The final race of the season ended with the kind of drama that NASCAR could only hope for when it devised the Chase system, and especially this current Chase system. There was no ceremonial ride around for 267 laps for the champion as there had been at times when the championship was all but won before the first lap was completed. So, like it or not, races like Sunday is why the Chase is here to stay.
It turned into a historic night when Jimmie Johnson won the race and his seventh title Sunday night. But if anything, the race was a microcosm of why Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have won those seven titles together. Johnson’s car for almost all of the night was not a winning car in terms of speed. But the team made adjustments (some of them significant) throughout the race. Then when given the late-race break needed to have a chance, the car, and Johnson, too, were good enough to take advantage of it. It was a pure lesson on why to never give up. The No. 48 got a little better here and a little better there, and plugged away on progress throughout the race. Now, the team will have to find a way to plug another championship trophy into its trophy case.
You have to wonder if the new nickname for Carl Edwards will be “Hard Luck Carl”. That’s because for the second time in six years, he was on the verge of winning a championship, only to see his hopes dashed. It was in 2011 that he finished second to Tony Stewart, causing a tie in the points with Edwards, and Stewart winning on a tiebreaker. This time Edwards looked to be in good shape as he was first among the championship four, only to have a caution come out with 10 laps to go. On the restart, Edwards did all he could to keep Joey Logano behind him, but the resulting block resulted in Edwards going into the wall. Give Edwards credit for handling the entire situation with complete class and integrity. And you have to like the fact that he walked to the infield care center. It was a chance for him to gather his thoughts and get calmed down a little before talking to the media. So, Edwards may not have a championship, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a winner.
This has nothing to do with his last few races and everything to do with one of the great careers in NASCAR. Tony Stewart ran his final Sprint Cup race Sunday to end a career that featured three titles and 49 victories. Stewart was not always a model citizen in terms of showing his temper every now and then, especially in his younger days. But that kind of passion is what made Stewart so great. It also made him relatable because who doesn’t get frustrated with events from time to time? No, he wasn’t perfect, but yes, he does have as big of a heart as anyone who ever drove in NASCAR. While he still will be around as owner, it won’t be the same without him actually being on the NASCAR track. So now, it will just be a matter of finding out when he is driving on the dirt, where his racing heart has always been, if you want to watch him race again.
Martin Truex, Jr. was hot in a literal sense for a few moments Sunday when his car caught on fire. But the driver of the No. 78 car saw his fate determined in this race in much the same way it had been in many races this year. Truex had one of the fastest cars on the track, only to get caught up in the Edwards-Logano incident. At several races this season, Truex had the fastest car and with a little bit of good luck could have won seven or eight races instead of four. In that sense, it was a breakout season for Truex, but now he understands the frustration of having a highly competitive car and not being able to win not only races, but a title.
With the retirements of Jeff Gordon last year and Stewart this year, it’s only natural to wonder what the future of the Sprint Cup series will look like. But the list of young drivers with high potential is a long one. Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson, Austin and Ty Dillon, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and even Logano means the sport has plenty of quality successors. Just how many titles those drivers will win is impossible to predict, but it’s likely there will be a few dispersed among that group over the next 20 years or so.
While NASCAR has the shortest offseason of any the major sports, it’s 96 days until the Daytona 500. Just seems way too long.
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