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Decade in Review: Most memorable NASCAR moments of the 2010s

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The NASCAR of 2010 and the NASCAR of 2019 offer completely different landscapes, from different postseason formats, rules packages, series sponsors and a rapidly changing driver pool driven by the “youth movement.”

A lot happened over the last 10 years, but what are the moments that defined the sport in the 2010s?

Here are 10 moments and stories as voted on by NBC Sports’ writers.

 

1. Aug. 5, 2018

It was a Sunday that began a new era for NASCAR.

Just after 5 p.m. ET, NASCAR’s soon-to-be-voted most popular driver, Chase Elliott, claimed his first career Cup Series win after a late-race duel with Martin Truex Jr. at Watkins Glen International.

The victory on the New York road course came in Elliott’s 99th Cup start and deep into his third full-time season of competition.

Roughly two hours later and more than 300 miles away in Sag Harbor Village, New York, NASCAR CEO and Chairman Brian France was arrested on charges of aggravated driving while intoxicated and criminal possession of a controlled substance.

France took a leave absence and later pled guilty to the DWI charge. He was replaced in his position by his uncle, Jim France, one of the sons of NASCAR founder William H.G. France.

Jim France is now the permanent CEO and Chairman of NASCAR.

In the past year, while staying out of the spotlight, Jim France has overseen the integration of the sanctioning body with its track operation arm, International Speedway Corp., the merging of NASCAR with ARCA (which goes into full effect next year) and the Cup Series’ transition to a new premier sponsor model starting next year.

Elliott has won six times in the last two seasons and has been voted most popular driver both years.

 2. Johnson ties Petty and Earnhardt, Nov. 20, 2016

Jimmie Johnson’s record-tying seventh Cup Series title did not come easily.

After starting the season finale from the rear of the field due to a pre-race inspection failure, the Hendrick Motorsports’ driver did not lead in the season finale until an overtime restart to finish the race.

He led the final three laps and solidified his name as one of the greatest to drive a stock car, alongside Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. Johnson’s seven titles are spread out over 11 years and multiple playoff formats.

3. Playoff elimination format introduced, 2014

NASCAR unveiled a new post-season format in 2014 that ensured the championship would be decided among four drivers in the final race of the season.

A field of 16 drivers are now whittled down over three rounds with the Championship 4 settled on after the Round of 8. In the finale, the highest placing driver is the champion.

Kevin Harvick claimed the first title under this format, earning his first championship in the process. So far all six championships under the elimination format have been claimed by the winner of the season finale.

Kyle Busch’s 2019 title made him the first repeat champion of the playoff era.

(Photo by Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images)

4. “Spingate,” Sept. 7, 2013

 Richmond Raceway was the site of the 2013 Cup regular season finale and a race manipulation scandal that had far reaching consequences.

Michael Waltrip Racing was at the center of “Spingate,” which got its name from the alleged intentional spin conducted by Clint Bowyer in the closing laps of the race, one part of a plan intended to get Bowyer’s teammate, Martin Truex Jr., into the playoffs.

The plan, while initially successful, eventually backfired.

NASCAR fined MWR $300,000, the largest fine in the sport’s history, and docked Bowyer and Truex’s teams 50 points each. Truex was knocked from playoff eligibility and replaced by Ryan Newman.

Further controversy over alleged coordination between Team Penkse and Front Row Motorsports resulted in Jeff Gordon being added as a 13th driver to the playoff field the following weekend.

As a result of the controversy, NAPA Auto Parts withdrew from sponsoring Truex’s team after the season and began sponsoring Chase Elliott at JR Motorsports (and eventually at Hendrick Motorsports).

Truex wound up at Furniture Row Racing in 2014 and three years later won the Cup championship with the single-car team.

Michael Waltrip Racing closed its doors after the 2015 season.

5. Tony Stewart’s final championship run, 2011

 When the 2011 Chase for the Cup began, two-time champion Tony Stewart entered the postseason with no wins and believing his team was a waste of space in the playoff field.

Then Stewart reeled off five wins in 10 races, including the season finale in Miami, where he beat Carl Edwards and clinched the title in a tiebreaker over Edwards.

