Parks Pit Report: Closing Out 2016

Wow, is this really the case?  NASCAR has come to an end for the 2016 season?

Another season in the books, and it was one of change, but also one that remained the same.  New rules for aerodynamics went into effect to alter how the teams set up to race, and even that got tweaked during the season for a few races.  That already will mean new changes for next year, which all seem to be a positive direction forward.

But it still was a season that saw some major stories come to light, some being sad, while others left everyone gasping at what happened.

Rather than waste time, let’s get right into it.  Here’s my five biggest news-making incidents that the 2016 season brought us on the track.

Ford 400 VICTORYStewart’s Delayed Retirement

It didn’t start out as he expected, but this season officially was the last time the man known as “Smoke” would put on the firesuit and drive a Cup car in competition.  After a trying few seasons due to incidents outside of his main job, it seemed as though Stewart lost his touch.

Or maybe it was to the point where he knew the time had come to walk away, especially with him being a team owner, track owner, and head of a racing series.

It didn’t get started as expected, because Stewart would miss the beginning of the season as he recovered from injuries he sustained in a dune buggy accident that happened in the off-season.  But when he came back, just like last year with Kyle Busch, he was given a medical waiver to make the Chase, should he win an event and make it into the top-30 in the standings.

Come Sonoma, a place that shows off his road racing excellence, he would bang his way to the lead in the final corner, and take what ultimately would be his final victory in competition.

He managed to make the Chase, and enjoy his final ride at the wheel.  Was it a successful year…maybe as an owner, not as a driver.  But that’s to not say that his final season wasn’t one to enjoy from any perspective.  Many drivers and teams know the impact Stewart had on the sport.  Even his former owner, Joe Gibbs, honored Smoke at Darlington when Carl Edwards ran a throwback scheme to the 1999-2000 look of Stewart.

Stewart will remain at the track as an owner, a true fixture of the sport.  But now, that driving helmet is put away.  His time at the wheel is over.

The youth movement is here in full.

The youth movement is here in full.

The Youth Movement

Quite possibly the most exciting part of the season has been watching the youth movement in the rookie class that has come up in competition.  This year, the rookie class alone was headlined by two talented drivers, including one that hasn’t even experienced college just yet.

Stepping up from an Xfinity Series championship just two years ago was Chase Elliott, the son of 1988 champion Bill Elliott.  His task was the most challenging of all drivers…take over the car that Jeff Gordon drove for his entire career.

He did not win a race, but he showed the talent of a veteran.  He won the pole for the Daytona 500, and finished the season by advancing through the first round of the Chase, and it culminated with Rookie of the Year honors.

His closest challenge came from Ryan Blaney, the son of Dave Blaney, in the Wood Brothers team that went full-time racing for the first time in over a decade.  His season was also a success, despite not having wins to show for it.  But, for it being his first full season at the helm, Blaney learned quick, and showed he can hang with the veterans.

And to think, this is only each of these drivers’ first full season at the wheel.  Who knows what is next.

A sight many never thought they would see again...Jeff Gordon, in a driver's suit.

A sight many never thought they would see again…Jeff Gordon, in a driver’s suit.

A Concussion and Return

Normally, one thinks a lot of head injuries when it comes to football.  The concussion protocol that the NFL has constantly gets used to protect players that could have head trauma or concussion symptoms.  But, NASCAR also has some concussion procedures they follow.  But, sometimes it’s the driver that seems to know something is wrong before NASCAR does.

Case in point, the sport’s most popular driver.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. went to the doctor in mid-July complaining of headaches and possible sinus issues.  But, doctors then did more testing, and it was determined he was suffering symptoms related to a concussion.  It didn’t seem as though he experienced hard hits, but his incidents at Daytona, Talladega, and Michigan were some hard impacts.  So, in keeping with doctor advice, Earnhardt Jr. voluntarily stepped out of his car to recover, knowing there was more at stake than racing in regards to head trauma.

So, who was to come in and take over for a bit?  Alex Bowman, who competes in the JR Motorsports Xfinity program, took over for the first race in New Hampshire.

