NASCAR REPORT

Grading this year's silly season moves in NASCAR

Dale Earnhardt, Jr Hendrick Motorsports courtesy photo

So 2017 has been one of the craziest NASCAR silly season's in recent memory, come 2018 there will be plenty of new faces in somewhat new places next year. Here I will break down each offseason storyline for the 2018 season and give my grade on all the moves, sponsor and number changes going into next season.

Chase Elliott switches to the No. 9 in 2018: A+

You have followed the sport of NASCAR long enough, you would know that the 9 is one of the most popular numbers in the sport. From 1981-1991, NASCAR's most popular driver, Bill Elliott drove the No.9 Coors Light Ford for Melling racing, (he also used this number from 2001-2003). Even though there has been a plethora of drivers that have used this number after he has, Elliott was the man that made the number popular. There is no driver more fitting to take over that number than his son Elliott to carry the legacy his father created. I give this move an A+ not just because of the nostalgic value but because this is something that Chase truly wanted to do from the beginning of his career. It will be good to see an Elliott back in the famous No.9 in 2018.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Announces his retirement at the end of 2017: A-

The biggest storyline of this year without question has been the retirement of arguably the most popular driver in this sport. In April of this year, Earnhardt sent shockwaves through the world of NASCAR when he announced that 2017 would be his final year of full-time competition.

Overall at first, I was a tad bit upset at the news that one of my favorite drivers would be leaving the sport I love. I wondered what was next now that the biggest star in this sport was going to leave but, over time I realized that this was the best move for him. In the end this was Dale realizing that he has accomplished everything that needs to be accomplished in this sport. He has won the Daytona 500 twice (2004, 2014) and has been voted the sport's most popular driver 14 times. It is great that he has sustained a life good enough for himself to be able to walk away and start a new chapter in his life in broadcasting and parenting.

Alex Bowman replaces Dale Earnhardt Jr. Next season: A+

After Earnhardt Jr announced he was leaving the big question was who wouldr replace him? There were many rumors of who would be the next in line including Willam Byron and Matt Kenseth but it was finally announced in July that Alex Bowman will take over. This comes as no surprise seeing how Bowman was the substitute for Earnhardt when he was injured in 2016. This move makes the most sense, due to the fact that Bowman is closest with the sponsors and the team. I think that Bowman is easily the best possible replacement for Earnhardt look for him and his team to be up front next season.

Matt Kenseth announces he is stepping away from full-time competition in 2018: F

2003 NASCAR Winston Cup Champion Matt Kenseth announced that next season he would be taking some "time off" from the sport. This is the move I find the most puzzling; here is a driver that week-in and week-out is always up front and contending for wins and top tens but couldn't find a ride for next season? I find it suspicious that a man that finished in the top 10, 19 times last season can't find a competitive team to race for next season. I give the teams that passed on him an F for not realizing the talent they are passing up. It will be difficult not seeing a good driver racing next season.

Erik Jones replaces Matt Kenseth in 2018: B+

This was probably the most expected out of all the silly season moves. When it was announced that this year Jones will drive for furniture row racing (A team closely related to Joe Gibbs) it seemed as if it was written in the stars for Jones to move over to Gibbs racing sometime soon in the future. I believe this move was inevitable but probably the right choice. Jones has been decent this year with 13 top 10s and four top fives. Kenseth and Jones are almost the same typeof driver seeing how they both camp around in the top ten and let the race come to them, I think this will be a good move and Jones will be a force to be rekoned with in the future.

Darrell Wallace Jr. moves to Richard Petty Motorsports to drive the famed number 43: A++

This has been the most intriguing story of this season for me. Here is a driver that has gone through all sorts of adversity throughout his career, from not having enough sponsorship to finish out his career to hearing insults from "fans" about his race and they believed he got to where he was. To say it has been a tough road for him would be an understatement; the man was sixth in points in the Xfinity series before Jack Roush decided to close up shop. Luckily, he was given an opportunity by the king Richard Petty to fill in for the injured Aric Alimorila in four races this year. In each race he improved a little more and finished a career best eleventh at Kentucky. While it will not come easy for the young Rookie, I believe that NASCAR is getting a great personality and a very talented race car driver. Look for Wallace to be up near the front in 2018.

THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR Ford Ecoboost 500 preview

Martin Truex will try to send his team out in style. Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

This week, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads to Sunny Homestead-Miami Florida for the final race of the 2018 season, The Ford Ecoboost 500. After 36 weeks of battle, this race decides who will represent the sport as champion. Homestead-Miami  has played host for the season finale for the last 16 seasons. This is arguably the biggest race in all of NASCAR considering what is on the line and there is no better place in the world for it to take place. This track is a mile and a half in length and is known for its 18- degree banking in the corners. Over the years, the track has produced some of the best finishes in recent memory and with everything that’s at stake this week should be an all-time classic.

