By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
Now that the 2017 NASCAR season is complete and the year is drawing to a close, we’ll take this opportunity to take a look back at the year that was. Today, we’ll tackle Part One of the 10 most memorable moments of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Calls it a Career
After 18 seasons behind the wheel in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. hung up his helmet at the end of the 2017 season, retiring from NASCAR and bringing his driving career to a close.
A mainstay in the Cup Series since 2000, Earnhardt finished with 26 career wins under his belt, including two Daytona 500 victories, 149 top-five finishes, 260 top-10 finishes, 15 pole positions, and a career average finish of 15.8 with 631 starts.
In addition to his success in the Cup Series, Earnhardt also captured the Most Popular Driver Award 15 times and scored two championships in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 1998 and 1999.
In an April press conference on the Hendrick Motorsports campus, Earnhardt dove into the details on his decision to retire at season’s end and his reasoning is very reminiscent of the drivers that have left the sport in recent years (Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Carl Edwards) as he wanted to go out on his own terms, and that is exactly what he is doing, especially after returning to the cockpit after recovering from a concussion last season.
“You’re wondering why I reached this decision, it’s really simple,” said Earnhardt. “I just wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms. I wanted to honor my commitment to Rick, to my sponsors, to my team, and to the fans. I’ll admit, that having influence over my exit only became meaningful when it started to seem most unlikely.”
“As you know, I missed a few races last year and during that time I had to face the realization that my driving career may have already ended without me as so much getting a vote at the table. Of course in life we’re not promised a vote, and that’s especially true in racing.”
“But, during my rehab, I was given something else that I wasn’t accustomed to, and that was time. Time to understand what’s important to me, time to realize the incredible support system I have in my wife, my team, and my doctors, and time to work like hell to wrestle back some semblance of say‑so in this whole matter. So that became my motivation. The opportunity to stand here at this podium to announce my choice rather than some fate that was decided for me.”
“In that regard, the race car wasn’t my goal, it was merely the vehicle that got me here today.”
Kurt Busch Captures Elusive Daytona 500 Win
Through the first 17 years of his career, Kurt Busch had never won at a restrictor plate track, let alone the Daytona 500, but when the 59th running of the Great American Race rolled around back in February – that was all about to change.
As the laps wound down and the field thinned out due to typical restrictor plate attrition, fuel mileage became a worry for the cars that were left running in the final laps.First, Chase Elliott fell by the wayside with three laps to go. Then Martin Truex, Jr. and Kyle Larson.
With those three out of the picture, the door was open wide for Kurt Busch to take the lead on the final lap, holding off the hard charging Ryan Blaney down the stretch to score the win and set off a raucous celebration among the No. 41 team, including his crew chief Tony Gibson, a Daytona native.
Though the rest of the season wasn’t much to write home about, Kurt Busch will forever be known as a Daytona 500 champion.
“There is nothing predictable about this race anymore and the more years that have gone by that I didn’t win I kept trying to go back to patterns that I had seen in the past,” said Busch. “My mirror fell off with 30 laps to go and I couldn’t even see out the back. And I thought that was an omen. Throw caution to the wind. The more unpredictability that keeps unfolding at the Daytona 500, I predicted it. It just got crazy and wild and I am so proud of all the drivers at the end. We put on a show for a full fuel run and nobody took each other out and it was one of the smartest chess games I have seen out there. All the hard work that Ford and SHR put into this — this Ford Fusion is in Daytona’s victory lane.”
“I almost forgot to drive the line I was supposed to drive because I was shutting off all my switches, going to reserve fuel and saying a hail mary. It all turned out. Here we are in victory lane. I can’t believe it.”
Fisticuffs in Vegas
Las Vegas is known for their prize fights, with numerous boxing matches taking place in Sin City over the years, but after this year’s trip to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the NASCAR world had a prize fight of their own with Kyle Busch and Joey Logano going at it.
It all started on the last lap when Busch and Logano approached the ailing car of Brad Keselowski down the backstretch. Busch was running high and Logano low, when Busch made an aggressive move to take them three-wide to get past Keselowski entering Turn 3. Busch and Logano touched briefly, but that seemed to be the end of it. Not so fast.
As Busch got the edge on Logano, Logano sped up to catch back up to Busch, washing up the track into the side of Busch’s car and sending him for a spin down pit road, where he made contact with the inside wall. Logano would go on to beat Keselowski back to the line to finish fourth, while Busch was credited with a 22nd place finish.
