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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.

Atlanta Motor Speedway accepting lucky charms to help Chase Elliott earn first Cup win

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The president of Atlanta Motor Speedway is hoping history will repeat.

Ed Clark is doing whatever he can to get Georgia-native Chase Elliott to Victory Lane for the first time in the Cup Series.

To do that, he’s using the same marketing scheme he executed in 1983 in the weeks before Bill Elliott’s first Cup victory.

AMS is asking for fans to send lucky charms to the track, which will be presented to Chase Elliott during a special event there Feb. 13.

There’s no restrictions on what can be sent.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver is winless after 77 starts in NASCAR’s premier series.

Bill Elliott in 1983. (Atlanta Motor Speedway).

His father went winless in his first 155 starts from 1976-83.

Clark put together the original lucky charm drive ahead of the October race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he served as public relations director.

“The promotion we came up with for Bill in ’83 created an amazing amount of interest and support from fans all over the country,” said Clark in a press release. “We received package after package full of good-luck charms, and it seemed like everybody was pulling for him to get that first win.”

Three races later, in the season finale at Riverside International Raceway, the 28-year-old Bill Elliott claimed his first of 44 Cup victories.

Fans can send their lucky charms to Elliott by shipping them to AMS at 1500 Highway 19/41, Hampton, GA 30228, with attention to “Good Luck, Chase.” Fans can also participate by using the hashtag #GoodLuckChase across the various social media platforms with pictures and messages to Elliott.

The Cup season begins Feb. 18 with the 60th Daytona 500. The following weekend, the series visits Atlanta Motor Speedway.

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Go Fas Racing secures charter by partnering with Circle Sport Racing

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Go Fas Racing has secured a charter for Matt DiBenedetto’s No. 32 Ford by partnering with Circle Sport Racing.

The move comes after Go Fas Racing’s owner Archie St. Hilaire entered into a partnership with the Wood Brothers that allowed the Wood Brothers to retain the charter they leased last year from Go Fas Racing.

That move left Go Fas Racing without a charter. That matter was resolved with the partnership with Circle Sport Racing car owner Joe Falk, who recently split with TMG.

“This deal pretty much fills our plate for the 2018 season,” St. Hilaire said in a statement from the team. “We decided that the best long-term strategy for GFR’s original charter was to strike a deal with our good friends at Wood Brothers Racing, which left us seeking a charter for our own No. 32 car. I think this partnership with Joe Falk is mutually beneficial for both Joe and ourselves going into the future. Joe has been in the business for a long time and will add a wealth of knowledge to our programs in 2018 and beyond.”

Said Falk in a statement: “We have been talking about doing this for over a year and it was a big decision to switch to Ford, but we believe it will pay off. This is a performance business and we have not had the team to get good finishes. We are also working on running the No. 33 car in select events with young drivers such as Joey Gase to help get them prepared for a full Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season going forward.”

CHARTERS THAT HAVE CHANGED TEAMS FOR 2018

— Furniture Row Racing #77 charter sold to JTG Daugherty for No. 37 car

— Roush Fenway Racing #16 charter sold to Team Penske for No. 12 car

— Richard Petty Motorsports #43 charter leased to Rick Ware Racing for No. 51 car

— Wood Brothers Racing forms long-term partnership with Go Fas Racing owner Archie St. Hilaire that grants Wood Brothers full operating control of the No. 32 team’s charter it leased last year.

— Go Fas Racing forms partnership with Circle Sport Racing owner Joe Falk for his charter for the No. 32 team.

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Kasey Kahne looks to run 20-30 races outside NASCAR this year

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Kasey Kahne, who competed in last week’s Chili Bowl Nationals, says he plans to run two dozen or more races outside of NASCAR this season.

Kahne, who is in his first season with Leavine Family Racing, made the comments Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.’’

“I’ve always tried to stay close to the type of racing that I learned how to race in and the type of cars that I learned how to race in and those fans and race tracks that I’ve spent a ton of time at and have really enjoyed over the years,’’ Kahne said of racing sprint and midget cars on dirt. “I’m still a huge fan of that type of racing because that’s where I came from and want to be for a long, long time.

