ONE: The Right Champion
Congratulations to Martin Truex Jr. on winning an emotional, and richly deserved, first Cup Series title. All year long, the No. 78 has been the class of the field so it’s fitting he should win the final race, his eighth victory of the campaign, to get it done.
This time last week, I’d written that Homestead-Miami Speedway was Truex’s moment of truth. Over 400.5 miles last Sunday, he absolutely lived up to it, wrestling the win away from three hungry competitors. Truex bested Kyle Busch, in particular, on a breathless 34-lap final segment of the race. He needed to drive the best twenty laps of his life and got it done with the big trophy on the line.
Whether you still yearn for the old method for crowning a champion or not, however you want to total it up in 2017, Truex deserved to win the title. He had the most wins (eight), the most top fives (19), the most top 10s (26), most laps led (2,253), and best average finish (9.4).
— Martin Truex Jr. (@MartinTruex_Jr) November 20, 2017
Truex was the best in 2017 and in this winner-takes-all, Game 7-style final race format, the best driver won’t always be the winner. Thankfully, this time around there can be no questions. Truex is a worthy champion. The right guy won.
So congratulations, Mr. Truex. Enjoy the celebrations.
TWO: Stage Racing
When NASCAR makes significant changes, there are often fairly vociferous complaints. The addition of stages (and playoff / stage points) in 2017 was just that – significant. Truth be told, I feel like it’s really brought an added dimension to the long races. As I expect we’ll continue to see in the next few years, form in the regular season will be rewarded. That’s crucial as it was one of the main concerns around the playoff format in the first place.
When all is said and done in 2017, the drivers with the first, second, third, and fifth-best numbers in playoff points competed in the Championship 4. The driver that missed out, Kyle Larson, will get his chance again. And as I mentioned above, the best driver won it all.
“I know that fan response initially wasn’t all positive,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition in late August (after 24 of 36 races). “But I think as the season has worn on and they’ve seen the benefits of the increased action around the stage finishes, I think that, by and large, most everybody is in support of the stage racing.”
With a season of said points under our belt, it will be interesting to watch how strategies to the stages are refined and honed next season and beyond.
THREE: Happy (Driving) Retirement, Dale Junior
In the end, it was a ho-hum several-laps-down 25th-place finish for Dale Earnhardt Jr. The 631st race of his final full-time season ended with the No. 88 hitting the wall late. It wasn’t the year or, indeed, the final race Junior would have wanted. Nor did he get the emotion of one last victory. But his impact on the sport should not go unrecognized.
Yes, Earnhardt might not have won the championship his huge fan base so craved. But he’s been a brilliant ambassador and a credit to the sport for many years. As he transitions to the NBC booth for next season, not to mention overseeing his JR Motorsports team, Earnhardt will still be a familiar sight at the track (if not actually on it). I, for one, am glad he’ll still be around.
“I told them a couple weeks ago, the only thing I care about really is finishing all the laps, pulling down pit road, getting out of the car, and having a beer with my team,” said Junior of the conclusion to his final race. “So we got a couple beer coolers out and we drank about two, three beers apiece.”
— Joseph Wolkin (@JosephNASCAR) November 19, 2017
That’s exactly what he did. It seemed like the perfect way to go out, didn’t it? Enjoy your (driving) retirement, Junior and thanks for all you’ve meant to the sport.
FOUR: Next up, Daytona
Technically speaking, next up it’s the offseason. But given that today marks my last column of the year, why not take a quick peek ahead to next year?
So, in about 88 days (depending on when you’re reading this column) we’ll be back at it with the 2018 Daytona 500. It will be the 60th running of the 500, a tradition that goes all the way back to Lee Petty’s victory in the inaugural race of 1959. Having your signature event as the opening act seems counterintuitive, sure. But there’s something about the magnitude of the Great American Race. It doesn’t seem to matter if it leads off, rather than closes down, the season.
I’ve been fortunate enough to attend the big race on two occasions (2008 and 2016). I have to say if you’re reading this column and thinking about attending – just make the decision to go now. You won’t be disappointed.
FIVE: Thank You
For the final point of the final column of my tenth season writing on NASCAR I want to take a minute and say thank you to everyone who has read and commented on my work this year. I know many of you don’t always agree. But variety is the spice of life and NASCAR is and will continue to be an (incredibly) emotive subject. Thanks, too, to Kevin Rutherford, Amy Henderson, and Tom Bowles for all the editing they do on my column (and the site in general). I’m honored to be a small part of this fine corner of the motorsports community. Here’s to many more years writing for Frontstretch.
Enjoy the offseason, everyone. Happy Thanksgiving!