The 2016 NASCAR season was a memorable one, with the major news coming from Jimmie Johnson winning a record-tying seventh Cup title, Tony Stewart saying farewell and a pesky little piece of metal that keeps tires on axles.
Before the 2017 season gets here – the Daytona 500 is less than 100 days away – let’s look back at the season that was:
Race of the year: The season’s first race turned out to be the most compelling. Denny Hamlin swooped past Matt Kenseth on the final turn of the final lap of the Daytona 500, then held off Martin Truex Jr. by .01 second to win in the closest finish in the race’s history. It was hard to top that for pure drama and competition and, as it turned out, it never was.
Driver of the year: Johnson overcame a desultory summer to bounce back in the Chase. As he moved through the postseason, he never shied away from his desire to catch Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt on the sport’s all-time championship list. When Johnson won No. 7 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, his glee was palpable.
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Wreck of the year: Carl Edwards seemed to be in prime position to claim the title, but when he tried to block Joey Logano with 10 laps to go at Homestead, it took both drivers out of the championship picture and opened the door for Johnson.
Story of the year: Stewart didn’t want to draw too much attention to himself during his farewell season, at least off the track. When he won on Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway’s road course in June, though, it unleashed a torrent of affection from inside the garage and out for the three-time champion. It also earned Stewart a spot in the Chase.
Team of the year: Although the season didn’t yield another champion for Joe Gibbs Racing, the team was dominant and placed two drivers – Kyle Busch and Edwards – in the championship four. Busch (four), Hamlin (three), Edwards (three) and Kenseth (two) combined for 12 victories. Furniture Row Racing and Truex, with whom JGR has a technical alliance, won four more. That means those Toyotas won 44 percent of the season’s 36 races.
Rookie of the year: Nothing unexpected here. Chase Elliott made the Chase in his first season, running in Jeff Gordon’s old No. 24 Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports. Although Elliott didn’t win a race, he started the season with a splash by winning the pole at Daytona and finished second at both Michigan races.
Injury of the year: Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed the final 18 races because of a concussion he sustained at Michigan in June. With Gordon and Alex Bowman filling in, the sport’s most popular driver was consistently candid and transparent in talking about his injury and recovery. He said he expects to be back for Daytona.
Part of the year: Talk about your unintended consequences. When NASCAR went to pit-road inspection technology this season and cut back on the use of actual, human officials to monitor infractions, some teams either didn’t use all five lug nuts to secure their tires or didn’t secure them tightly enough. That eventually led to safety concerns from drivers (Stewart was fined $35,000 for bringing the subject up).
NASCAR finally did crack down on the lug-nut issue in post-race inspection, costing several crew chiefs unscheduled time away from the track in the form of suspensions, and money in the form of fines.