Now that we’re in the morning after a thrilling season finale weekend at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, lets wrap up the season with the final edition of my main takeaways. To me, it wasn’t just about Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season finale, it was just how great of a weekend it was for NASCAR in general.
But, as far as the Ford EcoBoost 400 goes, here are my thoughts.
Truex A Deserving Champion
How can anyone be mad that Martin Truex Jr. was left hoisting the Cup championship trophy on Sunday? His story over the last several years is one of the best in all of sports. From making the playoffs in 2013 to losing it because of a teammate cheating. To losing his sponsor and his ride for the next season amid the fall out of the cheating scandal. He’d then land with a team still trying to make it in the series. After one top five finish and five laps led in their first year together, they’d come out swinging after. But, amid all the chaos, his longtime girlfriend was diagnosed with and still is battling cancer.
Then, look at what has happened to the team.
The team owner sufferers a heart attack in the third to last race of the season. A key team member passes away from a heart attack the night before a race, a few weeks prior. A really good friend of the crew chief passes away unexpectedly the week of a big race. Just one thing after another, and here this team is persevering through it all and wins the championship.
How can anyone be mad about that?
Then, there’s the fact that Truex had the best car all year long. He was the top seed coming into the playoffs and won the title. Truex, had eight wins, 19 top five finishes and 26 top 10’s to his credit. He also led 2,253 laps. All were season highs in the series.
He earned this title.
Toyota 1-2, Closes The Season Off Strong
It was Toyota vs. Ford for the championship at Homestead and Toyota was the team that rose to the top. That’s not surprising though. Toyota had been the manufacturer to beat all year long. While it was a slow start to the season that saw them win just two of the first 17 races (Daytona to Daytona), they’d go on a terror in the second half in winning 14 of the final 19 races. Their biggest strength?
So, it wasn’t shocking to see the two Toyota drivers out run the two Ford drivers in the season finale on Sunday.
Truex In JGR Affiliate Car Outruns JGR Car For Championship
We already have seen the frustration boil over between Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing this season. FRR and Truex started out of the gates really hot while JGR struggled. That led to a ton of questions to how a team that gets all their resources, including cars, engines, chassis, pit crews etc from JGR, be outrunning them so badly. It would be like you doing all the work all week and passing along all your information to a colleague and them whooping you with it that weekend. Shouldn’t the best cars, engines, etc stay in house at JGR?
We saw the Indianapolis meltdown between Kyle Busch’s crew chief vs. Truex’s pit crew. That led to JGR suspending some of Truex’s pit crew members. Again, JGR pays their paychecks, not FRR.
Well, on Sunday, it was Busch (JGR) chasing down Truex (FRR) for the championship in the end.
Over the final 18 laps, Busch was trying to catch and pass Truex. Busch, driving a JGR car, trying to chase down Truex in essentially a JGR car. We all know how that ended.
While JGR was happy to see Truex win the championship, it is still bittersweet that their team car couldn’t chase down and pass a car from a completely different team that is using their equipment.
Top 3 Drivers All Season Finish 1-2-3 On Sunday
If you asked anyone in the NASCAR circus who the top drivers were in 2017, they’d all say Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson. It’s really not debatable. That trio combined to win 17 of the 36 races and led 53-percent of the overall laps (5,628 out of 10,581). So, it was fitting that in the season finale, they were running 1-2-3 in the closing stages and finished that way.
In fact, that trio led a combined 266 of the 267 laps on Sunday at Homestead.
The year ended for them the right way.
Kyle Larson Ends Drought, Likely Could Have Won
Kyle Larson showed on Sunday that if he can ever make the Championship 4 at in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, then the Chip Ganassi Racing driver is nearly a shoo-in to win the season championship. That isn’t shocking though, as we’ve been saying that the last few years.
Larson, stormed to the lead early in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 and never really looked back. He led a race-high 145 of the 267 laps and brought his No. 42 Chevrolet home third at the 1.5-mile track.
The California native won the first two stages, leading all but 16 of the first 180 laps. But, he exited the pits in fifth place following the second stage and when he made his way back up to second, he would fade to fourth before a late race caution. In the end, he’d come away with a top five finish.
You could tell he just didn’t want to get in the way of the two championship contenders in the end. He had the faster car than each and I think if not for who was running ahead of him, Larson would have passed each and won.
Last year at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, Larson led a race-high 132 of the 268 laps and finished second. In 2015, Larson finished fifth.
