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Tuesday February 21st, 2017 1:52PM

Opinion: A look at the top NASCAR Sprint Cup stories of 2016

By Brandon Reed & Pete McCole
  Contact Editor

NASCAR started the 2016 season with a lot of new and interesting storylines.

From the new Team Charter system that guaranteed drivers and teams starting spots to the new aero package that promised closer racing and more competition, there was no shortage of things to look forward to when the green flag fell last February on the Daytona 500.

But there were stories and happenings that no one could foresee, from the off-season injuries to Tony Stewart that had him sitting out the first portion of the year to the concussion that sidelined Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for the final half of the season. Without a doubt, 2016 was a year of interesting stories.

With that in mind, we have decided to put together what we feel are the top stories for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for the 2016 season. Broken into categories, we hope to give you a little more insight into the top moments we witnessed in NASCAR over the past year.

Driver of the Year

Brandon Reed: For me, the driver of the year has to be Martin Truex, Jr. In Truex, we have a driver that many saw as an “also ran” after the debacle that led to the closing of Truex’s team at Michael Waltrip racing – a situation that was not of Truex’s making – in 2013.

After running for the underfunded Furniture Row Motorsports in 2014 and 2015, netting just a single win at Pocono for their efforts, the team made a move to Toyota as a satellite team for Joe Gibbs Racing.

But what a difference it made! Out of the box, Truex and his team were competitive, coming just inches away from winning the season opening Daytona 500. From there, the team went on to score a total of four wins on the year, including crushing the field with a dominating performance in May’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and a major victory in September’s Southern 500 at Darlington.

While a blown engine at Talladega robbed him of contending for the championship, that should not cast a shadow over a breakout season for Truex, Jr. He and his team proved that they will be a force to be reckoned with over the coming seasons.

Pete McCole: Sure, winning seven championships is a tremendous accomplishment, but let’s face it – Jimmie Johnson’s run to the championship in 2016 was more of being in the right place at the right time – a good restart at Atlanta, a timely caution at Martinsville, dodging the wreck at Homestead.

When you look at the season as a whole, one team stands out as the best – Martin Truex, Jr. and the Furniture Row racing team.

Since moving to the Toyota camp at the end of the 2015 campaign and essentially becoming a fifth team for Joe Gibbs Racing, the FRR race team came out firing on all cylinders with a runner-up finish at Daytona.

But it wasn’t all sunshine and roses for the Furniture Row Racing team. If there was any failing for Truex and his team, it was that their luck just plain sucked. Anything that could go wrong, did: a loose wheel at Bristol and Richmond, a crash at California, a broken shifter at Loudon, a blown tire at Pocono.

Truex tried to take it all in stride – “We’ll get ‘em next week” is the old saying. But in the Chase, there is no “next week” and after a blown engine at Talladega in the second leg of the Chase, Truex was out of the title hunt.

Although they could never seem to shake their bad luck, Truex was a threat to win every week. Had luck swung their way, this team very likely could have made a run for the title.

Moment of the Year

Brandon Reed: For me, the moment of the year came in the final 10 laps of the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Carl Edwards had cruised all night, running right where he needed to be so he could clinch the Sprint Cup Championship. But when a caution flew with less than 20 laps to go, everything changed.

On the restart, fellow Chase driver Joey Logano restarted directly behind Edwards in third. When the green flag flew, Logano had a strong restart, and looked to duck to the inside of Edwards as the field came up to speed. Seeing Logano’s Ford coming, Edwards moved his Toyota to the left to block him. The two made contact, with Logano hooking Edwards in the left rear.

That sent both cars down the track, with Edwards first slamming into the inside wall, then sliding up to the outside, where he was hit hard by Kasey Kahne while other cars were gathered up behind him. The crash ended Edwards’ night and his championship hopes.

But it opened the door for Jimmie Johnson, who had been running the worst of the four title contenders for most of the night. Johnson managed to avoid the carnage, and, on an ensuing restart, jumped out to the lead. From there, he went on to score the win and his seventh Sprint Cup title.

Pete McCole: The Sprint Cup Series season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway was NASCAR’s biggest night to shine with the last round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup– a winner-take-all-event to finish out the season with four drivers all vying to take home what would the last Sprint Cup.

Four drivers. Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano.
Two looking to become first-time champions; one looking to become a repeat champion; and one looking to make history.

NASCAR envisioned the final race of the Chase to be dramatic. Exciting. They couldn’t have asked for anything better.

All four drivers put on their best performance of the season, keeping themselves in a position to win.

