HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 20:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 and the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 20, 2016 in Homestead, Florida. Johnson wins a record-tying 7th NASCAR title.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Ryan: Ranking the best races of the 2016 season

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NASCAR’s 2016 season was bookended by its best races.

In ranking the top five events attended by this writer during the past year, the Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway tops the list. Jimmie Johnson’s record-tying seventh championship capped a memorable night on the 1.5-mile oval, snatching victory from Kyle Larson after title contenders Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch each appeared to have chances.

The season opened with the No. 2-ranked race — Denny Hamlin’s victory in the Daytona 500 by 0.10 seconds over Martin Truex Jr., the closest finish in the 58-year history of the Great American Race.

There was one rule for the rankings: Only the races that I’ve covered are eligible. That made for a few notable absences (Phoenix and Fontana in March; Bristol and Richmond in April; Sonoma). But I was present for 20 races, including nearly all of the NBC half of the season.

Here are ruminations on my top five (followed by my rankings in each of the previous five seasons):

  1. NASCAR Sprint Cup, Miami, Nov. 20: In only three years, the revamped championship finale has become the closest thing to a sure thing in a sport whose capricious underpinnings often make predictions impossible.
    HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 20: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 and the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 20, 2016 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
    Jimmie Johnson takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 and the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

    That element of randomness also has been among the chief complaints since the championship format was expanded and transformed into the closest approximation of a true playoff. But a winner-take-all codicil undeniably has turned Homestead-Miami Speedway into an annual battle royale between the series’ best teams that underscores one of the most overused sporting clichés.

    In the race that matters most, drivers and their crews truly do rise to the occasion and deliver their most Herculean performances of the season.

    Each of the four title contenders had those moments in the Ford 400. Carl Edwards, who entered as the underdog, led the most laps and drove a flawless race until his crash on a late restart that was the head-turning and heart-stopping moment of the season. Joey Logano rebounded from Edwards’ wreck and nearly snatched the championship on fortuitous tire strategy. Kyle Busch overcame pit miscues and was achingly close to repeating as champion.

    But the greatest show of grit belonged to champion Jimmie Johnson, who transformed into a world-beater in the final 20 laps with a No. 48 Chevrolet that was middling for most of 350 miles. How Johnson defeated leader Kyle Larson – who had the preferred lane on his favorite track in a dominant car – remains a mystery that forever might defy sufficient elucidation.

    The only firm and plausible explanation is this: With more at stake than ever – a seventh championship and place among the stock-car pantheon — Johnson unleashed the most otherworldly finish of his incomparable career. If, as some believe, this iteration of the Chase truly was created to thwart Johnson, he inadvertently helped validate its existence by proving its central tenet: When pushed to the limits, NASCAR stars will make their sometimes inherently monotonous craft more watchable than ever.

  2. NASCAR Sprint Cup, Daytona 500, Feb. 21: In an attempt at recapping the feverishly compounding plot twists that resulted in the closest finish in this crown jewel’s history,
    DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 21: Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, races Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, and Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Toyota, ahead of the field during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
    Matt Kenseth (No. 20), Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. battle for the lead in the last corner. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

    my column and social media musings short-changed this affair as being mostly mundane.

    Yes, the Great American Race featured the fewest number of lead changes in seven years, and the tire wear wasn’t conducive to passing.

    But restrictor-plate races at their core are always some form of a chess match, and this slowly unfolding version of Deep Blue vs. Kasparov is preferable to the speed matches found in Washington Square.

    The final lap — and how it was defined by a parade of endless choices made by Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – was drawn into the sharpest of contrasts by the perceived absence of action over the previous 497 and a half miles. It really wasn’t lackluster when viewed as the calculating maneuvering of chess pieces rather than simply a dearth of passing in the most important race of the season.

    Ultimately, the 2016 Daytona 500 will be remembered solely for its final circuit, but it still holds up as a body of work when the prior 199 laps are evaluated. As winner Hamlin so deftly put it, NASCAR stars are “defined by the big moments.” The races are, too – and the moments happen because they’re preceded by the cascading effects of unheralded signposts in time.

  3. NASCAR Sprint Cup, Phoenix, Nov. 13: It almost seems cruel that two of the most indelible endings of 2016 came at the expense of Matt Kenseth’s conscience.
    AVONDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 13: Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, has an on track incident during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Can-Am 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 13, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
    Matt Kenseth crashes out of the lead on an overtime restart at Phoenix International Raceway. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

    The second-guessing eternally will haunt Kenseth because it cost him 1) a third Daytona 500 win (see best races, No. 2) and 2) a berth in the championship finale. In the former, the blame could be attributed to the spotter who wasn’t there. In the latter, the fault might have been placed on the car a spotter didn’t see.

