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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.

William Byron’s title hopes end in Bristol incident

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William Byron‘s playoffs ended when he ran into the back of a car shortly before halfway in Saturday night’s Cup playoff race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Byron was running 10th and in position to advance to the second round after Saturday’s elimination race before the incident.

Byron told NBCSN’s Marty Snider that Joey Gase‘s car slowed on a straightaway and Byron ran into the back of Christopher Bell‘s car.

“I literally had nowhere to go,” Byron said. “Just ridiculous that’s what takes us out.”

Byron said he was running behind Bell, who was behind Gase, on the high side. Byron said he had Aric Almirola on his inside and could not move down there.

Byron entered the race the first driver outside the final transfer spot to the second round. He entered the race trailing Clint Bowyer by three points.

 

 

 

Three Joe Gibbs Racing cars going to rear for inspection violations

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The cars of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Erik Jones will start at the rear after each car failed inspection twice before Saturday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Busch enters the race 18 points above the cutline to transfer to the second round of the Cup playoffs. Saturday’s race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Busch was to have started ninth.

This is the second playoff race in a row that Busch’s team has failed inspection twice before the race and had to start at the rear. Busch started at the rear last weekend at Richmond. He finished sixth.

Hamlin has already advanced to the second round via points. He was to have started seventh.

“We’ve got 500 laps,” he said. “If we’re good enough, we’ll get to the front. Not really too worried about it in that sense.”

Jones is not in the playoffs. He would have started 20th.

NASCAR also announced that the cars of Corey LaJoie and Bubba Wallace will start at the rear for unapproved adjustments. JJ Yeley will go to the rear for a driver change since he was not listed on the preliminary entry list for the No. 15 car.

Wallace was to have started 27th. LaJoie was to have started 30th. The No. 15 was to have started 32nd with Brennan Poole as the driver.

 

Saturday Cup race at Bristol: Start time, TV channel

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Four drivers will be eliminated from the Cup playoffs after Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

This marks the first time the track has been in the playoffs. The Saturday Cup race at Bristol will end the first round. The 16-driver field will be cut to 12.

William Byron (3 points behind the cutline), Cole Custer (-8), Matt DiBenedetto (-25) and Ryan Blaney (-27) are the four drivers out of a playoff spot. Clint Bowyer holds the final transfer spot.

Here is all the info for the Saturday Cup race at Bristol:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines is at 7:38 p.m. The green flag waves at 7:45 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup haulers enter the garage (screening and equipment unload) at 10:30 a.m. Garage access health screening begins at 12:30 p.m. Garage opens at 12:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 7:10 p.m. Driver introductions will be at 7:15 p.m. The invocation is at 7:30 p.m. The national anthem will be performed by Joe Nichols, three-time Grammy nominee, at 7:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 500 laps (266.5 miles) around the .533-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125. Stage 2 ends on Lap 250

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 7 p.m. Race coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 6:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

STREAMING: Watch the race on the NBC Sports App

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for partly cloudy skies with a high of 62 degrees and a 3% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Brad Keselowski won at Richmond. Martin Truex Jr. finished second. Joey Logano placed third for the second race in a row.

LAST POINTS RACE AT BRISTOL: Brad Keselowski won in May after Denny Hamlin lost the lead when he hit the wall. Chase Elliott ran into Joey Logano as they battled for the lead late in the event.

TO THE REAR: Denny Hamlin (two inspection failures), Kyle Busch (two inspection failures), Erik Jones (two inspection failures), Corey LaJoie (unapproved adjustments), Bubba Wallace (unapproved adjustments), JJ Yeley (driver change).

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for Cup starting lineup

CATCH UP ON NBC SPORTS’ COVERAGE:

Three Joe Gibbs Racing cars going to the rear for inspection violations

Bubble drivers brace for Bristol battle

Pit crew change for teams of Alex Bowman and Jimmie Johnson

Friday 5: The thin line between aggressive and dirty driving

Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Blaney seek NASCAR history to advance

What upcoming Cup playoff races NASCAR fans can attend

Trevor Bayne says the fire remains to run more races

Cup playoff clinching scenarios to make Round of 12

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The first elimination race of the Cup playoffs has arrived in the form of Bristol Motor Speedway.