But after a late-race crash that took out Edwards and all but eliminated Logano, Jimmie Johnson raced to victory to score an historic seventh title – tying NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most all-time.

It was exactly the grand finale NASCAR was hoping for, and the perfect way to end the season.

Race of the Year

Brandon Reed: As mentioned earlier, the new lower downforce aero-package really gave us some good races early in the season. Atlanta came down to a late race pass. Phoenix was decided by a bumper. Richmond had a late race bump-and-run finish.

But for me, the race of the year didn’t have the lower downforce package, and was run under the cursed restrictor plate, pack racing package that I despise.

The season opening Daytona 500 had everything that a race that is held as being the biggest of the year should. There was good racing with lots of passing and – thankfully – no major crashes as we’ve seen in years past.

But it was the final lap that made it a classic, as it came down to a game of inches, with Denny Hamlin just edging out Martin Truex, Jr. for the victory.

Matt Kenseth held the lead going into the final lap, but Hamlin saw an opportunity to challenge from the outside. Ducking out from his fourth place position, Hamlin moved high to get a push from behind from Kevin Harvick. Coming into turn three, Hamlin moved up to fight for the lead.

Kenseth moved up to block, but Hamlin moved low alongside of Truex, Jr. on the bottom as the pack came off of turn four. Kenseth tried to move down, but made slight contact with Hamlin. Kenseth nearly spun, but held onto control of his car while losing ground.

From there, it was Hamlin and Truex, Jr. side-by-side. One moment, it was Hamlin out front, the next, Truex, Jr. At the line, it was Hamlin getting the biggest victory of his career by the closest margin in history – 0.010 of a second, or about four inches.

That’s the way to start a new season.

Pete McCole: Each track NASCAR visits has a unique aspect to it, and what it takes to win at each track varies depending on what kind of track you’re dealing with.

Superspeedways takes horsepower, intermediate tracks take aerodynamics, short tracks take a lot of bumping and braking.

Then there are road courses – which not only require all of the above but also require something else – driver finesse.

You can try to push your way through a road course, but you won’t get very far if you can’t wrestle a stock car through the hairpins. You can have the best motor in the field, but you won’t make it to the end if you oversteer through the chicane.

No, road courses are a different breed of track. Drivers who have excelled at road courses often come from an open-wheel background, drivers like Tony Stewart.

Having missed the first eight races of the season after injuring his back in the off-season, Stewart was already behind the eight-ball headed into the middle part of the season, and the end of his Sprint Cup career looming on the horizon, what he wanted most for Christmas in July was a victory to get him into the Chase.

That brings us to the Toyota / Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway. Stewart hovered around the top 15 for much of the race before a timely caution helped push him to the lead with 22 laps to go.

Once out in front, Stewart put his road-racing prowess in full display, holding off Truex and Hamlin up until the final lap, where Hamlin managed to get around Stewart.

Seeing his only chance for a Chase berth slipping through his finger, Stewart poured it on and closed back in on Hamlin, and dived to the inside coming through the hairpin turn 11. The two made contact as Hamlin locked the front wheels trying to make the turn, fishtailing into the outside wall as Stewart powered back out in front and across the stripe the victory.

Stewart’s win at Sonoma will likely go down as his final Cup Series victory, and he did in a way that only Stewart could.

Story of the Year

Brandon Reed: For so many reasons, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. being sidelined due to a concussion has to be the story of the year. First off is the ongoing discussion in sports currently about the long term effects of concussions. Earnhardt, Jr. had already made headlines earlier in the year by declaring he will donate his brain for concussion research, a bold statement to make in many ways.

In a sport where history has drivers hiding injuries to stay in competition, Earnhardt, Jr. was more than open about his concussion. And he was proactive not only in stepping out of the car, but in his treatment and in keeping the public informed of his recover status.

And while many drivers – and athletes in general – would have fought tooth and nail to stay in the game, Earnhardt, Jr. met his situation with grace and poise. While he wasn’t happy about having to sit out, turning his car over to Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman, he made it clear that his faith was in the advice of his doctors.

In doing this, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has set a new precedent – an important one – in the way that drivers should approach injuries. Hopefully over are the days when drivers are compelled to race injured, putting their health at additional risk. They hopefully now realize they have the option to step away and get healthy. In doing so, they can risk further injury – or worse – and take the time to heal.

That’s a precedent they’ve not had set before, but one that hopefully they will take advantage of in the future.

Pete McCole: Since the economic turmoil that gripped the nation’s economy earlier in the decade, motorsports has been on a precipice of financial sustainability.

