himself in the Chase last season, A.D. seems poised for a big 2017 campaign. Could his first career win be in the cards? Dillon would love nothing better to shatter his grandfather’s organizations three year winless drought.
Austin has finished inside the top 10 twice in the last four Daytona 500 races.
Chris Buescher - For the second-consecutive season, former Xfinity Series champion Chris Buescher will play the admirable role of rent-a-driver as he transitions into a new role with JTG Daugherty Racing. Absolutely no one expected Buescher to win a race last season with Front Row Motorsports, as is no one is expecting him to win a race with JTG Daugherty this season. But we know better, as history tends to repeat itself more often than not in the crazy universe that is Monster Energy NASCAR Cup competition.
Kasey Kahne - Speculation will run rampant all season long regarding Kasey Kahne’s future with Hendrick Motorsports beyond 2017 if the performance of the No. 5 team remains stagnant. However, I’m not willing to write-off Kahne just yet, nor should anyone else who believes the once highly-touted prodigy is finished. If there is one driver that will perform better than advertised in 2017 it’s Kasey Kahne.
Ryan Newman- Honestly, I’ll be the first to admit I’m immensely astounded Ryan Newman ended up signing a contract extension with RCR in the offseason. As it was widely believed, team owner Richard Childress was leaning heavily towards awarding the seat of the No. 31 car to his youngest grandson Ty Dillon in 2017. Now that Newman’s been given a second chance of sorts, let’s see if the Rocket Man has enough fuel left in the tank to launch a career rebirth in 2017 and beyond.
A.J. Allmendinger- JTG Daugherty Racing mainstay A.J. Allmendinger enters the 2017 season with a brand new teammate in Chris Buescher, a brand new contract extension and 110 percent financial support from the folks at Kroger. With all the pieces finally in place, can the Dinger capitalize and covert all those positives into a career year in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series? Once again, like years gone by, it will be a race against time for Allmendinger.
Allmendinger’s career-best finish in the Daytona 500 was 3rd in 2009.
Ryan Blaney- Cool, calm and collected — that’s Ryan Blaney. Last year’s rookie sensation showed flashes of brilliance quite regularly in what can only be described as a phenomenal return to prominence for the legendary Wood Brothers Racing team in 2016.
Replicating that same success in 2017 is, without a doubt in reach; however, exceeding all expectations would validate what most already know. Blaney is a diamond in the ruff.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.- Year after year, we keep hearing the same familiar tune ring throughout the NASCAR community. When will former two-time Xfinity Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. reach his full potential? Gut feeling — Stenhouse will elevate his game to a whole new level in 2017. How do two wins and deep playoff run sound? We’ll take it!
Trevor Bayne- See above, just omit the two time Xfinity Champion part and insert former Daytona 500 champion.