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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.

NASCAR America: How to navigate Martinsville to win grandfather clock

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The grandfather clock awarded to winners at Martinsville has become one of the most sought after prizes in NASCAR.

So what does a driver need to do to ensure a trip to victory lane?

Our NASCAR America experts discussed that in Wednesday’s show.

  

 

Burton: ‘Fans were cheated’ when Jimmie Johnson chose not to qualify at Fontana

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No rules were broken. No penalties handed out.

That’s what happened when Jimmie Johnson didn’t attempt a qualifying lap last Friday at Auto Club Speedway for the Auto Club 400 two days later.

Johnson wrecked his car in the first Cup practice earlier Friday while making a mock qualifying run. Crew chief Chad Knaus brought the backup No. 48 out of the team’s trailer, choosing to forego Friday qualifying to work out the kinks for Saturday’s two final NASCAR Cup practices.

“I just felt it was wiser to get the car prepared correctly rather than qualify poorly,” Knaus said Friday. “I wasn’t comfortable putting Jimmie in a position where he would have to hustle a car that hasn’t turned a lap in yet.”

It’s worth noting that because it was a West Coast race, if Johnson had wrecked another car, he likely would have been forced to use a teammate’s backup car (for some East Coast races, Hendrick likely would have shipped another No. 48 from its shop).

By electing to bypass qualifying, Johnson started 37th in the 39-car field Sunday and finished 21st.

On Wednesday’s NASCAR America, NASCAR On NBC analyst and former driver Jeff Burton disagreed with Knaus’ call and said that, in effect, Johnson fans were shortchanged.

“First and foremost, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus did nothing wrong,” Burton said. “They didn’t break any rules. They followed all the rules. NASCAR considered that they were attempting to qualify because they tried to practice, (and) they wrecked their car. No rules were broken.

“I just think in the greater interest of the sport, if I’m a race fan, particularly a Jimmie Johnson fan, and I turn the TV on, I want my guy out there trying to qualify.

“I think in the better good of the sport, it’s best that people deliver, put their car on the grid and put their driver out to qualify. I understand what Chad Knaus is saying. We’ve seen it a lot of times where a backup car comes out, and they go win the race.

“The backup cars today are different than they were 30 years ago. These backup cars today are put in that trailer that can go win the race.

“I just think that for the well-being of the sport, the fans deserve to see their guy that they tuned in on TV, at person at the track or turn the radio on, to listen to their guy, watch their guy go qualify the best he can. The fans were cheated, in my opinion, in not having that car on the racetrack.”

Two other analysts chimed in on Burton’s contention.

Said NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett: “If the drivers, the teams, the crew chiefs knew that if they did not make a qualifying attempt, did not get out and make a lap, that they were sitting on pit road when the green flag fell, then I think that would make things a lot different in that inspection process and in the process of the thinking the way Chad and Jimmie went about it.”

Added former driver Greg Biffle, “Listen, they already crashed making a qualifying run (in practice). So, Chad has his last car in the trailer, and to put it together and put Jimmie on the racetrack with no laps and take a chance at having something go wrong with that car. These cars are real good now, that probably wouldn’t happen.”

Said Jarrett: “The chance is always there, so that makes it difficult.”

Burton reiterated that Johnson and Knaus did nothing wrong but added a caveat:

“I just think in the big picture and best interest of the sport, it’s something that has to be looked at,” he said. “As we’ve all seen, when one person does something, it tends to start a trend – and this is not a trend we want to see continue on into the future.

“I agree with D.J., making some rules. Because if you penalize teams and drivers for not getting through inspection in time and those kinds of things in a greater way, all of a sudden teams and drivers get through inspection on time to present their cars to qualify.”

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Team Penske to appeal Phoenix penalty against Keselowski, crew chief Paul Wolfe

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Team Penske announced Wednesday evening that it will appeal the penalty to the No. 2 team of Brad Keselowski from the NASCAR Cup race at Phoenix on March 19.

NASCAR docked the team 35 driver and team owner points, while crew chief Paul Wolfe was suspended for three races and was fined $65,000 for failing post-race inspection. Keselowski had finished fifth in the race.

NASCAR cited Keselowski’s car for failing weights and measurements on the laser platform. NASCAR stated in last Wednesday’s penalty report that the team failed the rear wheel steer on the Laser Inspection Station.

Wolfe sat out this past Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway. The team’s appeal request will reinstate Wolfe until the appeal plays out, meaning he’ll be back on Keselowski’s pit box for this Sunday’s race at Martinsville.

Here is the statement from the team:

“After having the opportunity to review the facts, Team Penske has decided to appeal the penalties following the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in Phoenix. We have requested an appeal hearing and we plan to follow the process as outlined in the NASCAR rulebook. The appeals administration has granted our request to defer the two races remaining on Paul Wolfe’s suspension until the results of our appeal are known.”