Sponsorship money, once so plentiful in late 90’s and early 2000’s, dried up quickly as companies shifted their marketing away from motorsports. In just the last five years, nearly a half a dozen teams fell by the wayside as they struggled to compete with team with deeper pockets.

For many of these teams, the only way to have any chance of recouping their investment was to auction everything off and hope there was enough left over to pay their creditors.

For years team owners have said they needed a better way to secure their financial stake in NASCAR, and even formed a group called the Race Team Alliance to show their solidarity toward making the sport more financially viable for everyone involved.

After several months of negotiations with the owners, NASCAR reached an agreement to establish a charter system for NASCAR teams that would guarantee each team a spot in the starting lineup of each race as well as giving team owner a tangible asset to ensure their financial stability.

As part of a nine-year agreement, NASCAR awarded charters to 36 full-time Cup Series teams – charters that the team could lease or sell outright to another team, giving the owners something of value that they could leverage against the financial risks of continuing to compete in the sport.

Having a charter also guaranteed each team a spot in the field for every NASCAR race, which teams could use to help attract new sponsors or financial partners. The agreement also gave owners a greater say in how NASCAR operates – establishing a Team Owner Council that will have input on business decisions in the sport.

Among the other changes involved re-distributing the points fund more evenly among the top-25 teams, meaning Jimmie Johnson’s check for winning the 2016 championship was considerably lighter than previous years.

The establishment of the charter system ultimately gave the owners what they wanted, but is really nothing more than a paper asset they can sell to the highest bidder.

They say desperate times call for desperate measures, but only time will tell of the new charter system is the cure for NASCAR’s financial future, of merely a tourniquet to temporarily stop the bleeding.

Most Improved Driver

Brandon Reed: After three years of near misses, Kyle Larson finally was able to seal the deal and score his first Sprint Cup Series victory, beating out rookie phenom Chase Elliott in the process.

Larson has won in just about every type of car he’s driven in. The 24-year-old California speedster proved himself a stout competitor in open wheel competition, racing on dirt in midget and sprint cars around the country. Larson made his first stock car start in February of 2012 in an asphalt Late Model at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway, winning the prestigious Pete Orr Memorial Orange Blossom 100 in that first start.

That same year, Larson was signed to Chip Ganassi Racing’s driver development program. He moved into the No. 42 vacated by Juan Pablo Montoya in 2014, and just missed on several occasions to score his first win.

But 2016 was the year he had been looking for. The win at Michigan locked him into the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Larson would record 10 top five finishes and 15 top ten results for the season, and looks to carry that momentum forward into 2017.

Pete McCole: It wasn’t too long ago that Kyle Larson was getting praise from the likes of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and was being labeled as being the next great NASCAR superstar.

But despite a stand-out rookie year, Larson had failed to deliver on the “superstar” prediction. His sophomore season was a disappointment with only a pair of top-fives to show for his efforts.

NASCAR being the performance-based business that it is, some wondered if Larson was going to be able to live up to the hype, or just wind up another name in a long list of “would’ve been, should’ve been” drivers.

Larson vowed to step it up in 2016, but just a few weeks in it was the same ‘ol Larson, with just a single top 10 in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Finally, a quarter of the way into the season, Larson finally started to shine through. Buoyed by a third-place finish at Martinsville earlier in the season, Larson nearly pulled off a win at Dover in May, then came home with a third-place finish a month later at Michigan.

At Michigan in August, Larson finally broke through for his first Sprint Cup victory – kicking off a streak of three straight top-five finishes and earning his first entry into the Chase.

Unfortunately, Larson didn’t make it very far in the title hunt and got booted in the first round, but he continued to show improvement with three top-five finishes in the final seven races including a runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in the season-finale at Homestead.

It might not have been the championship winning year for Larson, but it was still a season to be proud of.

Goodbyes

Among those we lost in 2016 are: 1961 Daytona 500 winner Marvin Panch, MRN broadcaster Barney Hall, 1973 Rookie of the Year Lennie Pond, NASCAR and IndyCar veteran Bobby Johns, 2012 NASCAR Truck Series champion team owner Steve Turner, NASCAR veteran Dutch Hoag, motorsports artist Jeanne Barnes, NASCAR veteran Dave Sisco, NASCAR and IndyCar driver Bryan Clauson, NASCAR’s Betty Jane France, NASCAR team owner Charles Hardy, automotive journalist Brock Yates, NASCAR official Chip Warren, motorsports pioneer Mel Larson, among many others. They won’t be forgotten as we move into 2017.

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