By Rick Minter
The 2017 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup season saw many an interesting storyline, from Martin Truex Jr.’s dominating run to a championship to a significant changing of the guard to the continued emergence of some of the sport’s stars of the future.
Carl Edwards’ Stunner
The big changes began in early January, when Carl Edwards, who came within a handful of laps of winning the 2016 championship only to be involved in a late-race wreck with Joey Logano, stunned the racing world by announcing that he was stepping away from his full-time ride.
The popular Edwards, who has won 28 Cup races and 38 in the Xfinity Series, plus the 2007 driving title, said in the news conference announcing his decision to step away that the bold move left him “about the most scared I’ve ever been about something.”
He said he simply followed his gut instincts.
“I really believe it’s the right thing,” he said. “It’s a personal thing. I feel strongly about it. I’m very confident in it.”
He did admit that the prospect of serious injury, such as the concussions that caused Dale Earnhardt Jr. to miss races in previous seasons and hastened his retirement, was a factor.
“I can stand here healthy, and that’s a testament after all the racing I’ve done and all the stupid stuff I’ve done in a race car, that is a true testament to NASCAR, to the tracks, to the people who have built my race cars, to my competitors, and to the drivers who have come before me who haven’t been so fortunate,” he said in that January news conference. “Having said that, though, it’s a risky sport. I’m aware of the risks.
“I don’t like how it feels to take the hits that we take, and I’m a sharp guy, and I want to be a sharp guy in 30 years, so those risks are something that I want to minimize.”
After making a few appearances at tracks early in the season to support Daniel Suarez, his replacement in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 Toyota, Edwards dropped out of sight and was rarely seen or heard from by the racing community.
Junior Makes It Official
In April, Earnhardt Jr. announced that the 2017 season would be his last as a full-time driver.
Earnhardt, who returned to the circuit at the beginning of the season after missing half of the 2016 campaign due to a concussion, said it was important to him to be able to end his career on his own terms rather than have the decision dictated by an injury or some other situation out of his control.
While Earnhardt was able to run the entire 36-race schedule without suffering a concussion, he was not as competitive as he had been in his prime. He had just one top-five finish, a career low, and eight top-10s on the way to a 21st-place finish in the final points standings. He did score two poles, which leaves him with 26 career Cup wins and 15 poles. He also has a commendable record in the Xfinity Series, where he has two driving titles, 24 wins and 10 poles.
Earnhardt, who scored his 15th-straight Most Popular Driver Award in 2017, isn’t planning to stay out of the limelight as Edwards has done. He’s planning to run a few Xfinity races and will be a commentator for NBC during its NASCAR TV coverage.
That TV gig will put him in an arena that his late father never entered, so the comparisons to his father, which were hard to avoid during his driving career, shouldn’t be a topic of discussion.
Even so, Earnhardt has never seemed to be affected by the comparisons to his father, who had 76 Cup wins and seven championships.
Earnhardt addressed that issue during a media session at Phoenix Raceway.
“I read something on Twitter the other day about my brother [Kerry],” Earnhardt said. “He said he has always lived under Dad’s shadow and that is not such a bad thing.
“I don’t know that you are always out from under it, but it didn’t bother me. But I was always compared to him and compared to his success, the person he was. People either liked that I was different or didn’t like that I was different and wanted me to be just like him or whatever.
“I really don’t know when that started to happen. I guess it is happening now. I am going to go do something else after I’m done driving.
“Hopefully, I’m just as proud of my accomplishments in the booth as I am on the race track. I would love for that career to be a success and that would definitely be out from under his shadow. But it’s not something I really put a lot of thought into.
“I just miss him so bad and wish he were here today to see all this happening.”
Kenseth and Patrick
The season ended with two more veteran drivers, Matt Kenseth and Danica Patrick, stepping away.
Kenseth left involuntarily after it was announced that his ride in the No. 20 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing was going to Erik Jones, who won the 2017 Rookie of the Year title driving the No. 77 for Furniture Row Racing.
Patrick announced at Homestead-Miami Speedway that she planned to run the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 in 2018 before retiring for good. Her ride in the No. 10 Ford at Stewart Haas Racing is going to Aric Almirola, who is moving to Stewart Haas from Richard Petty Motorsports, along with sponsor Smithfield Foods.
Kenseth, who won the next-to-last race of the season at Phoenix Raceway to push his career Cup win total to 39, left the door open to returning to driving, but also seemed at peace with the idea of being retired.
“It’s just been quite a journey, and today was a really special day for me, to know that next week is almost for sure my last week behind the wheel,” Kenseth said in his winner’s interview at Phoenix. “A lot of things I don’t really understand, but I probably knew around August that it really wasn’t meant for me to be racing anymore at this level going forward.
“With that, I probably fought it for too long and kind of looked at different opportunities and thought about doing something different, but then just really embraced it.
“Not many people get to go out in really good cars and win races and have a chance to win a championship.”
Truex’s season for the ages
They focused on winning stages, a new format for NASCAR’s major circuits, and collecting the bonus points and playoff points that came with them. Drivers in the top 10 in the first two stages of races earned stage points, and stage winners and race winners also earned playoff points.
Truex won a circuit-leading eight races, and led his fellow drivers in stage points and playoff points with 438 stage points, 19 stage wins and 69 playoff points.
The playoff points allowed Truex to be in a relatively safe position as far as advancing from one round to the next. But he didn’t end up needing them, as he scored four wins during the playoffs, including three that allowed him to advance to the next round.
In the championship round at Homestead-Miami Speedway, in which the highest finishing driver of the four championship contenders got the title, Truex outdueled Kyle Busch in the closing laps to get the victory and the championship.
Among those congratulating Truex and his T-shirt-wearing crew chief, Cole Pearn, was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who helped Truex make the move from the short tracks of the Northeast to NASCAR’s elite divisions.
“It’s so good to see him win this title,” Earnhardt told reporters at Homestead. “He is a professional and a gentleman and just a perfect friend. We’ve been pals a long, long time. I was glad to have a hand in getting his career going. I can’t take all the credit. … But he’s just such a great guy. … I am so proud of him.”
Earnhardt went on to say that Truex will be a great representative of the sport. He said it was also good to see Truex and his girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, who is battling cancer, celebrating with the Cup champion’s trophy.
“Everything that he’s gone through as a driver, and beyond that, everything he’s gone through in his personal life, everything Sherry has gone through, the whole sport has been behind them for so long and supported them for so long, but it’s just great,” he said, adding that he was happy for Pearn as well. “Cole, he’s just himself. He’s a really cool guy, comes to work in a T-shirt. You’ve got to love his attitude and personality. That personality and attitude encompasses the whole team. It’s just fun to watch. And they’re sort of the outsiders way up there in Denver. Beat all us boys down in North Carolina.”