Stewart remains the only Cup driver to earn their first win of the season in the playoffs and go on to win the championship.

(Getty Images)

6. NASCAR returns to dirt, July 24, 2013

Arguably one of the most anticipated NASCAR events since the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series returned NASCAR to its roots in 2013 with its first race at Eldora Speedway, the dirt track owned by Tony Stewart.

Austin Dillon claimed the win in the inaugural event and other winners of the Eldora Dirt Derby include Bubba Wallace, Kyle Larson, Matt Crafton, Christopher Bell and Chase Briscoe.

7. Juan Pablo Montoya, a Jet Dryer and a Tweet, Feb. 27, 2012

Twitter as a social media platform has existed since 2006. But NASCAR Twitter™ came into its own late on a Monday night during the rain delayed Daytona 500.

With 40 laps left the and the race under caution, something broke on the No. 42 Chevrolet of Juan Pablo Montoya as his car entered Turn 3. His car then slammed into a jet dryer, causing a fiery explosion, spilling gas across the track and destroying Montoya’s car.

No one was hurt, but it led to scenes of track workers cleaning up the mess with Tide, drivers racing each other to a port-a-potty and the cherry on top, Brad Keselowski’s tweet from inside his No. 2 Dodge during the red flag.

Keselowski sent the tweet at 9:58 p.m. ET and NASCAR Twitter was born.

8. “Five Time,” Nov. 21, 2010

Jimmie Johnson got his decade off to a notable start by accomplishing a feat no one had done before or will likely repeat.

Johnson successfully won his fifth-consecutive Cup title, two more than the previous best feat of three straight by Cale Yarborough (1976-78).

Next season will be Johnson’s final full-time Cup campaign and he’ll try to start the next decade just like he started this one, by making some championship history with his eighth title.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)

9 (tie). Danica Patrick’s Daytona 500 pole, Feb. 17, 2013

Danica Patrick’s NASCAR career ended after 252 national series starts, the last coming in the 2018 Daytona 500.

Patrick never won in her time in a stock car, and the long-term impact of her time in NASCAR and her popularity likely won’t be evident for a while.

But there’s one thing that can never be taken away from her time in the sport: her pole for the 2013 Daytona 500.

That’s how Patrick started her first full-time season in Cup, by becoming the first woman to win the pole for a Cup Series race.

 9 (tie). Trevor Bayne’s only Cup Series win – Feb. 20, 2011

Trevor Bayne only won once in his Cup Series career and boy did he make it count.

The day after his 20th birthday, driving the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford in his second career start, Bayne survived the second green-white-checkered finish attempt of the Daytona 500 and won the “Great American Race.”

Bayne would make 187 Cup Starts, with the last coming in 2018 with Roush Fenway Racing.

9 (tie). Enter the Roval – Sept. 30, 2018

Marcus Smith, Speedway Motorsports Inc. and NASCAR couldn’t have asked for a better debut for the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

It all came down to the last lap and the final turn on the new road course, which combined Charlotte’s traditional oval and the revamped infield circuit, the first of its kind in NASCAR.

Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson made contact and spun while racing for the lead, Ryan Blaney stole the win and Kyle Larson drove his battered No. 42 Chevy by the prone car of Jeffrey Earnhardt to pick up the one spot necessary to force a tiebreaker with Johnson and Aric Almirola and advance to the second round of the playoff.

Come back tomorrow for the best race finishes of the 2010s.

Now it’s your turn to vote. What was NASCAR’s most memorable moment of the 2010s?

 

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Ryan Blaney throws out first pitch for Chicago Cubs game

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Ryan Blaney got his weekend in the Chicago area off to a memorable start with a trip to the ballpark Thursday afternoon.

The Team Penske driver got the opportunity to throw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field before the Chicago Cubs’ game against the Atlanta Braves.

While the pitch was a little high, Blaney got the ball across home plate.

This isn’t the first time NASCAR drivers have taken part in ceremonies at Wrigley Field.

Last July, Austin Dillon sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the the seventh-inning stretch of a game. Cubs fans Kurt Busch did the honors in 2011 and Jeff Gordon did so in 2005, though he’d like a do over.

Illinois native and Cubs fan Danica Patrick has also thrown the opening pitch twice over the years.

