CRANDALL: NASCAR's decade of change

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CRANDALL: NASCAR's decade of change

Insights & Analysis

CRANDALL: NASCAR's decade of change

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Kyle Busch being celebrated as this year’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion is a fitting end to the 2010s – a decade he dominated.

The 34-year-old Las Vegas native is now a two-time Cup Series champion, winning titles in 2015 and ’19 during five consecutive appearances in the Championship 4. A second title pushed Busch into the company of Jimmie Johnson as the only drivers to win multiple titles this decade.

Speaking of winning, Busch also did plenty of that over the last 10 years. His 40 wins in the Cup Series was a field high, putting him just ahead of Kevin Harvick’s 38.

A victory at Charlotte last year gave Busch the unique distinction of having won on every active track in the Cup Series, and he hit the milestone 200 number across all three NASCAR national series this past year. Don’t forget he’s also now the winningest driver in the history of the Xfinity Series and Truck Series. Busch passed Mark Martin for the former in 2011 and Ron Hornaday Jr. for the latter with a victory this year in Atlanta.

Although it’s never just about the wins with Busch.

As he’s developed into a fierce championship contender and now multiple champion driver, he also continued to make headlines. All the while – depending on whom you ask – providing entertainment or frustration along the way.

Take 2010. Busch became the first driver in NASCAR history to sweep all three races at Bristol Motor Speedway – a feat he then repeated in the summer of ’17.

The Bristol sweep is becoming a Kyle Busch party trick. Image by LAT

Or look at the fall of 2011 when he was benched for the remainder of the weekend in Texas because of his actions in the Truck Series. Unhappy with Hornaday because of earlier contact, Busch had retaliated under caution and wrecked both of their vehicles.

His 2015 return after severe leg injuries sustained in a crash in the Xfinity Series race at Daytona was a lesson in perseverance that turned into an incredible story of determination with a championship run.

Busch has also been methodical about embracing a moment when given a chance, like turning his repeated use of “everything is great” – borne from a feud with Joey Logano in early 2017 – into a t-shirt that raised $30,000 for charity. Unique burnouts have made for memorable video clips, and Busch has become one of the most GIF-able people with actions like mic drops to mimicking crying to the TV cameras (more than once) or a sarcastic expression and thumbs up.

On and on it goes, for Busch was not only NASCAR’s top driver of the ’19 season, but of the decade.

Here are some of the other big headlines from the last 10 years:

Jimmie Johnson wins five … then six and seven

Jimmie Johnson was consistently dominant through the 2000s, but his success through the 2010s was a bit more spread out. He began the decade by capping off his run of five straight championships – a mark likely to never be touched.

Johnson then earned his sixth title in 2013, and entered the history books alongside Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with his seventh in ’16. The seventh title was a walk-off win in the finale, the No. 48 team rising to the occasion late when the competition started to falter.

At Darlington in 2012, he delivered Hendrick Motorsports its 200th victory. He also become the winningest driver at Dover in surpassing Petty and Bobby Allison in ’13 with victory number eight, and added three more Dover wins in the years that followed.

Johnson delivered Hendrick’s 200th win at Darlington in 2012. Image by LAT Photo South

In all, Johnson won 36 races in the last 10 years, 11 less than the 47 he won during the 2000s. The decade also marked the ending of his 17-year partnership with crew chief Chad Knaus.

A jet dryer crash and a tweet

It started with a jet dryer crash and ended with a tweet seen ’round the world. Juan Pablo Montoya entered infamy when, under caution in the 2012 Daytona 500, the truck arm broke on his car, sending him spinning into a jet dryer, which then spilled jet fuel onto the racing surface and caught fire.

The race was delayed for more than two hours for cleanup and surface repairs. Before Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski had a foot race to the port-a-potty on the backstretch, Keselowski set the world ablaze, no pun intended, when he tweeted a picture from the cockpit of his race car.

NASCAR officials would later make a policy that cell phones were not allowed in the car. However, Keselowski had forced NASCAR into the social media era with his unique tweet, and the sport seemed to become one of the first to embrace the power and reach of using the Twitter platform.

Michael Waltrip Racing manipulates 2013 Richmond race

When Clint Bowyer went for a lazy spin off Turn 4 at Richmond Raceway in Sept. 2013, there was no way of knowing at the moment how significant that event would be. But it didn’t take long for the speculation of something fishy to start spreading, and days later, NASCAR officials put down the hammer.

Michael Waltrip Racing was fined $300,000 for manipulating the outcome of a race, because Bowyer’s spin had helped teammate Martin Truex Jr. make the playoffs at the expense of others. Both Bowyer and Truex’s teams were docked 50 points, and Truex was taken out of the playoffs, replaced by Ryan Newman, who would have earned a spot over Truex otherwise.

