Parks Pit Report: 2017 Draws to a Close

It’s unreal that the season has drawn to a close.  Champion’s week has begun in Las Vegas, and now there’s no racing until the middle of February.  It has been a series of changes this year, with a new title sponsor entering NASCAR, a new way each race is run, and an entirely reworked Playoff system for 2017.

But, just as much as these changes entering the year, there were just as many during the season as well.

As we embark on the final month of the year, let’s review the biggest, the craziest, and the best stories of the inaugural Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season.

THE YOUTH HAVE RISEN

This year has been a season where the younger a driver is, the more success they see.  A pair of first-time winners proves that point.

Austin Dillon and Ryan Blaney each scored their first career wins at Charlotte and Pocono, respectively, while others like Kyle Larson saw multiple wins over the course of the year, or close to it.  Drivers like Chase Elliott and Erik Jones also saw success this year, with Jones winning Rookie of the Year honors.

It goes to show that as the years progress, some of the veteran drivers continue to see some success, but also realize the changing of the guard is fast approaching.

Even an established team like Hendrick Motorsports over the last two seasons have realized the youth is where it’s at to find success.  At the end of 2015, Jeff Gordon called it a career.  This year, another veteran said it was time to hang up the helmet (more on that later).  Now, the Hendrick field has only one veteran driver with 10-plus years of Cup competition, that being Jimmie Johnson.

Next year, Alex Bowman enters full-time Cup competition in the No. 88, while Elliott moves over to the new No. 9 Chevy.  In the No. 24, it is William Byron, the new Xfinity Series champion for 2017.

The youth movement has been in effect for a long time, and that means a lot of the veteran drivers will be seeing their time at the wheel come to a close.  It’s coming, but they won’t give their seats up that easily.

MUSCLE CAR CUP COMPETITION

You wouldn’t think the addition of a new car into Cup competition would be a big story, but in my eyes it is because it brings back an era where NASCAR thrived.

It’s no secret that car makers are in a war of speed and handling.  Look at the new Dodge Challenger R/T Demon.  It has been a major talk because of how powerful it is, and how fast.  Mainly because when Dodge executives took it to the drag strip to see just how fast, it broke the nine-second barrier.  No fancy modifications, no add-ons from the aftermarket, just a flat-out fast car…that was immediately banned by NHRA for any competition in the pro categories.

So what’s the other option for speed and handling?  That is NASCAR, and for 2018, Chevrolet has the lead in that.  Already running the Camaro in the Xfinity Series, Chevrolet welcomed the new-generation, Camaro ZL1 for Monster Energy Cup competition for next year, and immediately with it’s stance, and menacing look, it already has garnered attention.

So much so that it begs the question whether Dodge will get back into NASCAR and bring another R/T machine to the track.  Ford also now could be looked at as maybe getting behind because they have a car called the Shelby Mustang that could be another potential standout for competition.

So now, could we end up seeing some muscle car wars once again in NASCAR?  This fan certainly wouldn’t mind that competition.

THANK YOU, JUNIOR

I never imagined this day would come, but I also knew after how last season ended, this moment was likely arriving a lot sooner than anyone anticipated.

Having missed the entire second half of 2016 with concussion symptoms, Dale Earnhardt Jr. decided that with all he has accomplished, and now more things to live for, that when the final checkered flag waved in Homestead, it was the signal of the end to a career with ultimate highs, and one extremely ultimate low.

Having the difficulty of being the son of “The Intimidator” and knowing his dad is no longer with us, it’s pressure to the fullest extent.  But, not once did Junior decide he wanted to be like his father.  Instead, he wanted to be himself, and if he didn’t have that success, that was okay with him.

Turns out, he did pretty well for himself.  Team owner, two-time Daytona 500 champion, champion car owner, and now he’s finally seeing what it’s like to have fun and be more involved with the sport.

But after his concussion sidelined him last season, the timetable for retirement sped up immensely, and his fans knew it.  Now, it has arrived, and there’s no regrets from him in how he did it.

His final race felt like his first.  His uniform, his car, and the fan acceptance were all there.  When the race ended, he pulled onto pit road, and his crew awaited him, along with media and teammates.  His helmet handed to his car owner, and at that time, he finally got to do one thing he’s wanted to do for a long while…have a drink with his team.  Out the coolers came, and one by one the Budweiser cans were handed out.  Even ESPN’s Marty Smith, who has since been working with college football, came to the track to wish his friend success in the future, and toast to their friendship and success.

It will be very odd seeing Alex Bowman in the No. 88 next season, but Junior himself was happy to see someone that he’s watched and mentored get the opportunity.  He, meanwhile, gets to go home, and after hanging the body of his last ride in his garage, and settle down with his wife, Amy, and soon welcome their daughter into the world.

What more can be said except, well, thank you, Junior.

The right man won the championship this season.

DOMINANT AND DESERVING CHAMPION

There was never a doubt in my mind that this moment was coming.  There was never any doubt before the Playoffs began that this was going to happen.  Sure, the team may have experienced some doubts along the way, but this was the right time.

When Martin Truex Jr. swept Las Vegas, he put the sport on notice…he was ready to take the ultimate step.

Win, after win.  Playoff point after playoff point.  Dominance was showcased without any doubt as the year progressed.

Entering the season finale, Truex had seven wins on the year in 35 races, an astounding 20% victory rate for his team.  After all he has experienced in his career, the moment he thought would never happen was in reach.  This is a driver who at one point lost his ride, his sponsor, and all hope because his teammates were trying to get him a playoff spot.  In doing so, it cost him a ride, his team an entire operation, and his future put into limbo.

Then here came Furniture Row Racing, who were looking for a driver to inject some life into their single-car operation.

Add in Cole Pearn, and Toyota, then teammate Erik Jones, and all the pieces were in place for success.  But it all came down to the final race, and how he finished.

Not only did he finish, but he capped off his dominance with the ultimate victory.  There was no trip to victory lane, because when he crossed the line the winner of the Ford EcoBoost 400, it secured the first championship at the top level of his career.  Not one person in attendance felt that the champion this year wasn’t deserving.  Every person in the stands, garage area, pit road and anywhere around the track, all thought the right man won the championship this year.

Martin Truex Jr, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Champion…that has a very good ring to it.

Well, the year is over, and now it’s time to kick back and count down the days until Daytona is calling our names.  Until that time comes, Merry Christmas to all the NASCAR fans.  See you in the new year.

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