What about in NASCAR XFINITY Series action?
He’s finished second, third, first and seventh respectively in four career starts.
So, as you can see, if Larson does get to the final round of the Cup playoffs, he’s certainly going to be the favorite to take home the championship due to the winner-take-all scenario.
But, despite dominating most of the season, arguably being the second best car to Martin Truex Jr., Larson was surprisingly eliminated from the playoffs in the Round of 12. While he had a 29 point advantage heading into the final race of the second round at Kansas, he blew an engine for the first time of his Cup career. The problem was, it happened in the first stage and he scored zero stage points to go along with finishing 39th. For the round, he had 11 total stage points, Jimmie Johnson had 20. Johnson advanced by nine points over Larson to the Round of 8.
In the Round of 8, Larson’s bad luck continued.
He’d finish 37th in each of the first two races of the round at Martinsville and Texas. Then, at Phoenix, he had another engine problem and would finish last in 40th.
That’s why he was out with something to prove this weekend at Homestead. He wanted to end that horrible drought and head to the 2018 season with momentum.
Busch’s End Of Race Strategy Almost Worked If Not For His Brother Causing Final Caution
Kyle Busch’s car wasn’t very good on short runs, but on long runs, his car was among the best there was out there on Sunday. But, he knew that Martin Truex Jr. was going to have a good car on long runs too, so they knew with how the race was playing out, they needed to do something drastic in the end.
When everyone started short pitting with around 75 laps-to-go, Busch decided to say out and make it to the end on just one more stop. It was paying off too, he inherited the lead on Lap 178 and would lead until what should have been his final pit stop on Lap 216. He’d come out seventh but quickly storm back up to fourth. If the race went caution free, he’d win by a lot. Everyone else still needed to pit again and there Busch was hot on their tail and he was done.
Unfortunately, his brother Kurt Busch spun on Lap 229 and his strategy was out the window. During that yellow, everyone came back down pit road for the final time, Busch included, and he’d now be on the same strategy as everyone else, with the same laps on the tires as them too. It cost him in the end.
Ford’s Just Didn’t Have It
Both Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski were vying to give Ford their first Cup championship in well over a decade. Despite not having the best speed all year long, there both were on Sunday with a chance to win the title. Instead, neither had anything for the Toyota’s. Combined, they’d lead just one lap and finish fourth (Harvick) and seventh (Keselowski) respectively.
While that may seem a bit surprising, it shouldn’t.
Harvick, finished the year with four straight top five finishes, but he didn’t lead a single lap over the final two races. He did finish fourth on Sunday, but you could tell he just didn’t have the car to contend in the end. His win total, top fives, top 10’s and laps led were all season lows since he joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
Keselowski, never had the speed this year in general. He tried to go off strategy early and pick up new tires which proved to work, but without cautions in the end, strategy never played out in his favor. These two finished where they should have.
Keselowski Warns Of Ford Drubbing Ahead In 2018
Once the checkered flag flew, Brad Keselowski warned that if Ford doesn’t do some drastic upgrades to their cars in the offseason, that they’re set for a down year across the board in 2018. He warned that it wasn’t surprising that Truex and Busch were 1-2. He cited the new 2018 Toyota Camry that they were racing this season for that. Then, he set a stern warning that with Chevrolet getting a new Camaro model for 2018 now too, that Ford is set to be stone ages behind.
“When that car rolled out at Daytona, and I think we all got to see it for the first time, I think there was two reactions: One, we couldn’t believe NASCAR approved it; and two, we were impressed by the design team over there,” Keselowski said on Sunday of the new Toyota. “You know, with that said, I don’t think anyone was really — ever had a shot this year the second that thing got put on the racetrack and approved. It kind of felt like Formula 1 where you had one car that made it through the gates heads and tails above everyone and your hands are tied because you’re not allowed to do anything to the cars in those categories that NASCAR approves to really catch up.
“As to what will happen for 2018, you know, I don’t know. I would assume that Chevrolet will be allowed to design a car the same way that Toyota was for this one, but Ford doesn’t have any current plans for that. If that’s the case, we’re going to take a drubbing next year, so we’ll have to see.”
This wasn’t the first time Keselowski was outspoken about Toyota’s performance advantage this season. Prior to the race at Michigan in August, he tweeted that Toyota had a real leg up on everyone else and was surprised that NASCAR allowed this to happen. A few weeks later, he’d say those comments again.