Tonight’s 500-lap race on the short track will determine which drivers make up the Round of 12.

Three drivers have locked themselves into the second round. Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski earned their spots via race wins at Darlington and Richmond. Denny Hamlin clinched a spot via points.

More: Brad Keselowski on pole for Bristol

That leaves nine spots for 13 drivers to compete for.

If there is a new winner, the following drivers could clinch by being ahead of the 10th winless driver in the standings.

Joey Logano – would clinch with 7 points: 51 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Logano has finished third in the last two playoff races (at Darlington and Richmond). Has made 23 starts at Bristol posting one pole, two wins, six top fives and 10 top 10s. Logano’s average finish is 15.3.

Martin Truex Jr. – would clinch with 20 points: 38 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Earned 22nd-place finish at Darlington and second-place finish at Richmond. Has made 29 series starts at Bristol posting two top fives and three top 10s. His average finish is 20.6.

Austin Dillon – would clinch with 21 points: 36 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Dillion has a runner-up finish at Darlington and a fourth-place result last weekend at Richmond. Has 13 starts at Bristol posting one top five and three top 10s. His average finish is 17.3.

Chase Elliott – Would clinch with 30 points: 28 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Elliott finished 20th at Darlington and fifth at Richmond. Has made nine starts at Bristol and has one pole, three top fives and four top 10s. Average finish is 12.6.

Alex Bowman – would clinch with 31 points: 27 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Bowman placed sixth at Darlington and ninth at Richmond. Has made nine series starts at Bristol with one top five and two top 10s. His average finish is 22.6.

Kyle Busch – would clinch with 40 points: Just 18 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Has seventh-place finish at Darlington and a sixth-place finish at Richmond. Has made 30 Cup starts at Bristol posting two poles and a series-leading eight wins among active drivers.

Aric Almirola – would clinch with 51 points: Seven points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Finished ninth at Darlington and eighth at Richmond. Has made 22 starts at Bristol with one top five and two top 10s. His average finish is 25.0.

Kurt Busch – would clinch with 51 points: Seven points ahead of the cutoff sport. Almirola holds the tiebreaker of best finish in the current playoff round. Busch has finished eighth at Darlington and 13th at Richmond. Has 39 Cup starts at Bristol with one pole, six wins, 12 top fives and 21 top 10s. Average finish is 14th.

Clint Bowyer – would clinch with 55 points: Three points over cutoff. Finished 10th at Darlington and Richmond. Bowyer has made 29 Cup starts at Bristol with eight top fives and 16 top 10s. Average finish is 13.6.

William Byron (-3 points from cutoff; would need help to clinch): Finished fifth at Darlington and 21st at Richmond. Five Cup starts at Bristol with one top 10. Average finish of 17.2.

Cole Custer (-8 points; would need help to clinch): Finished 12th at Darlington and 14th at Richmond. Finished 25th in lone Bristol Cup start.

Matt DiBenedetto (-25 points; would need help to clinch): Finished 21st at Darlington and 17th at Richmond. Eleven Cup starts at Bristol with one top five and one top 10. Average finish of 19.1.

Ryan Blaney
Ryan Blaney is last on the 16 driver playoff grid heading into Bristol. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Ryan Blaney (-27 points; would need help to clinch): Finished 24th at Darlington and 19th at Richmond. Ten Cup starts at Bristol with one top five and three other top 10s. Average finish of 20.7.

More: Blaney and DiBenedetto seek history to advance to second round

Should there be a repeat winner Saturday – Harvick or Keselowski – the following drivers would advance to the next round by being ahead of the 11th winless driver in the standings.

Joey Logano: Would clinch with 4 points

Martin Truex Jr.: Would clinch with 17 points

Austin Dillon: Would clinch with 18 points

Chase Elliott: Would clinch with 27 points

Alex Bowman: Would clinch with 28 points

Kyle Busch: Would clinch with 37 points

Aric Almirola: Would clinch with 48 points

Kurt Busch: Would clinch with 48 points

Clint Bowyer: Would clinch with 52 points

William Byron: Would clinch with 55 points

Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney: Could only clinch with help