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. Up on the docket today, we finish off the 10 most memorable moments of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.
Jimmie Johnson Ties Cale Yarbrough
Despite his late season struggles, Jimmie Johnson was on fire in the first half of the year, capturing three wins early on. His third win of the year came at a track that he has had a ton of success at – Dover.
With the win, his 11th at the track, Johnson added to the wins record that he already holds there. In addition, Johnson tied NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough at 83 wins on the all-time wins list and he now has his sights set on other Hall of Fame drivers Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, who both have 84 wins each.
At this point, it is almost inevitable that Johnson will surpass those two drivers, with Jeff Gordon’s career wins mark of 93 being the next target for the seven-time champion and his No. 48 team.
“To be here and tie him at 83 wins is amazing,” said Johnson. “We just got the tribute helmet. I wasn’t sure how quickly we’d be, or if we’d be able to go there, and get it done. But, Cale, you’re the man. Thank you for all you have done for our sport.”
“It was a huge honor to tie him with three consecutive championships a few years back and then to be here at 83 wins and a day where things played out in such an awkward and weird fashion just very happy that we’ve got it done. To my 83 wins, I’m just so proud that it’s come with one owner, one sponsor, one manufacturer, one crew chief, one team, this is a very special journey this whole Hendrick Lowe’s team has been on.”
Ryan Blaney Scores First Career Win at Pocono
2017 has been the year of the young gun, with several drivers getting their first career wins. At Pocono in June, Ryan Blaney added his name to that list by holding off Kevin Harvick over the final laps in dramatic fashion to claim the victory.
“You always dream about winning a Cup race,” said Blaney. “It’s the ultimate ‑‑ you know; it’s one of your goals. It’s right below a championship. Like I said, when I watched my dad race no matter where it was, forever, I always appreciated how these races played out, whether it was here or anywhere else. But that’s what you always dream about.
“But it definitely is a little bit more surreal than I expected. It’s so cool to do it and with a great team, as well. This is what I always watched and wanted to do as a kid, so I got lucky to get opportunities to make it happen.”
Blaney not only became the third first time winner this season, but also gave the Wood Brothers their first win since 2011. Blaney’s win joins those of Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Austin Dillon, who also scored their first wins and returned legendary organizations to victory lane.
“I think it’s a great day,” said Blaney. “We’ve had a bunch of new winners this year. Ricky got his first win this year. I think there was another ‑‑ who else? Austin won the 600. So, it’s a huge year for the rookies, and then Bubba making his first start this weekend. That’s a big deal. Luckily, we were able to get a picture before the race today with our cars. That was really neat. But it’s nice to be part of kind of this younger group of drivers, and I think we’re all kind of coming into our own. Erik Jones had a great day today. He run third. He had a super-fast car all day. So, I think it’s pretty neat to just be part of the group. You always want to be part of the group, and luckily we’re able to finally get in Victory Lane because I’ve been pretty jealous of Larson and Austin and Ricky for them getting to Victory Lane, them being young guys, as well, and now we can finally add our name to that group.”
Martinsville Goes Under the Lights and All Hell Breaks Loose
Short track racing is the lifeblood of stock car racing in America and the fall race at Martinsville further illustrated why these type of tracks are loved by nearly everyone involved. Cars running inches apart, bouncing off of each other, tempers flaring, and everything else that comes with it…what’s not to love?
Add in the fact that Martinsville’s recently installed lighting system got its first workout on the Cup Series stage with a place in the championship race on the line and fans definitely got their money’s worth with this one.
Chase Elliott, who led 123 laps on the day, looked to be in the catbird seat for his first career win and a ticket to Homestead as he led with four laps to go, but Denny Hamlin put the bumper to him entering Turn 3, sending his car spinning driver’s side into the outside wall. He would get the car re-fired and finished the race in 27th, but the contact still had him angry after the checkered flag flew, and he was quick to let Hamlin know.
On the cool down lap, Elliott pulled up alongside Hamlin and sideswiped him into the wall, but the fireworks weren’t done between the two yet. The two drivers then pulled onto pit road and had a heated conversation for a few minutes before being separated.
Elliott could be seen telling Hamlin “You wrecked me!” a few different times and then not accepting his excuses by replying “C’mon man!” before they walked away from each other.
“My Momma always said if you don’t have anything nice not to say anything at all. So, it’s not even worth my time,” said Elliott.
“It’s just not necessary. We had a great restart and there was nobody pushing him into Turn 3. So, I wanted to see the replay. That’s what I thought happened and that’s what happened. And it’s definitely 100 percent unnecessary and uncalled for.
“We had a great car today and we had an opportunity. We had a good restart there at the end and felt like I was doing what I needed to do. And I can’t control his decisions and whatever the hell that was.”