Bowyer’s spin at Richmond in 2013 had far-reaching implications. Image by Kinrade/LAT

The fallout from the controversy was wide-ranging. NAPA ended its sponsorship with MWR after that season and went over to JR Motorsports, which brought Chase Elliott into the Xfinity Series. Truex left the organization for Furniture Row Racing after the ’14 season. MWR then closed its doors after the ’15 season.

Playoff eliminations

When former NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France implemented a playoff system in 2004, it wasn’t all that surprising. Different, but not surprising given that France, a notable sports fan, was always looking for ways to make NASCAR like “any other sport.” A playoff system did that, but a tweak going into the ’14 season further solidified such a thought when NASCAR’s playoffs adapted an elimination system.

Drivers went from trying to be their best in a 10-race stretch to now facing elimination in three-race rounds. The final four drivers left standing compete in a winner-take-all race for the championship.

The elimination format has undoubtedly increased the intensity of the postseason. In its first year, Matt Kenseth went after Brad Keselowski (Charlotte) while Jeff Gordon feuded with Keselowski a few weeks later (Texas). A year later, Kenseth and Joey Logano had a memorable feud (Kansas and Martinsville) that saw France introduce the sport to the word “quintessential” before Kenseth was suspended for two races.

Don’t forget Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott tangling (Martinsville and ISM) in ’17 or Logano and Martin Truex Jr. going at it (Martinsville) in ‘18, and Logano and Hamlin (Martinsville) in ‘19.

Return of the 3

Austin Dillon had been driving a No. 3 car for quite a while before the December 2013 announcement that the number would return to the NASCAR Cup Series. It was a decision met with both support and criticism, the number being tied to the beloved Dale Earnhardt.

Not since Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500 had the number appeared in a Cup Series race. However, Childress continued to pay NASCAR – who owns the numbers – for its rights to make sure that it wouldn’t be snatched away by someone else. Having his grandson take over the number was a logical decision, seeing as Childress also ran the it when he was a driver.

RCR revived the iconic No.3 in 2014 for Austin Dillon, who promptly put it on pole for the Daytona 500. Image by Miller/LAT

It was only fitting that in the return of the 3 number Dillon won the pole for the Daytona 500, a race then won by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Brian France’s downfall

Brian France never gave the sport time to enjoy Chase Elliott finally winning his first NASCAR Cup Series race. France stole all the headlines in early Aug. 2018 when he was arrested in Sag Harbor Village, New York. Charged with aggravated driving while intoxicated and criminal possession of a controlled substance, he pleaded guilty to the DWI charges.

Throughout his tenure in charge, France had his supporters and critics. He will be credited for negotiating multimillion-dollar TV packages and implementing the playoff system, among other things. But France was never as visible as some folks would have preferred and certainly not like his father (Bill France Jr.) was, could come off as combative with the media, and took plenty of hits from his critics for how the sport was governed.

Initially, France took an indefinite leave of absence from the sport while Jim France, his uncle, became the Chairman and CEO. By the start of the ’19 season, it was clear that Brian France was the past, and Jim France was the present. The garage has widely embraced Jim’s leadership because of his presence and engagement.

Carl Edwards walks away

Carl Edwards cited personal reasons for abruptly retiring from NASCAR in January 2017.

Edwards had informed team owner Joe Gibbs before Christmas that he no longer wanted to race. During a press conference at the team’s shop, Edwards outlined his reasons and stated his contentment with his 28 NASCAR Cup Series wins in 445 starts. Since his departure, Edwards has been out of the public eye, and some still wonder if there was more behind his reasoning.

Edwards’ 2016 Homestead outing ended in the wall. He might have known at the time that it would be his last Cup race, but the news would come as a surprise to everyone else. Image by Levitt/LAT

Worth a mention:

  • The birth and death of the word ‘encumbered’ to describe post-race penalties.
  • Tony Stewart versus Carl Edwards in the 2011 playoffs. From Stewart verbally jabbing at Edwards whenever he could to winning half of the races in the postseason, and the championship coming down to a tie between the two drivers. Plus, it was Stewart’s third and final title.
  • NASCAR’s return to dirt with the Truck Series at Eldora in 2013.
  • Kurt Busch’s indefinite suspension at the start of the 2015 season for an alleged domestic violence incident. The saga included accusations of alcoholism and depression by Driscoll and Busch saying he was afraid of her because of his belief she was a trained assassin.
  • Jeff Gordon winning his final race at Martinsville Speedway in 2015, which also locked him into the championship race and the incredible celebration and emotion that followed. Those in attendance could feel a charge in the atmosphere.
  • Stage racing. The sport experienced a drastic change this decade with pre-determined breaks in the action.

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