Posted: 8:53 pm Monday, November 20th, 2017
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
November 19, 2017 is the culmination of a year of domination, penalties, sentimentality, pessimism, optimism, the past, and the future. The nine month NASCAR grind exhaled fireworks, champagne, and confetti this Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Martin Truex Jr.’s championship coronation is compelling enough, after a dominating season with Denver-based Furniture Row Racing. And Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s exit from NASCAR as a driver is a perfect story to dominate the human interest thirst outside of the championship. But several other stories make processing NASCAR’s final weekend more complicated.
Matt Kenseth announced two weeks ago his intent to step away from full-time competition, after getting the hook from Joe Gibbs Racing and then no other competitive ride materializing. Suddenly a statistically more accomplished driver than Earnhardt Jr. – a champion and fellow 2000 rookie – is leaving the sport at the same time. But NASCAR’s collective consciousness was already committed to its most popular driver’s exit. So Kenseth celebrated a week earlier with his perfect Phoenix win. Kenseth placed a decent 8th in the strung-out season finale, but received only a fraction of the TV time and aplomb of Earnhardt Jr. .
Then Danica Patrick just two days before the race announced her intent to run only the 2018 Daytona 500 and Indy 500 before hanging up her helmet. With her time in NASCAR comparatively ephemeral and unrefined in comparison to Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth, Patrick’s leaving deserves about as much fanfare as it got. Unfortunately, she cut a tire and wrecked on lap 139, ending her penultimate race early. She finished 37th. Much like Kenseth, the sponsorship at a competitive ride just isn’t there for Patrick to continue in the sport.
Patrick’s wreck collected Kasey Kahne, which brings forth the list of drivers in the last races for their teams. Kenseth was the only one that had a decent finish. Kahne raced another 100 laps in his damaged car, finally retiring about 30 laps from the end, ending his six-year run in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Chevy. Aric Almirola drove the same amount of time in Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43, running two laps down in 18th. Something went sour in Ryan Blaney’s No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford and he placed three laps down in 29th, giving the Wood Brothers their best points finish in over 20 years. Paul Menard’s seven lackluster years with Richard Childress Racing ended with him placing the No. 27 Chevy two laps down in 16th. Michael McDowell loses his seat to Kahne and he ended his four years in the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Chevy struggling to finish 24th, two laps down. Landon Cassill finished around the other lame duck drivers. After two years with Front Row Motorsports, Cassill took the checkered flag two laps down in 23rd.These storylines pale in comparison to Earnhardt Jr.’s, but their finality is significant, nonetheless.
The 2017 Championship 4 had the chance to berth a dynasty- and it may have. Truex Jr.’s eight wins in 2017 and series-high 2,253 laps led, combined with his championship-clinching win could be the first hash mark in the Truex-Furniture Row era of domination. But Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Brad Keselowski each had their chance to win their second; that could have been a bigger story.With so much focus on who has exited the sport in recent years, the mantle-bearer to stand with seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson is unclear. Harvick and Busch seem like the next best drivers, if not the best. Keselowski is right there with them. Now Truex Jr. is right there in their ranks and has to be the hands-on favorite to win the Cup in 2018.
All of this also goes to show that the young generation does not quite bear the cup. Kyle Larson led the third-most laps in the season and scored four wins, but his lack of consistency kept him out of the Round of Eight. Chase Elliott had 12 top 5s and almost won several times, just missing the Championship 4. Ryan Blaney won to make the playoffs and got within a few points of the final round, but still had an average finish worse than teammate Joey Logano’s in 2017. And rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez showed promise, but were not good enough, often enough to take away trophies.The old may be on its way out in 2017, but NASCAR still has the present as its contenders, before the new gets the keys.
One last note on the season…those last 10 laps. The way the races ran this weekend, with leaders routinely getting eight to 15-second leads, Truex Jr. could have easily hosed the field when he led them to green on the last restart with 34 laps to go. But Busch’s car came to life, as he passed Harvick and he came within a half-second of Truex Jr., before stalling out. The No. 18 Camry kept diving low and drawing within a stroke of the No. 78. But Truex Jr. ran the remaining laps, well, clutch. That has not been a quality of his up until this year. But this time, everything held together. Those years of running poorly, having rides and playoff appearances taken away, and coming up just short are vindicated in this championship.
The 2017 NASCAR season was a strange one in many ways. But the ending – the hard racing and goodbyes – may have soothed some wounds for the short offseason.