2017 in the Rear View Mirror
The awards banquet is over and the 2017 NASCAR season is a memory. Before turning our attention to the upcoming season, let's take a quick look at some highlights and low points of this past year. Perhaps your list looks different; these are the observations of just one fan.
1. Martin Truex Jr. becoming the NASCAR champion - He was a favorite all season and certainly dominated the game of winning stages throughout the year. Regardless of what point system was used, with or without stages, Truex had a season that will be remembered for years to come. The story of his girlfriend Sherry Pollex and her battle with cancer added an emotional dimension that made it hard to root against the guy while also putting life and sports in their proper perspectives.
2. New Winners - 2017 saw Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr and Ryan Blaney all earn their first (and in Stenhouse's case, his second) career victories. Everyone loves to see a first time winner and each of these had a special quality to them. Dillon winning the Coke 600 was huge but doing so for his grandfather's team made it even more special. It's often said anyone can win on a superspeedway but Stenhouse did it twice and Blaney showed total class in his post-victory celebration. He eschewed the typical front stretch burnout out of respect for the Wood Brothers.
Speaking of winners, it was also great to see both Richard Childress Racing and Roush-Fenway Racing return to Victory Lane. It had been a long time for both those teams and they both captured multiple wins in 2017. RFR also showed they're a team to watch on the superspeedways.
3. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. - After the health issues Junior faced in 2016, it was great to see him return to the track. He wasn't forced out of the car due to his post-concussion issues and was able to finish his career on his own terms.
4. Jeremy Clements - Some of the most competitive races in the Xfinity Series have been the ones devoid of Cup drivers. The Johnsonville 180 at Road America was the best of them all as Jeremy Clements earned his first career series win. Driving for his family team and earning a playoff spot against Cup-affiliated teams was a major feel good story in that series for 2017. Based on the reaction from folks inside the industry as well as fans, it proved to be a popular victory. We can only dream that the NASCAR powers paid attention.
5. Hamlin vs. Elliott - NASCAR can always use a good rivalry to stir interest and it appears after the altercations these two had toward the end of the season, we might have a good one in the making. Some might say there's a Kyle Busch/Brad Keselowski feud but judging by public comments, that appears to be a rivalry only in Busch's mind.
Now for the bad:
1. Dale Earnhardt, Jr - Yes, he was mentioned earlier in the plus side of the ledger. However, the way his final season played out was certainly a disappointment. It would've been a stretch to think he would be a title contender but one would've thought he would at least contend for wins; that never happened.
2. Matt Kenseth - Seeing this season champion forced out of the sport like he has been, should be a cause for concern on many levels. Unfortunately it just further advances the idea that talent now takes a backseat in the highest level of the sport. It was great to see him win the next to last race at Phoenix but he deserves so much more.
3. Penalties - Between encumbered finishes and lug nut violations, as frustrating as it was for fans, I can only imagine how teams felt. Joey Logano won at Richmond but it was encumbered so it didn't count toward the playoffs... but he keeps the win. Ridiculous. Logic says you fully keep the win and all that comes with it or you lose the win and all its trappings. Hardly though are logic and NASCAR used in the same sentence.
4. Truck Series - Plain and simple, it's dying. Worst of all, it's almost as if the sanctioning body doesn't care. Teams are folding, manufacturers are pulling out, costs mount and it appears nothing is being done to address any of these issues. For all the negative talk the Cup Series receives, the trucks are in much worse shape.
5. Toyota Dominance - At various times in NASCAR's history, one manufacturer or another has had periods of domination. In the past however, the rule makers found a way to minimize or eliminate those advantages; not in this new era. Ford and Chevy drivers were voicing their concerns and displeasure about the Toyota advantage since the opening weeks of the season yet it was allowed to continue all year. Basically there was no reason for a Ford or Chevy fan to watch any races on mile and half long tracks. It's critical that NASCAR find a way to keep fans, not let them drift off due to an issue like this.
Your list of good and bad in 2017 might look different than this and that's OK. We all have different reasons to watch and we have different things to like and dislike about the sport. The holidays will be over soon and we'll turn our attention to Daytona and another season. I just hope we're all still watching and still have reasons to be passionate.