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Pro Sports

NASCAR season begins with Truex reigning, series rebuilding

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Martin Truex Jr. has been all over the country during his brief reign as NASCAR’s newest champion.

Since winning his first Cup title in November, Truex has celebrated in Las Vegas, New York, Denver, Charlotte, Toronto and last week, Minneapolis, where he watched his beloved Philadelphia Eagles win the Super Bowl.

It was the final party for Truex, who goes back to work this week along with the rest of NASCAR to get ready for the 2018 season. The season-opening Daytona 500 is Feb. 18, and qualifying for “The Great American Race” is Sunday.

Truex will get back behind the wheel of his No. 78 Toyota at Daytona International Speedway and race in an exhibition all-star event Sunday. It will be the first look at the Colorado-based Furniture Row Racing team since it manhandled the competition most of last year.

Truex led nearly every statistical category in 2017, including notching eight victories.

Truex doesn’t have a teammate this year as Furniture Row moves back to a one-car operation. The change is one of the small ripples in a major wave that affected the NASCAR landscape.

Erik Jones, who had been on loan to Furniture Row, moved to Joe Gibbs Racing. To make room for Jones, JGR had to bounce Matt Kenseth from his ride even though the two-time Daytona 500 winner didn’t want to retire.

Kenseth wasn’t alone: Danica Patrick lost her ride, making the Daytona 500 her final NASCAR race, and Kasey Kahne was forced out at Hendrick Motorsports and took a lesser job with Leavine Family Racing that created decent upheaval among the mid-pack racers.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired at the end of last season, but will still have a very heavy NASCAR presence.

The on-track attention will focus on NASCAR’s young drivers. Hendrick Motorsports hired Xfinity Series champion William Byron to replace Kahne and slid Alex Bowman into Earnhardt’s seat. Hendrick still has seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in the stable as well as budding star Chase Elliott.

Elliott spent the past two years driving the No. 24 but is switching to the No. 9 — the number his Hall of Fame father donned for most of his career. Before Earnhardt Jr. locked down NASCAR’s most popular driver award, Bill Elliott owned the category. With Chase Elliott now in the No. 9 Chevrolet, fans may flock to his camp.

But Elliott is out to win races and not a popularity contest. Entering his third season in the Cup Series, he’s still seeking his first victory.

Team Penske has expanded to three cars to add Ryan Blaney to its lineup, and he’s already a hit with fans. Close friend Bubba Wallace got a promotion to the Cup Series this season and will drive for Richard Petty Motorsports.

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