Reviewing Danica Patrick’s highs and lows at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the legacy left by her success

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So much of Danica Patrick’s fame can be traced to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It’s where she became a household name 13 years ago when she became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 and emerged as a transcendent athlete.

It’s where everything started. This Sunday, it’s where everything will end, too.

In her last warmup before starting the final race of her career, Patrick had a bumpy final practice Friday on Carb Day. She was eighth fastest, but her Dallara-Chevrolet was in the garage most of the session because of an electrical problem in the engine. After returning during the final 10 minutes of the session, Patrick’s No. 13 seemed to be OK.

“At the end of the day, these are things you’re actually glad for, because if this had happened Sunday, we would have been done,” she said. “I’m glad to get the issues out of the way early on. Overall, today felt good. We made some changes when I went out the second time, and I’m feeling good about starting seventh on Sunday.”
Though she has had her share of success – along with a fourth in her debut, there was a third in 2009 and six top 10s in seven starts — Patrick has learned well how to handle frustration at the 2.5-mile track, too.

Fuel mileage might have kept her from winning her debut, a pit collision ruined 2008, and an unstable setup made 2010 a wild ride.

For a review of her up-and-down history at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and her legacy in racing, watch the video essay above that ran during Friday’s NASCAR America Motorsports Special on NBCSN.

 

Kurt Busch’s No. 41 becomes first car revealed for this year’s throwback race at Darlington Raceway

Image: Stewart-Haas Racing
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If Kurt Busch’s car in this year’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 throwback race at Darlington Raceway looks familiar, there’s a good reason for it.

Busch will drive a car with a paint scheme similar to the car he drove at the 1.366-mile egg-shaped track in the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400.

And what a race that was. Busch’s No. 97 Rubbermaid-sponsored red and gray Ford had a last-lap fender-banging battle with Ricky Craven’s No. 32 Cal Wells Racing Pontiac, which ended up 0.002 seconds ahead of Busch for the win.

Ironically, tomorrow, March 16, marks the 15th anniversary of what at the time was the closest finish in NASCAR history.

Busch’s Darlington black, red and gray throwback scheme – the first of all teams to be revealed for this year’s race – on his No. 41 Haas Automation Ford Fusion, was first unveiled by NASCAR.com.

Busch has never won at Darlington. His 2003 runner-up finish has been his highest finish, though he’s also finished third in 2010 and in last year’s race.

This will be the fourth consecutive year for Darlington’s popular throwback weekend. This year’s theme is “seven decades of NASCAR” across the entire weekend from Aug. 31 to Sept. 2.

Stewart-Haas Racing has won the best throwback paint scheme the last two years (in voting at NASCAR.com), last year with Danica Patrick’s No. 10 car (a blue-and-white look that honored NASCAR Hall of Famer Robert Yates), and Tony Stewart’s car for his final race at Darlington in 2016 that honored Bobby Allison.

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Ryan: NASCAR and Danica Patrick parted on faint and familiar terms

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The secret to unlocking the most candid and insightful sides of Danica Patrick in an interview was always simple but somewhat counterintuitive.

Stay away from the racing questions.

If you wanted to get her comfortable, the conversation was best steered toward the topics of lifestyle and pop culture (for which Patrick always has had a soft spot). The jokes quickly would follow about Mercury being in retrograde, the Millennials who shopped for Lululemon yoga pants on the Magnificent Mile and the appeal of a raglan sleeve.

When talk shifted on track, the guard usually went up, and justifiably: Few drivers have had their demeanors and performances scrutinized as closely, so every word was chosen carefully and, in some ways, clinically.

This isn’t implying she lacked passion for racing.

For anyone who has met the steel-cable grip of her handshake, there is no mistaking Patrick always is determined, serious and unwavering about excelling in whatever has her focus.

Stock cars just happened to become the vessel for her competitive fire and zeal.

It was almost incidental that Patrick landed in NASCAR, and now’s the moment to reflect on how and why the fit always felt less than perfect.

For the first time in five years and 181 races, the green flag will drop on NASCAR’s premier series Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway without Patrick in the field.

