The 2017 season was an unforgettable one for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The sport saw a first-time champion, legends and historic drivers retire, a manufacturer dominating, numerous driver feuds, and a handful of young stars inch closer to taking over NASCAR.
The headliner on the track was the championship season from Martin Truex Jr. He deserved to win after he dominated the year, and he finished the season with eight wins. Kyle Busch was the next closest with five wins, but it felt like Truex was the correct champion for the 2017 season.
Entering 2017, Truex only had seven career wins. He more than doubled that in less than a year en route to a stellar postseason run and a thrilling win in the championship race at Homestead. The 37-year-old won his first title, and he’ll be among the favorites to win it all again in his No. 78 Toyota for Furniture Row Racing in 2018.
While Truex’s championship run was the most important part of the season, it wasn’t exactly the headliner for the year. That title belongs to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s farewell season. The most popular driver of the last 15 years announced before the season started that 2017 would be his last, and he was celebrated by fans and his competitors throughout the year.
Earnhardt didn’t win a race, and it wasn’t exactly a memorable year for him on the track, but the farewell tour was a unique and enjoyable way to send off the legend as he prepares to begin his career as an analyst.
Earnhardt wasn’t the only high profile driver to retire after the 2017 season. Matt Kenseth announced late in the year that he wouldn’t be racing next year and that he’s probably finished for his career. Kenseth couldn’t find a full-time ride for next season, and he was replaced by Erik Jones at Joe Gibbs Racing. Kenseth still made the playoffs and advanced to the Round of 12, but he couldn’t win the championship on his way out. He did, however, win at Phoenix in what could be the next-to-last race of his career.
Similarly to Kenseth, the 2017 season was the last for Danica Patrick, though she and her fans weren’t necessarily aware this would happen before the year. Patrick wasn’t re-signed by Stewart-Haas Racing, and she decided this would be her last full-time year in racing. She’ll finish up her career at the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 next year.
The 2017 might season might also be remembered as the Year of Toyota for NASCAR. Toyotas dominated the year, and it almost felt like the manufacturer had an advantage over Ford and Chevrolet. If you ask Brad Keselowski, he’ll come right out and tell you that he believes Toyota had an unfair advantage. Of course, he’s just speculating, but the results on the track speak for themselves.
The top two drivers in wins — Truex and Busch — drove Toyotas. They seemed faster than anyone, and they were the favorites all year to win the title. Denny Hamlin and Kenseth also had great seasons, and guess what, they also drove Toyotas.
Keselowski received some criticism for his complaints, and it seemed like sour grapes since he wasn’t winning as much as some Toyota drivers. But at times, his complaints seemed validated. It’s impossible to prove, but it will be a storyline worth monitoring next year if the trend continues.
Speaking of Keselowski, his ongoing feud with Kyle Busch was prevalent in 2017, and some of their feuding came from Keselowski’s comments about Toyotas. Busch’s response was for Keselowski to basically shut it, and Busch later just flat out admitted he didn’t like Keselowski.
But the rivalry between those two championship contenders wasn’t the headliner for driver feuds in 2017. That title belonged to Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott, and their feud didn’t come until late in the season. Hamlin wrecked Elliott at Martinsville when Elliott had a chance to win the race, and the two had a heated exchange immediately after the race.
Elliott waited a couple of weeks to retaliate, and he took Hamlin out in the penultimate race of the season in Phoenix. Hamlin had a chance to advance to the Championship 4, but he decided to race Elliott head-t0-head and Elliott took the opportunity to knock Hamlin into the wall. That eliminated Hamlin’s chances of advancing, and Keselowski took advantage and filled the last spot.
While NASCAR is losing high profile drivers in Earnhardt, Kenseth and Patrick, the sport also saw the emergence of several young stars who have the ability to take over starting next season.
Elliott is the first name that comes to mind, and he emerged from the feud with Hamlin as a driver who could take over for Earnhardt as the most popular driver and fan-favorite. He still hasn’t won a race in the Cup Series, but he inched closer and closer throughout the year and made it to the Round of 8.
Ryan Blaney also made it to the Round of 8, and he won the first race of his Cup Series career earlier in the year. At 23, Blaney has the youthfulness and the potential to be a prominent figure in the sport for the next decade or more.
Kyle Larson entered his fourth season as a full-time Cup driver, and the 25-year-old was among the best in the sport in 2017. He won four races, and he likely would’ve been in the Championship 4 had he not suffered engine failure in the last race of the Round of 12. Larson asserted himself as one of the top drivers in NASCAR, and he will be a championship contender again in 2018.
Ratings weren’t great at times, but overall it was a successful year for NASCAR. The sport will have trouble replacing Earnhardt, but there are still veterans who can carry the torch next season, and the youth movement in NASCAR promises good things for the future.