By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
Now that the 2018 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 dive into the final part of the 10 most memorable moments of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.
Truex Throws Down the Gauntlet at Martinsville
“He may have won the battle, but he ain’t winning the damn war,” Martin Truex, Jr. said after the conclusion of the First Data 500 at Martinsville.
Minutes earlier, Truex, who had driven from the back of the pack to the lead on the last lap, found himself at the receiving end of Joey Logano’s bumper in Turn 3, dropping him from a chance at a win and a berth in the Championship 4 at Homestead to a third-place finish.
While Logano was celebrating his win and place as one of the drivers that will race for the championship in the season finale, the scowling expression on Truex’s face as he watched the post-race proceedings said it all. Logano was going to have a target on his back from that moment on.
Truex had slotted into second-place inside of 10 laps to go, eventually pulling alongside Logano, with the two staging a thrilling side-by-side battle for the lead and the win. With the white flag in sight, Truex was eventually able to clear Logano but the race was far from over at that point.
Still holding the lead down the backstretch having cleared Logano, Truex looked to finally have an elusive Martinsville victory in his grasp.
However, Logano had other plans, laying the bumper to Truex in Turn 3, shooting him up the race track and allowing Logano to pull alongside. The two made contact again in Turn 4, which caused Truex’s car to get sideways entering the frontstretch.
Logano pulled back ahead and beat him back to the finish, while Truex got his car gathered back up and finished third after Denny Hamlin was able to sneak by for the runner-up spot.
“I was next to him for six laps,” said Truex. “I never knocked him out of the way. We were going to race hard for it in my book. I cleared him fair and square. We weren’t even banging doors for me to pass him. He just drove into the back of me and knocked me out of the way. That’s short track racing, but what goes around comes around.
“I pretty much had the feeling going to the backstretch that that was going to happen and there was nothing I could do about it. It sucks, but that’s the way it goes. I can promise you I won’t forget what he did.”
The Big Three Dominate the Season
If there was anything that dominated the headlines in 2018 it was the phrase “The Big Three,” which was coined to describe the exploits of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex, Jr. as they won race after race, eventually totaling 20 wins among themselves and practically clinching a berth in the Championship 4 before the Playoffs even began.
Busch and Harvick led the way with eight wins apiece, with Truex claiming the other four. As the season played out, it was not a matter of if one of these drivers was going to win the title, but which one it would be to become a two-time champion.
As we all know, they would fall short of that goal at Homestead, but it is still an amazing feat to have that many race wins gobbled up by just a few drivers.
Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus Part Ways after 17 Years
After 17 seasons together, the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway was the closing of a chapter in Jimmie Johnson’s career as it marked the final race that he and crew chief Chad Knaus would be paired up and the final time that Lowe’s would serve as the primary sponsor on the No. 48 Chevrolet.
To commemorate the end of an era, Johnson’s car was decked out in the same Lowe’s paint scheme he sported back during his rookie season, his uniform matched the one he wore back then, and his helmet paid tribute to the accomplishments that he and Knaus have had together.
Johnson, known for sporting a beard in recent years, instead went with a clean-shaven look, matching his appearance when he first started at NASCAR’s highest level.
Since first joining forces in 2002, Johnson and Knaus, with Lowe’s ever-present on their car, have been an unstoppable force, winning 83 races and a record-tying seven championships together. No doubt Hall of Fame caliber numbers.
“It’s tough, man,” said Johnson. “When you think about the relationship with Lowe’s, hate to see that come to an end. 17-18 years, really, when you look at my first three races that I ran for them. Everything we accomplished together, their belief in me, and the company’s support of me and this team over the years.”
When the checkered flag fell, it meant the turning of a page for all involved as Johnson would have a new crew chief next season, Knaus would have a new driver, and Johnson’s car would have a new sponsor for the first time since 2002.
Though they will be parting ways amidst the longest winless streak of Johnson’s career and the first winless year of his career, the strong bond that he and Knaus formed will always be remembered as one of the best driver-crew chief pairings in the sport’s history.
“With Chad, it’s time for us to move on and have a new project and have new people to work with, but he’s my brother. There’s just no way around it.
“I made sure we had a cooler of beer just to have one quick beer with the guys and Chad and a big toast to say thank you.”
The two will now turn their focus toward 2019, with Johnson teaming up with Kevin Meendering and Knaus heading up William Byron’s No. 24 team.
Turn Out the Lights, The Party’s Over for Furniture Row Racing
If there was a sentimental favorite to win the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship, Martin Truex, Jr. and Furniture Row Racing were that favorite.
With the impending closure of the team at the end of the season, it would have been a storybook finish to see Truex, crew chief Cole Pearn, owner Barney Visser and the entire organization raise the trophy for the second year in a row before riding off into the sunset and into the annals of NASCAR history.
However, things don’t always go to plan and this time around, they didn’t fall the way Furniture Row would have wanted in the closing laps at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“Going to miss all the guys, and had a hell of a five years with this team,” said Truex. “So just proud of them, and we’re going to celebrate no matter what tonight.
“Best time of my life. I don’t know what else to say. Those guys have been amazing. They’ve made me a superstar in NASCAR. I’m just very thankful for them all.”
The Denver, Colorado based team, which launched in 2005, had seen a renaissance in recent years as they made the journey from also-ran team to championship contender under the guidance of Visser and the driver/crew chief pairing of Truex and Pearn.
That journey culminated in them hoisting the championship trophy at the end of last season, a first for both team and driver.
The final tally in the NASCAR record books will show that Furniture Row finished their storied run with 18 wins among two different drivers, 75 top-five finishes, 118 top-10 finishes, and the 2017 Cup Series title.
From here, Truex and Pearn are headed to Joe Gibbs Racing, while the remainder of the Furniture Row crew will scatter throughout the NASCAR garage and elsewhere, but no matter where they go, they’ll always be the group that brought a championship to a small team out West and climbed to the top of the mountain.
“To go from a two-race winner to a 19-race winner, a championship, fourth in points, a second in points, it’s just been amazing,” Truex added. “Everything about it has been great. Everything about it has been the best thing I’ve ever been a part of.”
Joey Logano Brings a Championship Home to Team Penske
When the season finale at Homestead rolled around it was the Big three…and Joey Logano. As the underdog in the championship race, Logano and the No. 22 team were largely overlooked with everyone keeping their eyes on Busch, Harvick, and Truex.
Turns out things were playing right into the hands of Logano and Team Penske.
While others did the talking off the track, Logano did his on it, leading two of the three practice sessions and showing that he was going to be someone to reckon with when the green flag flew.
Leading four times for a race-high 80 laps, Logano found himself sitting third out of the four championship contenders when the caution flag flew for the final time with 20 laps to go, bunching the field back up for the final restart.
When the race went back green, Logano made his move, powering past Busch and setting his sights on Truex, who held the lead. The two would stage a thrilling duel for a few laps before Logano put the hammer down and passed Truex for the top spot.
From there on it was all Logano as he pulled away for a 1.725-second margin of victory to deliver team owner Roger Penske his first championship since 2012 and join the elite club of those that have scored Cup Series titles.
“I thought the three competitors that I was going against this week, that was maybe one of the coolest parts about this whole thing is we enter up against the best of the best,” Logano said. “No one was in there by accident. To beat the best, I guess that’s what makes this championship feel so good.
“I told my interior guy Daniel Lynch when I got in the car, I said, I’m getting in as a driver and getting out as a champion, and we were able to do that, so what a great feeling.”