    All of it was interwoven into a veteran’s heartbreaker that neatly bookended the 2016 season with a sobering reminder of how the fortunes of so many drivers can depend on just a few flicks of the wheel.

    For Joey Logano and Kyle Busch, everything fell correctly just moments after the outlook had seemed as bleak as it ended for Kenseth, who gracefully afforded one more way Daytona and Phoenix inextricably were linked.

    In both instances, the Joe Gibbs Racing veteran stood outside his No. 20 Toyota and patiently answered every painful question for several minutes, agonizingly deconstructing an outcome that was demoralizing for him and exhilarating for virtually anyone else who saw it.

  4. NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Eldora, July 20: After four consecutive editions of this event as a smashing success, the central question no longer is “Would Cup cars work on dirt?”
    ROSSBURG, OH - JULY 20: Kyle Larson, driver of the #24 DC Solar Chevrolet, and his son Owen Larson hold the NASCAR Camping World Series 4th Annual Aspen Dental Eldora Dirt Derby 150 trophy after winning at Eldora Speedway on July 20, 2016 in Rossburg, Ohio. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
    Kyle Larson celebrates with his son, Owen, after winning the truck race at Eldora Speedway. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

    It’s “What earthly reason possibly can remain for avoiding finding out?”

    There is no other race in NASCAR that can offer an emerging star (Kyle Larson) fiercely competing against relative unknowns (Bobby Pierce!?!) in a nonstop exhibition of entertainment and skill that never feels like a novelty act.

    But the gimmick factor seems to be precisely the hang up about Eldora’s appeal (along with an insidious elitist attitude that equates “dirt” with “low class”).

    Somehow, the false narrative goes, the event is special only because it’s unique.

    This is categorically untrue (though it does apply to the races held later that week at nearby Indianapolis Motor Speedway).

    The Eldora truck races have been scintillating because the quality is high. If you have something that works well, it’s counterintuitive to say there should be less of it solely because it’s different from every other NASCAR race with a national profile.

    But this is the wrongheaded groupthink that has conspired to keep Eldora – a jewel of a short track owned by the greatest driver of his generation, Tony Stewart, and run by the resourceful Roger Slack – from getting a rightful shot at the major leagues. And given the current challenges faced in finding audience and youth, it’s well past time for NASCAR to get bold.

  5. NASCAR Sprint Cup, Martinsville, Oct. 30: There have been more entertaining races here in recent years (and the fact this race made the list is partly an indictment of the season),
    MARTINSVILLE, VA - OCTOBER 30: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, celebrates with champagne in Victory Lane with crew chief Chad Knaus after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Goody's Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 30, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
    For the ninth time, Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus (left) celebrate with a grandfather clock. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

    but this event was memorable because of what it confirmed about the track’s all-time greatest driver.

    With his record-tying ninth win on the 0.526-mile oval, Jimmie Johnson advanced to the championship round for the first time and showed why he would win his record-tying seventh title. Overcoming damage from collisions, a midrace dustup with Denny Hamlin and a fuel-pressure problem that threatened to end his day, Johnson soldiered through the adversity.

    When he finally took the lead, he never relinquished it and led the final 92 laps in a quiet affirmation of his team’s strength. His win in Miami essentially was a continuation of what started in Southwest Virginia – and watching him carve up the field on the circuit’s trickiest track was a treat to watch even absent the usual Martinsville fender-banging.

RANKINGS IN PREVIOUS SEASONS

2011: 1. Martinsville, April 3; 2. Miami, Nov. 20; 3. Daytona 500, Feb. 20; 4. Martinsville, Oct. 30; 5. Richmond, Sept. 10.

2012: 1. Phoenix, Nov. 11; 2. Bristol, Aug. 25; 3. Texas, Nov. 4; 4; Daytona 500, Feb. 27; 5. Richmond, Sept. 8

2013: 1. Indianapolis 500, May 26; 2. Richmond, Sept. 7; 3. Phoenix, Nov. 10; 4. Bristol, March 17; 5. Kansas, Oct. 6.

2014: 1. Eldora, July 23; 2. Fontana, March 23; 3. Daytona 500, Feb. 23; 4. Miami, Nov. 16; 5. Talladega, Oct. 19.

2015: 1. Kentucky, July 11; 2. Martinsville, Nov. 1; 3. Daytona 500, Feb. 22; 4. Indianapolis 500, May 24; 5. Eldora, July 22.

Clint Bowyer looks to be relevant again

HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 19:  Clint Bowyer, driver of the #15 5-hour Energy Chevrolet, sits in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 19, 2016 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images
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CONCORD, N.C. — Clint Bowyer can be loud, wild and ready for the next good time, but after a season that felt as arduous as Odysseus’ journey, Bowyer’s voice softens when he states a goal for this season.