But, he’s actually right and now that Chevy has modeled what Toyota did and will roll out a new car next year too, coupled with Ford still using the same model themselves, they could be leaps and bounds behind their rival counterparts moving forward.
During the season, Toyota led 5,557 laps. That was more than what Chevy and Ford had led combined by nearly 1,000 more laps led in fact. Ford led 2,447 laps in 2017 with Chevy leading 2,377 circuits. As far as the last three playoff races of the season, Ford led a combined 51 laps.
As far as wins go, Toyota had 16 trips to victory lane while Chevy and Ford had 10 each.
But, it’s not like Toyota stormed out of the gates hot. Other than Truex, the rest of the Toyota camp struggled a bit. During the first half of the regular season (Daytona to Daytona), Toyota only had two wins in their back pocket. On the flip side, Ford had eight victories and Chevy had seven. But, over the final half of the season (Kentucky to Homestead), Toyota had 14 wins over the final 19 races. Chevy had three, none in the playoffs compared to Fords two wins. In fact, three of the final four wins for Ford came on either restrictor plate tracks or road courses. Furthermore, half of Ford 10 wins came on those unique courses (Daytona, Talladega and Sonoma).
Now, with Chevy getting a new car, you can be sure that Hendrick Motorsports will improve on their numbers. Add in Kyle Larson and Chip Ganassi Racing not going anywhere and a possibility of Richard Childress Racing improving too, and you can see why Keselowski and his Ford teammates are worried.
What happens if Chevy finds the speed/power that they were lacking the last few years? What happens if Toyota remains the same? That’s eating into Ford’s pie, which logic states that their numbers will be the ones most affected.
So, Keselowski has some truth to what he’s saying. The only move Ford can make it likely tinker with their 2018 car to the best of their ability and roll out a new 2019 model the year after.
Lack Of Cautions a Very Good Thing, Trends Didn’t Hold True This Year
Entering the weekend, the trends showed that we’d see a late race caution in Sunday’s race. In fact, we’d see a final restart within seven laps left or fewer, and see a final pass for the lead in the process. But, we didn’t see that Sunday and I’m perfectly okay with that. See, NASCAR wasn’t as quick on the yellow light trigger this race and that was a very good thing. In fact, they were conservative with the cautions all weekend.
In the three races combined, we’d see just 10 total yellows, six of which for stage breaks. On Sunday, there was a brake rotor on the track and NASCAR let them race on. Jimmie Johnson got into the wall twice, still no cautions. The final push to the end lasted 34 laps, the longest in years at Homestead. That allowed the race and championship to be decided on pure speed.
That’s why you saw Toyota 1-2.
Earnhardt, Danica, Kenseth Have Trying Days In Final Cup Starts
Three drivers were likely making their final Monster Energy NASCAR cup Series start at the Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday. Two of the three may not ever make another Cup start, the other will make one more appearance next February at Daytona then call it quits herself.
The biggest one was Dale Earnhardt Jr. The third generation driver was making his 631st and final Cup start in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400. Earnhardt, originally qualified his No. 88 Chevrolet 24th, but due to changing an engine during the opening practice session of the weekend on Friday, he’d have to start in the rear as a result.
But, it didn’t take the Hendrick Motorsports driver too long to move his way up. By Lap 30, he was challenging for a spot in the top 20.
In the end, he just didn’t have it and finished 25th, 3 laps down.
The 14-time reigning NASCAR Most Popular Driver wraps up his career in an emotional way as he was happy though to bring his car back in one piece.
What about Matt Kenseth? While he just announced a few weeks ago that he wouldn’t be pursing a ride for the 2018 season anymore, he had a great send off to his career. Kenseth, started fourth on Sunday and stayed in the hunt for most of the race. He’d bring his No. 20 Toyota home eighth.
That’s four straight top 10 finishes to end his season.
His career quite possibly ends with 651 career starts. 39 of those were wins, two of which in the Daytona 500.
Then there’s Danica Patrick. She was making her 190th career Cup start. She also announced her departure from NASCAR as she will race in the 2018 Daytona 500 then call it quits in NASCAR. On Sunday, she brought her No. 10 Ford home 38th after she lost control of her car in Turn 1 on Lap 142 and got into the SAFER barrier. While trying to drive her car back to the garage, it engulfed in flames as her final race of her final season ended up in smoke.