Earnhardt Jr.'s transition, Monster decision among big off-track stories of 2018

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is no longer driving in Cup, but he continues to have a strong foothold in the sport. Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

On Friday, NASCAR Cup cars will hit the track at Daytona International Speedway, creating new storylines for the 2018 season.

But not all the action will occur on the track. Here are six off-track stories that could impact competition or the business of the sport, or pique interest and discussion of NASCAR:

Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the NBC booth

When the 15-time most popular driver retires from racing (except for a one-off Xfinity Series race planned for Richmond in September), it leaves an empty feeling for a passionate fan base.

Although Earnhardt won't race at the top level, he will have a presence at the track, especially over the second half of the season. After he welcomes his first child, a daughter, in late April or early May, Earnhardt will be part of the television coverage team for NBC when it takes over broadcasting duties in July. He'll also serve as the Daytona 500 grand marshal on Feb. 18, giving the command to start engines, and could come watch the Xfinity Series teams he owns.

So he will be around, giving fans another reason to watch as well as reasons to continue to follow his Twitter feed. But how many fans come to the track or watch on TV in post-Junior NASCAR will be dissected. For the final eight races of the 2017 season at International Speedway Corp. tracks, admissions revenue was up 1 percent. Was that the Earnhardt effect that impacted ticket sales?

Monster-NASCAR deal

Monster Beverage Corp. has to decide whether it will continue to sponsor NASCAR's top series for 2019-20 by ... well, it was already supposed to decide.

The company received an extension (no word on how long) by NASCAR to pick up the option, and it sounded fairly iffy when company chairman Rodney Sacks spoke to investors earlier this month about the sponsorship that wasn't hashed out until late November 2016.

Monster is reportedly paying $20 million to the sanctioning body, well below what Sprint paid. The series sponsor's main contribution is to the season-ending points fund as well as in money spent to promote NASCAR.

"We have gotten a lot more visibility, a lot more recognition for the brand through the NASCAR sponsorship," Sacks said. "It's very expansive, it's on TV, it's appearing on talk shows. We look at the metrics that the NASCAR folk give us and it certainly does seem to have been enhanced.

"Now the degree is to what degree? That we don't know. ... It took us a little bit of time [in 2017] to get up to speed, to get our activation going. We think we'll see a lot clearer benefits and more benefits coming from that relationship this year."

Playoff schedule shake-up

The schedule shakeup begins the week before the playoffs as Indianapolis Motor Speedway will host the cutoff race instead of Richmond Raceway.

Indianapolis typically doesn't offer the fireworks of a short track like Richmond. Typically. The end of last season's race at Indianapolis was different, as crashes amid restarts littered the track and showed that chaos can reign.

The entire opening round has been revamped with Chicagoland moving from the first race of the playoffs to July 1, New Hampshire losing its date to Las Vegas, and Dover moving out of the first-round finale to the opening race of the second round.

Las Vegas will now open the playoffs, followed by Richmond and then the new "roval" road course at Charlotte.

Those changes should inject some life into the opening round, with the question of whether the racing and drama are better at Richmond and Charlotte than at New Hampshire and Dover.

Phoenix/Richmond changes

Phoenix and Richmond are getting major overhauls, and Phoenix (now an ISM track) is also moving -- starting with the November race -- the start-finish line to an area near Turn 2 that could make going into what is currently Turn 3 a crazy place.

The amenities of having fan zones inside the infield and being able to see in the garages at those tracks should improve the experience.

If those changes resonate with fans, expect more tracks to look at similar renovations.

Several tracks will debut new decks and bars as they continue to pull out seats in hopes of creating urgency for fans to buy tickets (fewer seats means better chance of the best seats being taken earlier in the selling cycle or of a possible sellout at smaller-capacity tracks). as well as viewing areas that allow people to socialize more than in the grandstands.

As admissions revenue continues to decline -- ISC saw a 1.6 percent decline in admissions revenue for 2017, even with an increase of 1.2 percent in the price of the average ticket sold during the year -- tracks don't believe they'll be able to fill the empty seats in the near future.

Tony Stewart wrongful death civil trial

The trial is currently scheduled for May (a settlement or a delay in the trial date is still possible). If Stewart faces a civil trial for the death of Kevin Ward Jr., which happened during a sprint car race on Aug. 9, 2014, all eyes in the industry will be watching to see what type of liability a driver would have in the death of a competitor.

There are several legal issues in the case, including whether Ward assumed the risk of getting hit by a car by walking toward Stewart under caution; the impact of marijuana in Ward's system; and Stewart's past potentially being used as evidence that the driver acted in a reckless manner.

Lawyers, race teams and track operators will watch any trial closely because of the potential impact on their legal responsibilities, as well as the wording of their liability waivers. And the general public will be interested in a jury's determination if Stewart (who was not criminally charged) was in any way at fault.

Stewart said he didn't see Ward until moments before his car hit him. He said he hit the throttle in an effort to steer the car away from Ward. Ward's parents claim Stewart steered toward their son to scare him, resulting in the tragedy.

The trial, which would take place in U.S. District Court in Utica, New York, likely would last at least a couple of weeks.

Brian France's leadership

France's awkwardness at the rushed NASCAR awards ceremony in November didn't help him as his inability to instill confidence in the garage continues to be one of the NASCAR CEO's biggest challenges.

Brad Keselowski caused a little bit of a stir when he said that France needs to be at more races because the sport relies on so many partners.

But maybe the biggest thing is that the sport continues to face a crossroads, and while it could be argued that France can be more productive when not at the racetrack, the symbolic nature of being visible is an important part to leadership that can't be overlooked.

With all the management changes in the NASCAR front offices and the garage, there also needs to be a steadying hand that gives reason for the industry to trust those who are assuming more power.

So far, that hasn't happened.