By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
From start to finish, the 2018 NASCAR season produced its share of surprising storylines, from Austin Dillon’s stunning victory in the season-opening Daytona 500 to Joey Logano’s triumph over the “Big Three” in the championship-deciding finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Dillon Makes a Splash at Daytona
The Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s Super Bowl despite being the first race of the season. This year, as it often does, the 500 gave NASCAR’s season a strong jump-start.
With the recent exodus of top stars, including Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., there were worries that the new faces of the sport wouldn’t be able to hold the attention of fans used to familiar faces with long histories.
But Daytona provided a good transition, as Dillon put the No. 3 Chevrolet — made famous by the late Dale Earnhardt — back in Victory Lane, a place it visited often while Earnhardt was its driver. Pushing Dillon across the finish line and finishing second was another youngster, Darrell Wallace Jr., driving the legendary No. 43, which also has a winning history stretching back decades to the times current team owner Richard Petty was the car’s driver.
Wallace’s finish also provided NASCAR’s diversity movement a big boost, as Wallace is the Cup circuit’s lone African-American driver. Among those pulling for the popular youngster at Daytona were Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton, who sent Wallace a pre-race message on Twitter, and baseball’s Hank Aaron, who phoned him.
As is often the case for those who surge to success in the Daytona 500, the top-two finishers were unable to maintain that pace for the rest of the season.
Dillon made the playoffs, due to his victory, but had a lackluster rest of the season.
He led just 23 laps all year, including the one lap he led at Daytona, and scored just one other top-five finish. He wound up 13th in the final points standings.
For Wallace, his runner-up at Daytona wound up being his only top-five finish of the season and one of just three top-10s. He finished 28th in the final standings.
Johnson and Knaus Part Ways
It’s often said that maintaining positive chemistry between driver and crew chief is the key factor in creating a winning combination in racing.
That certainly was the case for Jimmie Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, as they dominated the sport for nearly two decades, winning seven Cup championships and 81 races together.
But by midway into the 2017 season and throughout 2018, the dominant duo of previous seasons seemed to have lost their magic.
They went winless for this season, continuing a string dating back to Johnson’s most recent win, at Dover in June 2017. He led just 40 laps and also had just two top-five finishes — both career lows — and 11 top-10s, which tied his 2017 performance as the lowest of his full-time career.
Near the end of the season, it was announced that the pair would be splitting up, with Knaus moving over to the No. 24 driven by William Byron and Johnson being paired with Kevin Meendering, who is moving up from the Xfinity Series, where he most recently worked with Elliott Sadler, who retired at season’s end.
“It’s time for us to move on and have a new project and have new people to work with,” Johnson told reporters at Homestead-Miami Speedway after ending the season with a 14th-place finish. “But [Knaus] is my brother offseason, there is just no way around it. So, not an easy situation. … The season is behind us now, and I look forward to a good offseason and getting geared up for 2019.”
Elliott Arrives in Victory Lane
With a strong charge on the road course at Watkins Glen, Chase Elliott finally broke through with his first Cup victory. It was fitting that it came on a road course, as his father, Bill Elliott, also scored his first Cup victory on a road course, at the old Riverside International Raceway in California in 1983.
And both Elliotts got their first Cup wins after eight runner-up finishes.
Elliott, 22, was cheered loudly by a large crowd on hand at the Glen, a sign that he’s also following his father’s tire tracks as far as popularity goes.
“I ran out of gas, so I was coasting around, had a great view to see all the people,” he said. “It looked like a sell-out.
“When I was coasting around, people were still fired up. I’m sure some of them weren’t happy, but there were a lot of people that were still pretty excited. … They were standing up, so that’s just a cool thing to see. There’s nothing that can recreate that feeling and looking in the stands and seeing people that excited for you for, something that you did.”
And in a move that symbolized what the day meant for many, when Elliott ran out of gas on the cool-down lap, the likely superstar of the future got a push to his victory celebration from a superstar of the present, his teammate and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
Elliott went on to score two more wins, at Dover and Kansas, and finish sixth in the final points standings. He also won his division’s most popular driver award, his first and the 17th for the Elliott family, bolstered by his father’s NASCAR-record 16.
The Roval Debuts at Charlotte
Faced with a lack of buzz about three races, including the All-Star Race, on the same “cookie cutter” race track, Charlotte Motor Speedway took a leap and built the Roval, a combination infield road course along with portions of the track’s 1.5-mile quad-oval.
The Roval hosted its first Cup race in September. The event drew a large crowd and delivered an uptick in TV ratings for a sport that had experienced significant declines in viewership.
The race on the 2.28-mile, 17-turn track wasn’t loaded with drama in the beginning, but had plenty in the closing laps.
On a restart with six circuits remaining, Brad Keselowski, who had led the previous 29 laps, drove off the track and into the Turn One barrier, taking five other contenders for the win with him.
After a red-flag period for clean-up, the green flag flew for a three-lap dash to the checkered flag, with two former champions — Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. — leading the way.
Truex held the lead until they were within sight of the checkered flag, but Johnson made a desperate move into the final turn, lost control of his car and bounced into Truex, knocking them both around.That opened the door for third-running Ryan Blaney to scoot by and get his first and only win of the season.
The finish also had implications for the playoffs, as it was the cutoff event for the first playoff round. Four of the 16 playoff drivers faced elimination, and it wasn’t until all the cars had crossed the finish line that the losing four were determined.
Among them was Johnson, who fell to eighth in the race and wound up tied for the final transfer spot with Kyle Larson and Aric Almirola. Johnson wound up the odd man out due to the tiebreaker of best finishes in the opening playoff round. Also eliminated were Austin Dillon, Erik Jones and Denny Hamlin.
Logano Outruns the ‘Big Three’
NASCAR’s playoff format once again set up a dramatic finish to the season, as the three drivers who dominated the regular season — Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. — squared off for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway against Joey Logano. Logano earned his spot in the final four by knocking Truex aside on the last lap of the fall race at Martinsville Speedway in the first race of the playoff’s third round.
Still, entering the championship-deciding Ford EcoBoost 400, most eyes were on the Big Three, and deservedly so.
They’d combined to win 20 of the 35 races leading up to Homestead, with Harvick and Busch winning eight apiece and Truex four. At that point, Logano had just two wins, the first coming at Talladega in the 10th race of the season.
But when it came down to a late-race shootout at Homestead, Logano stepped up and took control.
The Homestead race — and the championship — was decided in a 15-lap dash set up by a spin by Daniel Suarez that brought out the race’s final caution flag. The four championship contenders — Logano, Truex, Harvick and Busch — all restarted on the first two rows.
Logano lined up beside Truex on the front row and lost the lead to him initially. But a daring pass to the outside with 12 laps remaining gave Logano a lead he would never relinquish. He simply drove away from Truex, Harvick and Busch to win by 1.725 seconds over the runner-up Truex.
Logano’s team owner, Roger Penske, said his late charge at Homestead was one of those situations where Logano is at his best.
“When it’s time to go, he’s the guy,” Penske said.
The runner-up finish for Truex and his No. 78 team was particularly bittersweet, as it was the final race for that team. Owner Barney Visser closed his operation due to the financial issues caused by a lack of sponsorship going forward.
Truex and his crew chief, Cole Pearn, are moving to Joe Gibbs Racing to take over the team that previously fielded cars for Daniel Suarez, who had not announced his 2019 plans as of last week.
PHOTO CAPTION: Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500 and locked up an early playoff spot.Sarah Crabill/Getty Images for NASCAR