“I sure hope you are watching me,’’ Bowyer said as he stood next to his No. 14 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing. “At the end of the day, relevancy in this sport is everything, and I’ve lost that a little bit. Not a little bit. A lot.’’

Four years after finishing runner-up in the championship, Bowyer could barely finish in the top 20 in races last year for HScott Motorsports, a team no longer competing in NASCAR.

It was a stunning fall for driver who seemed on solid ground after he signed a three-year contract extension with Michael Waltrip Racing in May 2014, following back-to-back finishes in the top 10 in points.

Fourteen months later, though, Michael Waltrip Racing announced it would cease operations after the season.

Clint Bowyer will drive the No. 14 car for Stewart-Haas Racing this season. (Stewart-Haas Racing)
Clint Bowyer will drive the No. 14 car for Stewart-Haas Racing this season. (Stewart-Haas Racing)

A month after that, Bowyer signed to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing, replacing Tony Stewart in 2017. That left Bowyer without a ride for 2016. With few options, Bowyer went to HScott Motorsports and suffered through a season that saw him record three top-20 finishes in the last 19 races.

“Was it the best thing in the world for me?’’ Bowyer said of last season. “Probably not. It probably wasn’t healthy as a matter of fact, but, nonetheless, this deal was worth it. This opportunity was worth whatever you had to go through, whether it was sitting at home or getting into something. It didn’t matter, I signed on for this thing. I want to be in this car because I knew it was my soonest opportunity to be in the best possible situation to win races.’’

But it has been four years since he last won, a span of 149 races.

He was asked Wednesday at the Ford Performance Technical Center if he is any good still.

“That’s a real legitimate question,’’ Bowyer said. “You just don’t know. I think the last time I was in a good car, I was good. I think that I’m a smarter driver than I was three years ago. I think I’m plenty capable of winning races. I love what I see at Stewart-Haas.’’

His team was set up for him. Mike Bugarewicz gained experience last year in his rookie season as a crew chief for Stewart. That should help Bugarewicz in the transition to his new driver. Bowyer and Bugarewicz started talking weekly in the second half of last season, discussing what setups Bowyer liked, track conditions, tires, etc. Anything to learn each other and help their communication this season.

“For me, that driver/crew chief relationship is everything and you’ve got to get that established,’’ Bowyer said.

Bowyer also can lean on some familiar faces at Stewart-Haas Racing. He was a teammate to Kevin Harvick at Richard Childress Racing. Bowyer was at Michael Waltrip Racing when Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers was there. Billy Scott, crew chief for Danica Patrick, was Bowyer’s crew chief, for part of the 2015 season.

About the only person he doesn’t know well at SHR is Kurt Busch.

“We just never really hung out,’’ Bowyer said of the 2004 champion. “He’s the one guy that I really think has more raw talent than about anybody out there. I want to go out and learn as much as I can. I know he can really diagnose what’s going on with the car. The depth he goes in with the debrief is probably a lot higher than I’ve had in the past.’’

That’s just part of the culture at Stewart-Haas Racing that has Bowyer excited.

“They don’t take second as an option,’’ Bowyer said. “They go and work hard and figure out how to go win these races.’’

No longer does he have to worry about finishing 25th (his average finish last year was 23.6).

“With equipment like this, if you’re 25th or something at the end of the day … there’s a reason for it,’’ Bowyer said. “That’s the breath of fresh air. It’s not expected. It’s not going to happen.’’

Told that Stewart sees Bowyer as calmer, the 37-year-old replies that he’s “confident again.

“When 2016 finally came to an end, I was looking at Dale (Earnhardt) Jr and Amy having a good time (at their New Year’s Eve wedding), and I’m like I can’t wait for tomorrow morning,’’ Bowyer said. “Just get all that brushed off, get it behind you and … focus on the task at the hand and using this wonderful opportunity to be good and great again.’’

And relevant.

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Ford executive encouraged by changes at Roush Fenway Racing

AVONDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 12: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #17 Roush Performance Ford, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Can-Am 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 12, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
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CONCORD, N.C. — The Global Director of Ford Performance says he’s optimistic Roush Fenway Racing will be more competitive this season because of leadership changes that “embrace becoming more of an engineering-led organization.’’

Roush Fenway Racing has been shut out of NASCAR’s playoffs each of the past two seasons and last won a race in 2014.

Ford’s Dave Pericak said Wednesday at the Ford Performance Technical Center that Roush Fenway Racing is in a better position to take advantage of Ford’s technical support after offseason changes.

