Another week of winter means two things: another week of Americans freezing their butts and another week without the thrill of NASCAR racing on TV. Considering we’re all still a little over a month away from the start of the 2018 season, I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to mosey down memory lane and take a look back at last year’s season. As with everything in NASCAR, 2017 brought a little bit of everything: a whole lot of good, a little bit of bad, and a tiny bit of downright ugly. So, without further ado, kick back, grab a beer, and let’s stroll down memory lane together…
- Stage Racing: Alright now, before everyone gets more riled up than Kyle Busch after a 2nd place finish, hear me out. Yes, while the introduction of stage racing marked a significant break from the traditional race format of the past, its impact on the sport has largely been positive. First of all, “phantom”’ debris cautions are way down from the past, in large part because of the addition of stage racing. (See here.) Think about it, NASCAR no longer has to manufacture drama with random and suspicious debris cautions, and instead can rely on the stage breaks to reset the field and provide thrilling restarts. With the introduction of stages, all drivers are on an equal playing field, with each team knowing the exact moment a caution will come out for a stage break. Compare this to the phantom debris caution, which only served to leave a bad taste in both driver’s and fan’s mouths. More transparency is always a good thing, and with stage racing we have that. On top of that, stage points awarded at the end of stages encourage drivers to run up front and stay up front throughout the entire race. Now, if a driver dominates an entire race only to lose it on the last lap thanks to say, a blown tire, they can walk away still earning something for their complete race domination. More action, a fairer playing field, and the elimination of debris cautions? Stage Racing earns a big old thumbs up from me.
- Dale Jr Appreci88tion Retirement tour: Regardless of what any of his detractors say, Dale Earnhardt Jr walks away from NASCAR leaving a tremendous impact on the entire sport. From big wins on the big stage, to introducing NASCAR to an entire new generation of fans, Dale Jr will be remembered as one of the biggest if not the biggest ambassador the sport of NASCAR has ever seen. It’s only fitting then, that the legendary driver received a legendary sendoff. From the July race at Daytona to the final lap at Homestead, the entire 2nd half of the season was filled with moving tributes to stock car racing’s favorite son. As a fan who made the pilgrimage to both Talladega and Homestead for Dale’s last few races, I can say although he will be sorely missed, there is no doubt he was sent off the right way. Bravo to NASCAR, JR Motorsports, and everyone involved in the Appreci88tion tour.
- The Racing (At short tracks, road courses, super speedways, and Homestead): Boy oh boy where we treated to some awesome racing in 2017. The fall race at Martinsville was an all-time classic, with Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliot battling it out and laying the ground work for a future rivalry. The season opening Daytona 500 was nail biting, with the old veteran Kurt Busch holding off a pack of NASCAR’s young guns. And of course the season finale at Homestead, with Truex holding off a late charge by the #18 to secure his first NASCAR cup series championship. The point is NASCAR fans, we were blessed in 2017 with some truly awesome racing. I could go on, and on, but y’all get the point. Sometime we complain a little bit too much as a fan base, and forget to appreciate the good.
- Matt Kenseth winning at Phoenix: With all the fanfare surrounding Dale Jr’s retirement tour, the fact that another NASCAR legend was hanging up his helmet got lost a little bit in the shuffle. It’s fitting then, that it was the soft spoken Matt Kenseth who scored the victory on the big stage near the season’s end, reminding everyone just how much they’ll miss of one NASCAR’s all-time greats. Matt’s Phoenix win was emotional, exciting, and a fitting end to his career.
- Dale Jr’s lack of success in his final season: Look, it pains me to say this JR nation, but as amazing as the off the track celebration of his career was, Jr’s final season on the track can only be describes as a disappointment. After a career resurgence in 2012, Jr was consistently up front and competing for wins until he was sidelined by his nasty concussion midway through 2016. And despite high hopes after for a return to winning races, his final season will sadly be remembered as an on track dud. With only one top 5 and eight top 10s all season, Jr fans will forever be left to wonder what happened during the future Hall of Famer’s final season.
- Toyota Dominance: Look, I’m not saying it was bad that Toyota won the championship, or that it was bad for the sport that two best teams this year were Toyotas. TRD engineers built one hell of a race car and JGR and Furniture Row Racing clearly knew how to use it. The point I’m getting at is that it’s bad for the sport when one automaker is so clearly far ahead of everyone else. It wasn’t even close! Eight of the ten playoff races were won by Toyota, with Ford winning the other two and Chevy winning exactly zero. The Toyota cars looked as if they had turbo boost on the 1.5 mile tracks, leaving the other manufactures in the dust. Manufacture battles are a part of NASCAR, always have been always will be. But until Chevy and Ford catch up I have a feeling non Toyota fans are going to stay pissed off.
- TV Ratings: While there wasn’t much to complain about during the 2017 season, one important area was truly ugly. TV ratings were down across the board again for NASCAR, and ratings have now fallen nearly 50% from their peak in the mid 2000s. According to Sports Media Watch, TV ratings reached new lows for in 25 of 36 races during the 2017 season. There were a few bright spots, such as the Brickyard 400 hitting a six-year viewership high (it had a 5.6 Million viewer average), but overall things went about as well as Danica Patrick’s racing career: not stellar. Even the finale in Homestead was down, and that was with Dale Jr racing in his final ever event!
What are y’all’s thoughts on the 2017 season? Be sure to look for a Honky Tonk Haven preview of the 2018 season soon! Until them, keep trucking and always remember to Raise Hell and Praise Dale.