Last week at Phoenix, Kyle Busch took the checkered flag to officially cement his spot in the championship four. He did so after his brother Kurt Busch was involved in a multi-car crash involving him, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott. In the closing stages of the race, Hamlin entered turn four and got into the side of Kurt Busch causing both to hit the wall bouncing back into Chase Elliott.

Hamlin was criticized for his “lack of respect” for the situation that Busch and Elliott were in contending for a championship. At first glance it was easy to understand why fans were upset but upon further review of the video, it would appear that the track was not maintained properly by NASCAR’s clean up crew.  On NASCAR Race Hub Radioactive segment, Defending champion Martin Truex Jr. was quoted as saying “they didn’t clean up the bleeping track for one thing. Everyone went down there and it was like ice. They just don’t get it.” His Crew Chief Cole Pern responeded by saying “yeah they do, it creates excitement. That’s their plan.”

These are fairly serious allegations but it isn’t so farfetched seeing NASCAR has made some pretty dumb calls regarding track maintenance in the past. For example, last season at Dover, they decided to restart the race without fully cleaning the backstretch. This oversight caused Ty Dillon to spin and collect multiple cars with him in the crash. While it may not be intentional and it is definitely difficult to manage these instances but they are proof that NASCAR could do a much better job at track maintenance and cleaning up the track. Let’s hope they have learned their lesson from last week because it has cost two drivers a chance at a championship.

Of the four drivers, Joey Logano enters Homestead as the only one who has never won a title. He has however made it to the championship race three times including this year in 2018. Each attempt has ended in heartbreak whether it be dropping the car off the jack during a pit-stop in 2014, or being involved in a late race crash in 2016. This year Logano hopes that history won't repeat itself and will finally claim his first championship. If he is to win it, it will have been well deserved seeing how he has an excellent season. This year, Logano has 12 top fives, 25 top-10s and two victories including the win that got him here at Martinsville. While he has lurked in the shadows of his competition, he has consistently been in around the front all season. While Logano has a good chance to win the title, the one variable that he must be weary of are the drivers that he  has upset over the duration of the season including Martin Truex Jr and Aric Almirola. Regardless, Logano looks to have a real shot at winning his first title.

Easily, Martin Truex Jr, enters this race as the sentimental favorite to win the championship. As most fans know, Furniture Row racing will cease operations after this race. Truex and his crew chief Cole Pearn have been the spark that have made this team a championship winning organization and now he has a chance to come back and send his team off with one last championship, This has been a rollercoaster type season for him though and while he has been in contention, Truex has yet to win a race since the announcement of his teams closure. In the end though, I don’t foresee this being an issue at Homestead. This is a track where Truex has struggled although as he has the lowest average finish of the group but he has shown that he can win here. Truex has a lot working against him but he still has a great shot at winning his second title.

After last week’s debacle, Kevin Harvick comes to Homestead with a chip on his shoulder. After his win was disallowed two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway, he looks to come in and prove his doubters wrong by claiming his second championship. If he does pull it off, he has definitely earned it with how incredible he has ran this year. Overall He has 22 top fives and 28 top tens with an average finish of 9.0! In percentages, he has finished in the top 10 in 80 percent of the races this year. This has easily been the most dominant season of his career as he has won more races now than ever before even in his championship winning season in 2014. Come Sunday, Harvick is going to be hard to beat.

While Harvick has had the best season statistically, Kyle Busch has come pretty close to matching the success of his championship rival. This year, Busch has eight wins, twenty-one top fives and twenty-seven top tens, nearly identical to the stats that Harvick has been able to put up. After winning last week at Phoenix, Busch comes to homestead with the most momentum on his side and when you get this 18 team in a rhythm they are hard to catch. Besides no one has made it to Homestead more than Kyle Busch as he has only missed the final round one time since the sport adopted this format in 2014. Look for Busch to be around the top three for most of the day as he looks to clinch his second NASCAR Championship.

Over the past four years that we have seen this format, I think this is easily the best four drivers we have ever seen make it to Homestead. Unlike the previous years, we won’t see a driver who got on a hot streak at the end of the season like we did with Ryan Newman in 2014 or Jeff Gordon in 2015. This is the cream of the crop and that’s why I think this will be one of the most memorable championship battles of all time. I look forward to seeing who gets to hoist the trophy come sunday evening.

(All stats and information used in this article is brought to you by the good folks at driveraverages.com and Racing-Reference.com the best website for all NASCAR stats).

 

 

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