“I think Roush has made all of the right, now, decisions and changes within their organization to truly embrace becoming more of an engineering-led organization and putting the technology into these cars as opposed to just bolting some stuff together and going out on the racetrack,’’ Pericak told NBC Sports.

“I think there has been a huge acknowledgement on their side that there has to be a shift within their own organization, a shift within their leadership. We’ve helped them on a technical side of things to get their equipment up to speed. I’m optimistic that this year you’re going to see all of that coming together and you should see better performance out of that Roush organization.’’

Roush Fenway Racing opens the season with new personnel in executive levels. The team announced in late November that Kevin Kidd, who had been the organization’s Cup team manager, would become the competition director, and Tommy Wheeler, who oversaw the production of the organization’s Cup and Xfinity cars, would be the team’s operations director. The team also announced that Robbie Reiser, who had been general manager, was being reassigned.

The organization also is smaller this season. Roush downsized to a two-car operation with the departure of Greg Biffle. The team will have Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne as drivers and loaned Chris Buescher to JTG Daugherty, a Chevrolet team, because there wasn’t a proper place to put him with a Ford team this year.

Stenhouse showed signs of progress early last season, climbing to 13th the points after the season’s fifth race before finishing the year 21st. Bayne placed 22nd and Biffle 23rd. The three drivers combined for zero wins, seven top-five and 14 top-10 finishes.

The top-five and top-10 results were an increase from the 2015 season. Roush’s drivers combined for four top fives and nine top 10s that season.

Roush is one of two Ford teams downsizing this year. Richard Petty Motorsports will field one entry this year instead of two. Pericak said such moves could help both teams.

“The downsizing that you’ve seen is a way for us to re-focus those teams and get back to the fundamentals and get them back on the right path,” Pericak said. “You don’t want to have so much going on that you can’t focus in areas that you need to focus and fix what you need.’’

Something else that could help Roush and RPM is the addition of Stewart-Haas Racing to the Ford camp. The move gives Ford two top-tier teams in SHR and Team Penske. Some of the information gleaned by those teams can be shared.

“I think when you look at that, it’s a very positive thing to bring that level of competition to your group, everyone is going to benefit from that,’’ Pericak said. “And the other thing we’ve been working strongly on is that one Ford approach, sharing where sharing makes sense.’’

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New Cup team to field Daytona 500 entry

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Gaunt Brothers Racing plans to enter all four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series restrictor-plate races this season, beginning with the Daytona 500.

D.J. Kennington will seek for the qualify for the season-opening race. The team has no charter and is not guaranteed a starting spot.

Other non-chartered teams that have announced plans to vie for a Daytona 500 starting spot are: Tommy Baldwin Racing (Elliott Sadler) and car owner Mark Beard (Brendan Gaughan). Michael Waltrip also has stated on Twitter he will compete but has not offered any other details.

Gaunt Brothers Racing is owned by Marty Gaunt, president of Triad Racing Technologies.

“With the recent unveiling of the 2018 Toyota Camry, we feel that now is the right time to return to the racetrack,” said Gaunt, whose Triad engines powered five championship-winning Toyota drivers and contributed to multiple manufacturer championships at the NASCAR national level, in a statement.

The team competed in what is now the NASCAR Pinty’s Series in 2011. Gaunt Brothers Racing is fielding a Toyota Camry in partnership with Triad client RAB Racing, which is led by Robby Benton. RAB Racing will supply cars, shop space and technical support.

“Our aspirations will be no small task, but we know what we need to do to position ourselves to make this a successful effort,” Benton said in a statement. “We’ll transition over to the Daytona 500 after competing in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona with our sports car program later this month.”

Kennington, who is from St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, is a two-time NASCAR Pinty’s Series champion. He made his Cup debut last fall at Phoenix International Raceway, placing 35th.

No driver has been announced for the team at the other three restrictor-plate races this season.

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NASCAR on NBC podcast, Ep. 59: David Smith previewing the 2017 season

HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 20:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 and the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 20, 2016 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
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The makeup of a race weekend in 2017 is expected to look different, with some major enhancements expected to be announced soon for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

But the teams that will compete on the rebranded circuit will look very familiar.

While a NASCAR offseason normally is filled with personnel changes, many teams elected to stand pat for this season.

Why? That’s a topic explored by Motorsports Analytics founder David Smith in a recent column entitled “Welcome to 2016, Part 2, which was the subject of this week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast.

Smith discussed the reasons why teams didn’t make changes and the reasons that perhaps some should have. He also floats some interesting possibilities for future moves (Chase Elliott and Chad Knaus? Cole Pearn to Team Penske?).

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes by clicking here. The free subscription will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone. It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify and a host of other smartphone apps.

Stay tuned for time codes for easy referencing while listening to the podcast.