“We have two (World of) Outlaw teams again this year, Daryn Pittman and Brad Sweet, and I feel like I can run 20 to 30 races depending on the schedules and how everything works out. I’m really looking forward to that because that’s something that I wanted to do for a long time and I could do it and then I couldn’t do it.’’

Kahne, who was with Hendrick Motorsports the previous six seasons, was asked if he was prohibited from racing such cars.

“When I signed up, I wasn’t at all and they said I could do whatever I wanted and enjoy it,” Kahne said. “A year later, I was restricted from everything and wasn’t able to do that anymore and then the last year they were pretty cool about it, but it was always kind of feeling like you were making somebody mad. I won’t have that because Leavine … they know that that’s what I love to do and that’s what I want to do. I don’t want it to affect the No. 95 in anyway. That’s the first priority to me. When we’re not doing that, it’s OK, nobody is going to be mad if I go and try to do a little racing. It makes me feel pretty good to be in that situation again.’’

Kahne is just one of a few NASCAR drivers expected to run in other series this year. Kyle Larson, who raced a midget car in New Zealand before competing in Chili Bowl Nationals, has said he’s allowed to run 25 such events a year. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. says he plans to run some midget races this summer.

Kahne also has been busy getting prepared for his new ride. He has a one-year deal with Leavine Family Racing, which is aligned with Richard Childress Racing. Travis Mack, who had been at Hendrick Motorsports, will be Kahne’s crew chief.

Kahne cited performance — he had one win and nine top-five finishes in the past three seasons with Hendrick — and business as a reason for the change.

“I’m perfectly fine with it because I’m glad I’ve moved on and am doing something different at this point and really looking forward to Leavine and my future and the new things that I have going on,’’ said Kahne, who finished 15th in the points last year after making the playoffs with his Indianapolis victory. “I don’t look back on any of it as a bad thing.’’

Asked if he feels reinvigorated with the changes, Kahne told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio: “I feel just to kind of start over is never a bad thing, especially with our performance. I was never happy the last three years, I haven’t been that happy as far as racing went because we could never really figure it out. Just to have a new group, start over, try to do things together and see how good we can do. To me, that’s exciting and new and fresh and I look forward to that.’’

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Todd Gilliland to drive No. 4 for Kyle Busch Motorsports; father to fill-in at Daytona

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Todd Gilliland will get a helping hand driving Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 4 Toyota this season before he turns 18 on May 15.

The two-time K&N Pro Series West champion will miss four of the first six races to start the year because of NASCAR’s rule that drivers under 18 years old are restricted to tracks 1.25 miles or less in length or road courses.

Gilliland will miss the season-opener at Daytona (Feb. 16), Atlanta (Feb. 24), Las Vegas (March 2) and Kansas (May 11).

After starts at Martinsville (March 24) and Dover (May 4) to begin his Rookie of the Year campaign, his first race on a 1.5-mile track will be at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 18.

Team owner Kyle Busch will drive the No. 4 at Atlanta and Kansas.

In a video released by the team on Twitter, it announced that Gilliland’s dad, David Gilliland, will open the season at Daytona.

The former Cup driver will make his first NASCAR start since 2016 in the NextEra Energy Resources 250.

A veteran of 398 national NASCAR races, David Gilliland’s last Truck Series start was in 2015. He has 10 Truck starts. One of those was at a restrictor-plate track (Daytona, 2015).

That’s not the only race the elder Gilliland will try to be part of that weekend.

He will attempt to qualify for the Daytona 500 with Ricky Benton Racing, which has fielded the No. 92 in the Truck Series since 2010.

Gilliland will attempt to qualify the No. 92 Black’s Tire and Auto Service/Carquest Auto Parts Ford into the “Great American Race.” If he’s successful, it will mark the Cup debut for the team.

Gilliland made seven starts for the team in 2015.

“After talking with our partners, we felt the time was right to make a move into the Cup Series,” team owner Ricky Benton said in a press release. “Getting David back on board was also key. Having a veteran driver with his experience and success on restrictor-plate tracks – with whom (crew chief Mike) Hester has familiarity – gives us a leg up as we try to make the race.”
Gilliland has made 16 starts at Daytona in the Cup Series, including seven in the Daytona 500. His best finish was third in the 2011 Daytona 500.

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