Matt Kenseth Scores Emotional Win in Final Season
The old man has still got it. In what may have been his final race at Phoenix, Matt Kenseth took it to the youngsters, showing them he has still got plenty in the tank when it comes to driving a race car.
After announcing that he wouldn’t be returning to the cockpit in 2018, Kenseth came out at Phoenix with guns ablazing, scoring an emotional win by passing Chase Elliott with 10 laps to go en route to the 39th win of his career. A usually stoic Kenseth then got out of his car with both fists in the air and pointed skyward before climbing down with tears in his eyes, showing just how much the win meant to him.
“I don’t know what to say except thank the Lord,” said Kenseth. “It’s been an amazing journey and I know I’m a big baby right now. Just have one race left and everybody dreams about going out a winner. We won today and nobody can take that away from us. That was a heck of a battle with Chase (Elliott) there. I have to thank Circle K, Toyota, DeWalt and all our partners. Thanks to JGR, it’s been a great five years. It’s been quite the journey in this 20.
“It couldn’t be any sweeter. I just don’t know how else to explain it, you know? You always feel like you can get the job done, but, you know, if you’ve got a big enough sample size of numbers, numbers don’t really lie, so we needed to go out and get the job done and get us a win and we were able to do that today, so we’ve got one more race left and, like I said, great way to go out.”
Martin Truex, Jr. Walks Away with the Title
The road has been long and full of trials and tribulations, but Martin Truex, Jr. and his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team are Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champions.
Leading the way in almost every statistical category throughout the 2017 season, Truex came into the season finale at Homestead as the championship favorite, but it would take the same drive and determination that they have always shown to carry them to the title.
Truex himself noted that they did not have the fastest car on that particular Sunday, but they dug down deep to hold off Kyle Busch over the closing laps to take the win at Homestead and clinch the championship.
For both team and driver, scoring the championship is a culmination of a lifelong dream and provides a storybook ending after everything they have had to go through over the last several years.
“I don’t even know what to say,” said Truex. “We just never gave up all day long. We didn’t have the best car. I don’t know how we won that thing. Never give up. Dig deep. I told my guys we were going to dig dipper than we ever have today and 20 to go I thought I was done – they were all better than me on the long run all day long. I just found a way.
“I can’t believe it. I’ve wanted this since I was a little kid and just never give up. Just never give up on your dreams no matter what happens and what kind of crap you go through.
“What can I say about this team? Cole Pearn, Jazzy, all the road guys, the guys in Denver – you guys are the best, man. They work their guts out for me and I don’t even know – this is unbelievable, a dream come true. I don’t even know. I couldn’t even talk on the caution laps, so just really thankful, really grateful and thank you to the fans. We’re going to party it up tonight.”
Back in 2013, after getting dropped from the now-defunct Michael Waltrip Racing team, Truex thought his career might be over, but when Furniture Row Racing came calling for a ride the next season, many wouldn’t have guessed they would eventually be hoisting the championship trophy four years later.
In their first year together, the team only managed one top-five finish and five top-10 finishes all year long and limped to a 24th place finish in points, the worst of Truex’s career as a full-time Cup Series driver.
As each year progressed, the team got better and better, making it to the Championship Four in 2015, but finishing fourth out of the four championship contenders. That only served to embolden the team even further in their pursuit of greatness and it has certainly paid off.
After making the switch to Toyota and aligning themselves with Joe Gibbs Racing starting in 2016, the team has taken it to a higher level, scoring 12 wins over the past two years, eight of which came in 2017.
Though they had things together on track, they were facing unbelievable adversity off of it.
Truex’s longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex was diagnosed with ovarian cancer back in his first year with the team, which she is still bravely battling to this day. This season, the hits have just kept on coming, from crew chief Cole Pearn losing his best friend earlier in the year, to the team losing a valuable team member in Jim Watson to a heart attack last month, and most recently with team owner Barney Visser having to undergo heart surgery and being forced to miss out on the biggest day in his organization’s history.
A lesser team would have cracked under such circumstances, but not Truex and Furniture Row. Everything they had to go through just brought them even closer and helped them just perform even better together on track. And now, they are champions as a result of it.
“This means the world,” said Truex. “Barney Visser (owner), eleven years of working towards this goal and he couldn’t be here tonight. We’re definitely thinking about him. We wish he could be here. I know he’s probably about as much in shock as I am tonight. But, Jim Watson, you know Cole’s best friend, Sherry (Pollex), everybody who’s battling something, this one’s for you guys.
“I was a wreck thinking about all the tough days, the bad days, the times where I thought my career was over with. Times when I didn’t think anyone believed in me. But the guys, the people who mattered did, my fans, my family and then when I got with this team – they’re unbelievable. They resurrected my career and made me a champion.”