News Analysis: NASCAR limits crew member sizes, shrinks pit crews for 2018

What happened: The number of pit crew members will shrink from six to five and race teams will only be allowed 12 road crew members (the people who work on the car) starting next season in an effort to standardize crew sizes. Previously, there was no limit on crew members. In addition, NASCAR will distribute crew rosters and put numbers on each crew uniform to raise the profile of team members and emphasize the team concept.

What it means: A few things, but the most notable change for fans is a different look for pit stops. The gas man will only be allowed to fuel the car and nothing else, so that leaves four crew members to service the car — the probable lineup will be a jack man, two tire changers and only one tire carrier. That will slow down pit stops and force teams to innovate on how best to do a pit stop — something NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell said was “one of the beauties” of the new rule. In addition, NASCAR’s road crew cap should help with parity — the bigger teams can’t bring unlimited crew to the track anymore — and teams will have to get creative on how they use those slots. Also, expect to hear more about various team members like mechanics and shock specialists and engine tuners (although personally I think NASCAR should put 100 percent of its efforts into promoting the drivers as stars instead of trying to get people to talk about the team. NASCAR needs superstar drivers more than ever now).

News value (scale of 1-10): Five. The number of road crew members will have no noticeable impact for fans, except teams will now save money (although NASCAR emphasized “parity” instead of citing cost savings). But pit stops will be slower — it’s unclear how much — and you would think raise the chance for a mistake, so that’s certainly something newsworthy. Overall, though, it doesn’t feel like this is major news for anyone but the most hardcore fans.

Three questions: How much longer will pit stops take next year, and which team will be the first to come up with the best choreography for the fastest pit stop? Do fans really want to know more about the people working on the cars, or would they rather get more coverage of the drivers? How many people will ultimately lose their jobs as a result of this change?

News Analysis: Danica Patrick to retire from full-time racing

What happened: Danica Patrick will retire from full-time racing and conclude her career with two races next season: the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500, she announced Friday afternoon. In an emotional and often tearful news conference, Patrick said she wasn’t forced into leaving NASCAR but was “nudged” into the next phase of her life after a ride for 2018 did not materialize. The 35-year-old has seven top-10 finishes and no top-fives in 189 career Cup Series races. Patrick acknowledged she has had “a little bit more struggle on a car-to-car basis than everyone, and it took me a really long time to say that. … With stock cars, the closing rates aren’t quite as quick, so I think it showed up more over time in stock cars just because you can be more defensive than in an IndyCar.”

What it means: The Great Star Power Drain continues in NASCAR. Whether or not you thought Patrick was worthy of an elite Cup Series ride for five full seasons despite not producing results on the track, you can’t argue with the name recognition she brought to NASCAR. There are people in this country who can only name one NASCAR driver — and it’s her. Though her celebrity and fame didn’t save NASCAR from its decline or turn the sport around, Patrick absolutely brought new eyes to the sport and created new fans — many of them young females — by giving people someone different to root for. Her loss, particularly combined with the departures of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr., is a big blow to NASCAR when it comes to coverage in the general sports world.

News value (scale of 1 to 10): 10. This is a mega celebrity retiring from NASCAR when some people were hopeful she could somehow remain in the sport and find another team despite her ride at Stewart-Haas Racing going to Aric Almirola.

Three questions: What team will Patrick run the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 with? Can she jump back into an IndyCar and be competitive again? In a decade from now, what will Patrick’s NASCAR legacy be?

News Analysis: Aric Almirola to drive No. 10 car at Stewart-Haas Racing

What happened: Stewart-Haas Racing announced Aric Almirola will replace Danica Patrick in the No. 10 car next season with backing from longtime Almirola sponsor Smithfield.

What it means: Almirola will be in the best equipment of his Cup Series career after Smithfield and Richard Petty Motorsports resolved their legal issues. There had been a holdup in announcing this move after Smithfield’s CEO and Petty himself had a war of words during what seemed like a bitter breakup, and that apparently led to behind-the-scenes wrangling over whether Smithfield and Almirola could go to a different team as a package. That’s all behind them now, and Almirola will join Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and whoever drives the 41 car (probably Kurt Busch) at SHR next season.

News value (scale of 1-10): Four. The primary newsworthiness in this situation appears to be making it “official,” since everyone knew for awhile now that Almirola was heading to SHR. Still, it is more newsy than other non-surprises because it’s a major team with a high-profile team owner.

Three questions: Despite spending his career in lesser equipment than Patrick, Almirola is statistically an upgrade in every category — but can he win races in the 10? Will Almirola be a perennial playoff driver now that he’s with an elite team? What exactly will Smithfield’s involvement with RPM be?

News Analysis: Matt Kenseth will step away from NASCAR after this season

What happened: Matt Kenseth, in an interview with NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan, acknowledged what has seemed increasingly apparent over the last few months — that he will not race in NASCAR next season, and perhaps never again. Kenseth said there were no good opportunities to race in the Cup Series in 2018 and though he was open to a return, he didn’t “really feel it’s in the cards.” (He said a lot more than that, so you should read the interview — linked above — if you haven’t.)

What it meansThis appears to be the unsatisfying end of the road for a future Hall of Fame driver and another big blow to NASCAR. The Cup Series will now have lost Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth all within a span of three years. It’s an entire generation of star power leaving all at once.