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Blaney, Wood Brothers head to Martinsville for homecoming, hope to leave with win

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It’ll be a big homecoming this weekend at Martinsville Speedway for Wood Brothers Racing.

The Wood Brothers began their legendary NASCAR racing career in Stuart, Virginia, about 30 miles from the Speedway.

Driver Ryan Blaney grew up in High Point, North Carolina, which is about 45 miles from Martinsville. And crew chief Jeremy Bullins grew up in Walnut Cove, N.C., about 40 miles from Martinsville.

That’s why Blaney, Bullins and the Wood Brothers are primed for what they hope will be a strong showing for the No. 21 Ford team in Sunday’s STP 500.

“This is kind of a home track for me,” Blaney said of the .528-mile paperclip-shaped oval. “I have a lot of friends and family that come back and watch this race.

“I’ve been coming here ever since I can remember. This is probably the race I came to most as a kid just because it was so close to our house where I grew up and my dad was racing, so I do consider it a home race as well just because I grew up down the road, so that’s pretty neat.”

Since it was formed in the early 1950s, Wood Brothers Racing has competed in 111 Cup races at Martinsville, earning two wins, 28 top-fives and 42 top-10s.

Not coincidentally, Martinsville Speedway will celebrate its 70th anniversary this weekend, having opened in 1947 and has been the oldest operating track in NASCAR.

And the Wood Brothers have been there for virtually every race since, either racing on-track or watching as spectators.

Glen and I were standing on the backstretch over here at the very first race ever run here 70 years ago, so I think it would be really cool for us — 70 years later — for us to be sitting right here Sunday evening after the race and put that Ford Fusion and Motorcraft Ford in front,” team co-owner Leonard Wood said.

That’s why this weekend has such great significance and importance to the No. 21 team. Blaney sits seventh in the Cup point standings, will make his 60th career start in NASCAR’s premier series and would love to earn his first career Cup win at a track that means so much both to him and the Wood Brothers.

“It would be really big,” Blaney said. “Historically, this hasn’t been my best race track, but it means a lot. For the Wood Brothers, it’s a home race for them and it’s my crew chief’s favorite race track, so that’s given a lot of extra incentive.

“I thought we’ve gotten a lot better here over the last couple of years. I know what we need and we’ll try to run up further toward the front, so it’s just all about putting 500 laps together, saving the car and just trying to stay out of trouble the whole race. It would mean a lot (to win), for sure, and it would be a really good feeling to try to make that happen.”

Blaney has two career Cup starts at Martinsville. Both came last season and both ended in 19th place finishes.

Meanwhile, the Wood Brothers – Eddie and Leonard – would love to earn their first win at Martinsville since NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson visited victory lane there 44 years ago in spring 1973.

“It’s a big race for us,” Eddie Wood said. “We live 25 miles from here. We’ve known Clay Campbell’s (Martinsville president) family all my life.

“We used to hang out with his grandfather (track founder H. Clay Earles). He was always out promoting the race and he would come to our shop in Stuart and we’d have lunch and play cards and do all kinds of things. It’s just great to be racing back here.

“Probably the most special thing for us is to be back racing here. This is home. It’s a hard race to do well in. Like Ryan said, you have to put together 500 laps and stay out of all the calamity that happens and not try to create any of your own, so I’m looking forward to it.

“Like he said, our crew chief, Jeremy Bullins, loves this place and so do we. Ryan’s got two races under his belt, plus Truck races, so I think he’s underestimating his track time here. I think he’ll be just fine.”

The 23-year-old Blaney has matured and improved as a driver since making his first Cup start in 2014. He’d love to add a win at Martinsville to his best Cup finish to date: runner-up in this year’s Daytona 500.

But to do that, Blaney knows he’ll have to maintain his composure at a place where it’s very difficult when you constantly bang fenders with nearly 40 other drivers for 500 laps.

“That’s one of the biggest things you fight here is staying calm and patient,” Blaney said. “All drivers at some point in the race will get frustrated and whether they act upon it or not is up to them.

“We try to stay as emotionless as possible. I think that’s the best thing to do and try and keep a cool head. Granted, that really hasn’t been the case before. I haven’t really gotten emotional here before. It takes you a while to calm back down, but you can never really calm back down when you get like that, hot in the head.”

As Eddie Wood says, what better way to come to Martinsville for a homecoming, and to leave with a victory celebration.

“It’s been a great experience coming over here, close to home and we always want to win here more than anywhere because it was your hometown,” Wood said. “We’re looking forward to coming over here and watching Ryan win this next race. I just think 70 years later would be a really good time to win.”

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