A week removed from the final checkered flag of the season, I’m still digesting it all.
This year was the dawn of a new era in NASCAR, with stage racing and the addition of playoff points. There was also the emergence of the encumbered race finish, which ended up costing one team – Team Penske’s No. 22 – a spot in the playoffs.
The immediate days and weeks of any offseason are normally spent reflecting. And boy, there was a lot to look back on from this year. A first-time champion in Martin Truex Jr. The retirements of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Danica Patrick.
Accidents like Aric Almirola’s at Kansas, Jimmie Johnson losing his brakes at Pocono or any time a tire blew at Phoenix, left me holding my breath. We also saw Furniture Row Racing crewmembers, who are employed by Joe Gibbs Racing, get suspended after a brouhaha between the Nos. 18 and 78 at Indianapolis. There were no shortage of highlights and storylines this year.
- NASCAR announced the move to stage racing in January, and before even seeing it I was pretty sure it would be a hit. Thirty-six races later, I stand by it. Breaking the race into three stages and offering additional points certainly added to the action. Without it, I don’t believe we’d have seen hard racing like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. knocking leader Kyle Busch out of the way at Martinsville to stay on the lead lap. Or Truex hunting down Kyle Larson and nipping him at the line for a stage win. Playoff points for a stage win and points for finishing in the top 10 were a dangling carrot for drivers all year. In the end, it just added a little hustle through the middle portion of the race.
- And speaking of Truex, as I wrote last week, the right guy won the championship. That seems worth repeating.
- Truex will have some stiff competition going forward, however. The theme of 2017 seemed to be that youth was served. Larson, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott showed themselves quite well on many occasions. It never hurts a sport to have its next generation of stars be successful on the track and relatable off it.
- Good races to re-watch this offseason: the Daytona 500, Pocono (spring), Sonoma, Watkins Glen, Bristol (summer), Darlington, Talladega (fall), Martinsville (fall), Homestead.
- And one last thing: NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell is a quality follow on Twitter for explaining the sanctioning body’s side of things. Sometimes even during the race.
- Someone tell Ford the season has started … and now it’s over. Ford has some work to do. It certainly was not a horrible year by any means, as the Blue Oval went to Victory Lane 10 times and had five drivers qualify for the playoffs. But there always seemed to be something missing. Sure, it was expected that Stewart-Haas Racing was going to need some time to get acquainted with its new brand and Team Penske had both its drivers win races, but it was often hot and cold for Ford teams. One weekend they would be fast. The next, they were out to lunch.
- With what we have all come to expect from Hendrick Motorsports I think it’s safe to say this was not the organization’s best year. Jimmie Johnson did win three times and Kasey Kahne grabbed a much-needed victory at Indy, and yes, Chase Elliott looked very good in his sophomore campaign. Yet you never knew what to expect from any of the four HMS cars on a given weekend. Included in this was an absolutely dismal season for the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., which is never a good look.
- The Richmond fall race still stinks. One of the most important races of the year was marred by controversy for questionable calls and wayward ambulances. If there is one thing on my Christmas list this year, it will be for NASCAR officials to watch that race on repeat to ensure it never happens again.
- Controversy and sports go together. In NASCAR, whether it was encumbered finishes handed down what seemed like every Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon after inspection at the NASCAR R&D Center or the headlines around the national anthem, there were times when I just shook my head and wondered if talking about racing was too much to ask for. By the way, not every infraction means a team needs to be labeled as cheats.
- The five-minute crash clock sounded like a good idea on paper and I’m not completely against it since no one likes to see a heavily damaged car remaining in the race and shedding debris every few laps. Perhaps we need some tweaks, particularly with how long the clock is – those five minutes go fast – and the number of crewmembers who can and can’t work go over the pit wall. This is what bit Matt Kenseth at Kansas, and it just didn’t seem right.