It is the time of the season that many diehard race fans hope never come: the offseason. As champions are crowned under a setting south Florida sun this weekend, the engines will fall silent for almost three months. All that is left are mere memories of a season filled with excitement, jubilation and disappointment. This championship weekend, as we reminisce about a season-long trek throughout the United States, another decade of NASCAR will be firmly locked away in the history books.
The 2010s have been filled with a mixture of transition and tradition, glorious triumphs and heartbreaking defeat and the emergence of new stars and the twilight of legends. Included among the highlights is the closest Daytona 500 in history, a return to dirt, three seven-time champions, and a jet dryer fire, just to name a few.
As the 2010s have come and gone, a trip through the numbers might just be the best way to say goodbye.
In 1971, NASCAR CEO Bill France Jr. struck a monumental deal with the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, who agreed to sponsor NASCAR’s top series, using itsbrand Winston. The 2010s were the first decade since that Winston did not adorn the title sponsorship slot, due to government legislation in that prevented tobacco companies from using their brand as corporate sponsorship after 2003.
Despite Winston’s forced cancelation of it’s sponsorship, the tradition continues. This decade, five companies have spent time as entitlement sponsors. Telecommunications company Sprint sponsored NASCAR’s top division before handing the reigns to Monster Energy in 2017. NASCAR’s secondary series has also seen two entitlement sponsors this decade: Nationwide Insurance and Comcast/Xfinity. Finally, the Truck Series has only seen one sponsor this entire decade as Camping World Holdings has used their Camping World and Gander Outdoors brand names.
7 (Maybe 8???)
Seven drivers have won a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship this decade. Jimmie Johnson kicked the 2010s off with a bang as he captured his fifth consecutive championship, but was shockingly stymied after Tony Stewart grabbed the 2011 crown. However, Johnson went on to capture two more championships in 2013 and 2016, which tied him with NASCAR legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most MENCS titles with seven.
Johnson and Stewart are the only champions who have won a title in both the 2000s and 2010s. Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano round out the seven champions. However, that number could rise to eight if Denny Hamlin beats Harvick, Busch and Truex for the title Sunday night (Nov. 14).
In 2011, Johnson beat Clint Bowyer at Talladega Superspeedway… by 0.002 seconds. This insanely close finish tied Ricky Craven’s triumph over Kurt Busch at Darlington Raceway in 2003 for the record for NASCAR’s closest finish ever. Other fantastic finishes this decade included Hamlin’s .01-second victory over Truex in the 2016 Daytona 500, making it the closest Great American Race in history.
Arguably one of the most bizarre incidents in NASCAR history took place in the waning hours of Feb. 27, 2012. The moment prompted one of the longest red flags not due to weather this decade. In the 2012 Daytona 500, Juan Pablo Montoya crashed into a jet dryer after a mechanical failure, prompting a 125-minute red flag after a significant inferno ensured due to the horrendous combination spilled industrial-grade jet fuel and a spark.
While many thought that the fireball destroyed the track and Dave Blaney had won the biggest race of his career, track officials miraculously saved the track from decimation and restarted the event at 11:57 pm. As the next day began, Matt Kenseth collected his second career Daytona 500 crown.
16 drivers scored their first career MENCS win this decade. Trevor Bayne was the first driver to do so, after his improbable win in the 2011 Daytona 500. Four other drivers joined him that season as Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose, Regan Smith and David Ragan won their first race in 2011. AJ Allmendinger and Aric Almirola got their first checkered flags in 2014, while Kyle Larson, Chris Buescher, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Alex Bowman and Justin Haley found their inaugural victories in the latter half of the decade.
While many current stars found their initial success this decade, several called it a career. A total of six currently retired drivers who made a start in the 2010s have been enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte along with 2020 inductees Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart each called it a career this decade.