News value (scale of 1-10): Eight. Even though people knew Kenseth was probably going to be the odd man out in Silly Season, it’s still jarring to realize this could be the end. But it’s also a relief, because now Kenseth can be celebrated for the next two weeks and his fans will have at least a brief chance to say goodbye. Although Kenseth is understated and probably doesn’t care much for recognition, it would have been sad for him to step out of the car for the final time at Homestead and just walk away without any fanfare.

Three questions: Can the NASCAR industry scramble to pay proper respect to the 2003 Cup champ in the next few weeks? Will we see Kenseth back behind the wheel at some point, or is this really it? How crazy have the economics of the sport gotten when an elite driver who can still win races can’t get a top ride for next season?

News Analysis: Bubba Wallace to drive Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 car

What happened: Darrell Wallace Jr. will move to the Cup Series to drive Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43 car next season, the team announced Wednesday. That will make Wallace the first full-time African-American driver in the Cup Series since Wendell Scott ran 37 races in the 1971 season.

What it means: Bubba gets a well-deserved shot at a Cup ride, and NASCAR gets an injection of excitement with a big personality getting to drive at the top level. NASCAR needs more characters after losing star power over the last few years with the departures of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — and Wallace’s edginess and enthusiasm will help with that. Also, you would assume this announcement means RPM feels like it will be able to find enough sponsorship to continue as an organization after anchor partner Smithfield decided to leave the team. The team’s news release announcing the decision said sponsorship for Wallace will be announced at a later date, so it’s unclear what that will entail.

News value (scale of 1-10): Seven. There are several distinct elements at play here, including Wallace’s skin color (which shouldn’t be notable in 2017 but will grab headlines based on NASCAR’s lack of diversity), the legend of the 43 car and the hope of an potential new star getting a chance at the Cup level. The news is not a surprise, though, based on the frequent updates from SportsBusiness Journal’s Adam Stern about RPM trying to sign Wallace.

Three questions: Does RPM have sponsorship secure, or is it making this announcement in hopes of drumming up funding now that it has a driver signed? Will Wallace, who was 11th at Kentucky earlier this year, be able to have more performances where he finishes ahead of where Aric Almirola typically did in the 43? Will Domino’s be involved with the team in any way, or will the company stupidly ignore a great opportunity to be paired with a rising star?

News Analysis: Chase Elliott docked 15 points, Alan Gustafson suspended for spoiler modification

What happened: Chase Elliott was penalized 15 points and crew chief Alan Gustafson and car chief Joshua Kirk were suspended for one race apiece — plus a $25,000 fine for Gustafson — after NASCAR ruled the No. 24 team illegally modified the spoiler at Chicagoland using tape. In addition, the race was ruled to be an encumbered finish — meaning Elliott will not get credit for the playoff point he earned at Chicago if he makes Round 2.

What it means: On Monday, several teams sent pictures and video around the industry of the No. 24 team appearing to have tape hanging off the spoiler and down the sides of the car. This photo evidence was sent to NASCAR and also ended up on Reddit, where it became public. It’s interesting the teams, who have photographers shooting high-resolution images of every car during the race, became sort of a second set of eyes for NASCAR after studying the pictures (Elliott had passed at-track inspection after the race). This shows if there’s a visible part of the car that is illegally modified, teams themselves are likely to catch it and report to NASCAR and/or the media in order to keep a level playing field for themselves. Ultimately, though, the penalty might not harm Elliott that much; he was a comfortable 33 points inside the cutoff, but now falls from sixth place to eight place — 18 points head of the final playoff spot for Round 2.

News value (scale of 1-10): Three. This isn’t very big in the grand scheme of things, but it’s newsworthy in the sense that the NASCAR community — namely the teams, but also Reddit by proxy — sniffed out an act of cheating.

Three questions: Teams privately have said the tape added a significant amount of downforce to the car, but how much of a difference did it really make? Is there any way this could actually cost Elliott in terms of making the next round? What else will the garage be able to find in future weeks by examining the photo evidence each team takes during races?

News Analysis: Kasey Kahne to drive Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 car

What happened: Leavine Family Racing, which currently fields the No. 95 car with Michael McDowell, announced Kasey Kahne will take over as its full-time driver in 2018. Kahne and Hendrick announced last month they would part ways after this year, but Kahne was ultimately able to remain in the Cup Series with another team.

What it means: Though his new home is certainly a downgrade from powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, this is a good move for both Kahne and family-run Leavine (pronounced “leh-VINE”). Kahne is only 37 and has some prime years ahead of him, and this will allow him to race in an environment without the pressure that comes with being part of Hendrick. At the same time, Leavine’s performance has been improving over the years — McDowell has been the best car in the Richard Childress Racing alliance at numerous races this year — and figures to only get better with an 18-time race winner in the seat. In addition, Leavine should be able to build a sponsorship program around a driver whose loyal fan base has continued to support him through several miserable seasons at Hendrick.

News value (scale of 1-10): Five. This move was expected for awhile, so it’s not a surprise. It also involves a team that isn’t well known to many fans, though Kahne’s part of the announcement makes it notable enough to get a decent amount of media coverage.

Three questions: Will lowered expectations actually allow Kahne to improve his results (McDowell’s average finish is only one spot behind Kahne this season)? Why did Leavine remain part of the RCR alliance instead of working a deal with Hendrick? Will McDowell be able to remain in NASCAR in some form?