But it was after the race ended that the real fireworks started.
Busch emerged from his battered Toyota and started making a beeline for Logano’s pit box, taking a swing at him as soon as he got there. From that point, it was on, with Logano’s crew taking Busch to the ground before NASCAR officials came in and broke it up. Logano came away without a scratch, while Busch ended up with a bloodied forehead.
“I got dumped,” Busch said. “Flat out just drove straight in the corner and wrecked me. That’s how Joey races, so he’s going to get it.”
“There wasn’t much talking, there was a lot of swinging,” said Logano. “I don’t know. I was racing hard there at the end with our Pennzoil Ford. Kyle and I usually race really well together. We usually never have any issues, and he tried to pin me down into the corner underneath Brad and we about crashed on entry, and then I was still trying to gather it up by the center and I was gonna spin out, so I’m trying to chase it up and he was there. It obviously wasn’t anything intentional, but obviously he thinks that, so, I don’t know, we’ll get by.”
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. Becomes Restrictor Plate Master
Ford swept all four restrictor plate races in 2017 and the driver that led the way for the manufacturer this season was Ricky Stenhouse, Jr, powering his way to victory lane at both Talladega and the July Daytona race to score his first two career wins in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Stenhouse powered his way to the pole position at Talladega, besting six-time Talladega winner, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for the right to lead the field to green in front of a crowd nearing 100,000 that filled the Talladega grandstands on race day.
Using his Roush horsepower to his advantage, Stenhouse led the first 13 laps of the race and was in the right place at the right time to pass leader Kyle Busch on the last lap and hold off Jamie McMurray’s charge to the finish to score the win.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Stenhouse after his Talladega win. “We’ve run really well here at Talladega. This is the closest race track to home. I got a lot of cheers riding around here today and the fans were awesome. We had a lot packed in here at Talladega and it felt old-school. Man, to finally get that win for Jack (Roush) and everyone on our team is really special.”
After his Talladega triumph, Stenhouse backed it up at Daytona, proving the win was no fluke.
This time around, Stenhouse was in the hunt all the way to the end, taking the lead for the final time with two laps to go and never letting it go to grab his second win of the year,
“Wow, these guys. I kept my Talladega car and told them to build a new one. They build the Fifth Third Ford that was really fast. We won the Firecracker 400! This is awesome! I have been coming here since 2008. I actually came in 2006 one time with Bobby Hamilton Jr. and it is cool to put it in victory lane and get our second win this year. I love it! Thank you to the fans for coming out here. Everyone at NASCAR. What a great weekend. America. 1776. We are the champs!”
Austin Dillon Scores First Win on Fuel Mileage Gamble
NASCAR’s longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 often comes down to fuel mileage to determine the winner of the 400 lap endurance race and this year’s edition was no different.
With 32 laps to go in the race, the strongest cars of the night, including Kyle Busch and Martin Truex, Jr., elected to come down pit road for fuel, leaving eight cars out on track to try and gamble on fuel to the end.
Jimmie Johnson took over the lead with Austin Dillon in second, but when Johnson ran out of fuel with three laps to go, it was Dillon’s race to lose at that point. Dillon nursed his car across the line with barely a drop of fuel to spare to score the win and return the No. 3 car to victory lane for the first time since October 2000, when Dale Earnhardt scored his final win at Talladega.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” said Dillon. “I can’t believe it. I was just really focused on those last laps. My fiancé wrote in the car, ‘When you keep God in the first place, he will take you places you never imagined.’ And, I never imagined to be here at the 600 Victory Lane. Praise the Lord and all these guys who work so hard; and my pit crew is the best on pit road. I love it for them. We’re in the Chase. It’s awesome.”
“I ran out at the line and it gurgled all around just to do one little spin and push it back to Victory Lane. The good Lord is blessing us tonight and I can’t thank my grandfather (Richard Childress) enough. He’s put a lot into me. I thank ECR engines. I complain a lot, but they got me in Victory Lane tonight and the fuel mileage was great. So, thank you guys for everything you do.”
While Dillon celebrated, second place finisher Kyle Busch was not so enthusiastic about how the race turned out. In his post-race media availability, Busch was asked if he was surprised about the Austin Dillon win and well, he didn’t take too kindly to that question.
“I’m not surprised about anything. Congratulations,” Busch said before tossing the microphone down on the media center table and walking out.