With the 2017 season firmly in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to reflect on what happened. What else are we going to talk about?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.
Points Position: 21st
Stage Points: 44
Top 5s: 1
Top 10s: 8
Average Starting Position: 17.0
Average Finish: 20.0
Highlight: Junior left the Cup Series on his own terms. After the scary concussion that sidelined him for half of the 2016 season, getting to drink beers with his crew at the car after the Homestead race is a win for Junior, even if he didn’t finish on the lead lap.
On the track, it’s the fifth-place finish he posted at Texas in the spring. It was early enough in the season to give Junior fans hope that a resurgence was in the offing. That resurgence never happened.
Lowlight: He got caught in a crash that wasn’t his own doing in his final Daytona 500. He blew an engine with a fluky shift at Pocono. He crashed in his final Daytona start in July. He blew an engine at Watkins Glen.
It was a brutal season for DNFs, though after seven in the first 22 races of the year, Junior made it through the final 14 races without one.
Points Position: 15th
Stage Points: 4
Top 5s: 3
Top 10s: 6
Average Starting Position: 17.9
Average Finish: 19.4
Highlight: Kahne got the Brickyard 400 win that had eluded him for some time. Kahne had previously had quick cars at the Brickyard but was denied while driving for Ray Evernham by Tony Stewart and was the runner-up to Jeff Gordon in what turned into Gordon’s final Brickyard 400 win.
Kahne got his Brickyard win by outdueling Brad Keselowski as the race ended and getting through a crazy three-wide sequence with Keselowski and teammate Jimmie Johnson that was one of the signature moments of the 2017 season.
Lowlight: Kahne’s tenure at Hendrick Motorsports ended with a whimper. He wasn’t a factor in the playoffs as we all officially knew he was out the door in favor of William Byron.
Points Position: 10th
Stage Points: 42
Top 5s: 4
Top 10s: 11
Average Starting Position: 16.9
Average Finish: 16.8
Highlight: Johnson won back-to-back races in the spring at Texas and Bristol. He then followed them up with a win at Dover in the 13th race of the season for three wins in seven races. It looked like Johnson was going to be a serious threat for his eighth championship and cement his (already solid) status as the best NASCAR driver ever.
Lowlight: 2017 turned out to be the worst of Johnson’s career. Granted, those are absurdly high standards, but Johnson’s third-place finish at Dover in the fall was his only other top five. That’s insanity. Simply being Jimmie Johnson wasn’t enough to get to Homestead with a chance at the title.
Points Position: 5th
Stage Points: 95
Top 5s: 12
Top 10s: 21
Average Starting Position: 10.8
Average Finish: 12.0
Highlight: Elliott looked like a true title contender and had the best season of any Hendrick driver despite his inability to get to victory lane. Just four other drivers had more top-10 finishes than Elliott had, so his fifth-place finish in the standings was entirely appropriate.
Lowlight: Elliott’s second-place finish at Chicago was tainted by spoiler tape. Who would have thought that would end up being the third-craziest thing of his playoffs?
The spin by Denny Hamlin at Martinsville is the clear loser here, though so is Elliott getting chased down at Phoenix by Matt Kenseth.
Elliott is going to visit victory lane. And it’ll probably happen in 2018. But until it does, he’s in the unenviable position of being known a lot more for losing races than winning them.
Elliott and Johnson are the two holdovers at Hendrick in 2018, and even Elliott’s tenure will look different in the No. 9 car as Byron takes over the No. 24 even if he’s keeping Kahne’s team. Alex Bowman is the replacement for Junior in the No. 88 car.
It’s probably not a coincidence that as Toyota teams got a handle on their new cars as the 2017 season went on, the Hendrick Chevrolets — namely Johnson — tapered off. While Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson had speed in the playoffs, none of the team’s other three drivers did.
We’re fascinated to see how the new 2018 Camaro evens out the playing field with Toyota and Ford. If the Camaro — with its stylized nose similar to that of the Toyota — can provide aerodynamic benefits, Johnson should challenge for his eighth championship. And Elliott should win a race.
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