But, the big return came one week later at Indianapolis.  For the first time, a car that bared the name of Earnhardt would be driven by…Jeff Gordon.  All the Junior Nation fans had to be feeling mixed emotions, because they cheered for their driver, and now for a few races, the rival of the elder Earnhardt for so many years, now was in Earnhardt’s car.

It was nowhere near the thought of a comeback tour, because Earnhardt’s name was kept above the windshield.  This was a substitute role.

Earnhardt Jr. then declared he was taking the remainder of the year off to make sure he was cleared to race next season, a decision that many drivers felt was best for his long-term goals.  However, if he does get another concussion or even just begins suffering from the symptoms, it could mean the end is near in his driving career.

Still, the fact he took himself out of the car is a big deal, and something other drivers will respect for years to come.

nscs-4c-prtThe Sponsor Hunt

Possibly the biggest story of the season was nothing that happened on the track, but instead was a search outside of it.  It’s no secret that NASCAR has a “silly season” during the summer and into the fall.  This is when teams will announce driver changes, or additions, plus swaps of manufacturers.

But in this case, the one hunt that wasn’t talked about, and hasn’t been declared complete just yet, is the hunt for a title sponsor in Cup competition.

When the season ended last weekend, it was the final race that Sprint was to be the lead sponsor.  In 2004, Nextel Corporation signed on a 10-year deal to be the title name in Cup, ending a 33-year run from R.J. Reynolds.  Prior to the end of the 2007 season, Nextel was bought out by Sprint, a fellow service provider for cell phones, and that meant a name change.

The deal was restructured to include the finale of the 2007 season, but Sprint opted to not renew, and that meant the search was on.

What has become surprising is that no sponsor has been named.  One would think it would have already been done by this time, but the reality is that no sponsor is found yet.  Teams at this point are getting ready to get the new uniforms and pictures set up for the next year, but have been delayed due to no new title name to the series.  This is not so much a delay, but now a wonder of who could come on.

At last check, one name that has become a possible leader is Monster Energy, the Coca-Cola energy drink that is also one of two primary sponsors on the car of Kurt Busch.

However, with no title sponsor as of yet, this remains the biggest mystery in NASCAR.  Once it is revealed who opted to come on and sponsor NASCAR’s top series, everything remains in limbo.

Seven is now a reality in NASCAR's modern era.

Seven is now a reality in NASCAR’s modern era.

#se7en

All readers are probably looking at this title going, “What is that?”  I’ll get it out of the way right now…that is the Twitter hashtag that the Hendrick Motorsports team of Jimmie Johnson adopted once he won at Martinsville, ensuring at Homestead he was going for a championship.

There are numbers in the sport one recognizes with a driver, like 43 representing Richard Petty or 3 immediately bringing up Dale Earnhardt.

As I said last week, those two drivers are connected by one number…seven.  Seven championships a piece in their amazing careers.  It was clear at that time, and through the early 2000s, that to achieve even a possibility of getting to that mark could be impossible.  But, not improbable.  If there is a record to be beat, someone will go after it.

Records were shattered this year when Chase Elliott became the youngest driver to win the pole for the Daytona 500.  Martin Truex Jr. set two records in the Coca-Cola 600 by leading the most laps in one race (392 of 400) and miles in one race (588 of 600).  But the ultimate goal to even match in NASCAR is seven championships.  Can it happen was the original question.  But, once Jimmie Johnson won his sixth back in 2013, it was now will he win seven.

The answer has come.  Seven is a reality, and he needed to do so by beating three other drivers to the finish line.  Points in the final race, meant nothing.  Laps led meant nothing.  It was the first of four drivers to the line that won the title.

This time, and for the third time since this format was instituted, the race winner also was the champion.

Seven titles now are a reality for Jimmie Johnson.  And the craziest part…he can win eight.  He may even hit double digits before his career is over.  Johnson can make it happen, and now it’s up to the remainder of the field to actually stop him from achieving it.

Well, that’s it this season.  Another year in the books, and now for three months no green flag, or checkered flag, to wave.  See you in 2017.  Happy Holidays everyone.

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