She will be missed by a circuit that was greatly impacted by her transcendent appeal, but Patrick probably won’t be missing much about NASCAR (at least not immediately).

In in-depth sitdowns with Brant James and Jenna Fryer, two reporters who built a long rapport and trust with Patrick and know how to channel her honesty, the most successful woman in racing revealed a mix of ambivalence and relief about stepping off the Cup merry-go-round and away from racing in general. She told Fryer she didn’t plan to watch many races nor mentor young women drivers and wouldn’t be selling gear at track, dedicating herself to her fitness books, winery and clothing line.

Yet though she could have done without the 10-month travel schedule and the tunnel-vision vibe of an insular garage, her departure wasn’t exactly dripping with disdain for NASCAR.

There is some notable indifference, but it shouldn’t be confused with a lack of spirit to conquer whatever athletic pursuit in which she chooses to commit.

Breaking a glass ceiling that stands for decades takes a certain “damn the torpedoes” swagger that Patrick has. During a 2013 interview that branched into her love of fitness and cardio, her eyes once turned black as coal when it was suggested a marathon might be out of reach.

“I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have to train,” she said. “I don’t think there’d be much difference in going from 7 miles to 17 miles.”

What about 26.2?

“I feel I could just do it,” she said. “I want to do one. But I’m so competitive, I don’t know if I can go into it blind.”

“Blind” would be a fair description of how she arrived in NASCAR, which she felt offered more challenge, exposure and money than the limits she’d reached in IndyCar after seven seasons. She made no bones knowing little about stock cars in her early days.

When crew chief Tony Eury Jr. talked about “yaw” in handling, she thought he was saying, “Y’all.” After an Xfinity qualifying lap at Dover International Speedway in 2010, she embarrassingly got lost on the way back to the pit lane. And she struggled to grasp NASCAR’s peculiar lexicon.

“I don’t know if I could have studied more,” she said after her first partial season in 2010. “At first I probably jumped in a little too deep, and I wanted to see setup sheets and tried to do it like IndyCar. It’s just damn gibberish to me. Especially talking about truck arms. On a car?”

This isn’t restricted to Patrick. Many drivers wheel vehicles they don’t fully understand. In an episode of Racing Roots last year, Kyle Larson playfully was exposed for knowing little mechanically when starting out in the sprint cars he dearly loves.

For every Mark Martin and Jeff Burton who remember the weight and size of every shock and spring they ever ran, there are multi-time Cup champions who couldn’t explain the setup under their cars even if you spotted them a small army of ASE-certified mechanics.

Yet stock cars never seemed to strike Patrick’s fancy the way that IndyCar did (she told James that an Indianapolis 500 victory naturally would rank ahead of Daytona). Undoubtedly, that stems mostly from an exclusively open-wheel career path that began in go-karts and took her to Europe before returning for Indy.

But it was more than just an unfamiliar environment. Patrick has hinted a few times recently — notably in the 2017 documentary, Danica — that she believes her Stewart-Haas Racing crews sometimes didn’t believe in her (Tony Stewart refuted that, telling ESPN.com’s Bob Pockrass at Daytona that her team was overhauled on her demand). Undoubtedly, there are traces of bitterness and resentment from a career chapter that probably feels more transactional than sentimental.

So as NASCAR moves on without her this weekend, it’s understandable that Patrick is moving on, too. Her new life is marked by a blueprint for major branding but apparently few race cars after the 2018 Indianapolis 500.

And though she didn’t win or contend regularly in NASCAR (while enduring some wicked crashes, particularly in her last season), she leaves with the respect of its stars, some of whom once openly questioned her credentials. During Daytona 500 Media Day, several credited her for an attendance surge of young girls (usually identifiable because they were clad in “Danica” T-shirts).

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson spoke eloquently about what Patrick meant to his two girls, 7 and 4. He tweeted a photo of Patrick holding his youngest, Lydia, who ran through the pits with her older sister, Genevieve, to greet Patrick before her last start.

“Danica has been someone for my daughters to look up to,” Johnson said. “That’s top of mind for me.  The impact she’s had in sports, (for) women in sports.”

That impact is an indisputable part of her resonance beyond NASCAR.

For Patrick, it always has been about more than just racing.

Just ask her.