Other drivers with stories careers also hung up the helmet. Among them were Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr, who each made an appearance in an undercard race. Like Biffle and Earnhardt, Jeff Burton, Ambrose, David Reutimann, Brian Vickers, Michael Waltrip, Steve Park and John Andretti were multi-time Cup competitors, but each said goodbye to racing over the past 10 years, while Juan Pablo Montoya, Kasey Kahne, Ken Schrader, Dave Blaney, Scott Speed, Robby Gordon and Boris Said left NASCAR for other racing series. However, one career came to a tragic end. Jason Leffler, a dirt-racing veteran and a promising asphalt competitor who had been working his way up the NASCAR ranks, died in a non-NASCAR event three days after making his final career MENCS start in 2013.
3 (Plus a ROVAL)
NASCAR made its debut at three new tracks throughout the 2010s, as Mid-Ohio began hosting the NXS races in 2013, while the NGOTS welcomed Eldora Speedway and Canadian Tire Motorsports Park to its schedule in 2013. Although it had hosted NASCAR’s secondary and tertiary series since the 2000s, Kentucky Speedway was added to the MENCS schedule in 2011. Although it was located at the same venue, the 2018 debut of the Charlotte ROVAL added to the diversity of the NASCAR schedule.
While three tracks (plus a ROVAL) joined NASCAR for the first time, two more tracks returned after long absences. Road America made its NASCAR return after hosting its one and only MENCS race in 1956. The 14-turn road course has been hosting NXS races since 2010. Rockingham Speedway briefly returned to the schedule, as it hosted two NGOTS events in 2012 and 2013, before departing again.
While several tracks joined the circuit, others left. Including Rockingham, four circuits were dropped off the calendar. Although the MENCS schedule was not affected, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Lucas Oil Raceway and Nashville Speedway along with Rockingham hosted their last NASCAR event this decade.
Although the 2010s have been a revolutionary year for safety, they also saw the hardest recorded NASCAR crash of all time. Elliott Sadler’s vicious crash at Pocono Raceway in 2010 registered an estimated 86Gs, according to Sadler. Sadler’s car took an incredible hit against a 90-degree angle of Pocono’s backstretch guardrail. In the wake of the crash, Pocono Raceway, along with every oval track except for Indianapolis Motor Speedway has installed the revolutionary SAFER Barrier, which was pioneered the decade prior.
Many records have been broken throughout the 2000s: consecutive championships, consecutive races, hardest crash, closest finish, etc. Yet, one more record is about to be broken in the last race weekend of 2019.
Richard Petty made 1,185 starts in his illustrious career, a NASCAR record. In fact, this record has stood for 27 years… but it’s about to be broken. Joe Nemechek never was the most successful driver, but he has gained a reputation as a powerful stalwart in the garage. This weekend, Nemechek will make his 1,186th NASCAR Touring start. Fittingly, It will come as Nemechek will strap behind the wheel of his own No. 8 Chevrolet Silverado pickup. Nemechek fields the No. 8 as a tribute to his brother John, who was killed at Homestead Miami Speedway in 1996 while driving the No. 8
The death of John Nemechek was another jarring event in a long string of tragedies. Death is something that is incomprehensible; often regarded as the last frontier that is impossible to explore. For NASCAR, danger is a given. Death was a possibility.
For the first complete decade in NASCAR competition, there have been zero fatalities at a NASCAR national sanctioned event. Especially in the wake of several jarring tragedies in the early 2000s, NASCAR’s emphasis on safety has come to fruition in terms of the sanctity of life. While significant injuries, including those to Kyle Busch in 2015 and Aric Almirola and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2017, are bound to exist, NASCAR has made an increased effort to protect drivers.
Fan safety initiatives have proven successful as well, most notably exemplified by Kyle Larson’s and Almirola’s encounters with the catchfence at Daytona International Speedway in 2013 and 2015. While injuries to fans existed in the aftermath of the aforementioned wrecks, they were significantly isolated.
A new decade awaits on the horizon. More questions than answers exist about it. One thing is for certain: NASCAR is at the forefront of ambiguity. While change and retirements may have dominated the sport over the last 10 years, this weekend bookends a decade. 2020 begins a new decade with just as many new challenges as new anticipation.
So, with the 2010s in our rearview mirror, here’s to 2020.
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