By Jared Turner
Although the 2016 NASCAR season has just ended, we’re only a little more than three months away from the Daytona Speedweeks and the start of the 2017 NASCAR season. Following are 5 fearless predictions for the year to come:
Carl Edwards Will Finally Close The Deal
Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Greg Biffle are the only active drivers to finish fourth or better in the standings at least twice, only to never win a title. But among the four drivers, only Edwards has twice been a bridesmaid – the second time on the basis of a tiebreaker. Without a late caution that erased his healthy lead and ultimately set the stage for a late-race accident, Edwards almost certainly would have prevailed on Sunday night. Although it hasn’t happened yet, it’s reasonable believe the proverbial ball has to eventually bounce his way. Here’s predicting 2017 will that year.
Erik Jones Will Turn Heads As A Rookie
Erik Jones is bound to endure growing pains as a newcomer to NASCAR’s premier series, but the driver who became the youngest truck champion in 2014 and reached the inaugural XFINITY Series Championship 4 in 2015 will have an immediate impact. In addition to possessing tremendous talent, he’ll be with a Furniture Row Racing organization that over the past two seasons has been one of NASCAR’s best. And thanks to Martin Truex Jr., Jones will have a veteran teammate on whom he can lean. Don’t be surprised if Jones wins multiple races and makes a deep run in the Chase.
Toyota Will Continue Domination
Toyota earned its first manufacturer’s championship in NASCAR’s top series by winning 16 of 36 races in 2016. Five Camry drivers went to Victory Lane, four of them from Joe Gibbs Racing where Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth combined for 12 trophies. Toyota’s other four came courtesy of Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. With all four JGR drivers back in 2017 and Furniture Row expanding to a two-car operation with the addition of rookie Erik Jones, there’s no reason to believe Toyota will be less dominant. In fact, the Japanese automaker should actually be even better.
Dale Jr. Will Win The Daytona 500 In Dramatic Return
With all signs pointing toward Dale Earnhardt Jr. returning to competition in 2017 after missing most of 2016 with concussion-like symptoms, NASCAR is almost certain to begin next year with a bang just by the mere presence of the sport’s biggest star. More epic, however, would be for Earnhardt to prevail in his first race back behind the wheel of his No. 88 Chevrolet. Junior has already captured four points victories at The World Center of Racing, two of them coming in the Daytona 500. To bet against a refreshed, rejuvenated and at-long-last-healthy Earnhardt in February would be risky if not downright foolish.
Clint Bowyer Will Set Career Highs
Over 11 seasons in NASCAR’s premier series, Clint Bowyer has eight victories despite almost always being in subpar equipment. Bowyer’s days of driving average cars should end in 2017, however, when he takes over the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing entry vacated by newly retired Tony Stewart. Provided that SHR’s switchover from Chevrolet to Ford doesn’t lead to unanticipated consequences, Bowyer will almost certainly be in the best equipment he’s ever raced. With Stewart – SHR’s co-owner and one of the greatest drivers of all time – there to offer Bowyer any help or guidance he might need, Bowyer appears bound for greatness.
Sauter’s Head-Scratching Move Paid Off
When Johnny Sauter made the surprising decision to leave ThorSport Racing for GMS Racing at the end of the 2015 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season, many observers questioned the move. Why would the veteran driver leave an established, championship-winning organization in ThorSport to join GMS – a little known organization that only made its full-fledged launch into the Truck Series in 2014? The bottom line: Sauter felt like it was the best move for himself, his family and his career. And going with his gut paid off big time when he surprised the NASCAR world by winning his first series title in 2016. Sauter did so is convincing fashion, too, winning three races along the way and finishing no worse than third in the last four races. So was Sauter’s decision to join GMS the right one? As baffling as it may have been when he announced his intentions last October, Sauter clearly knew what he was doing.
With Success Of Suarez, NASCAR Really Has Gone International
In capturing the 2016 XFINITY Series championship, Daniel Suárez became became the first Latin American, as well as the first graduate of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program operated by Rev Racing, to win a NASCAR national series title. Suárez, a Joe Gibbs Racing driver in just his second XFINITY season, became the first Mexico-born driver to win a NASCAR national series race when he went to Victory Lane in June at Michigan, and in so doing punched his ticket into the first ever XFINITY Series Chase. The Monterrey, Mexico, native dazzled from the outset of the season, racking up four top-five and nine top-10 finishes in his first 10 contests. Suárez led the points standings following 14 separate races in the regular season. Now, thanks to his victory in the winner-take-all season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, NASCAR has its first national series champ from outside the United States – a major stepping stone for a sport trying to broaden its fan base at least in part by reaching a more international audience.
The Winner-Take-All Finale Is Working
Could anyone have asked for more nail-biting than we had in the respective winner-take-all season finales for the Sprint Cup Series, XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series? All three races were full of drama and intrigue from start to finish, and in the case of the Sprint Cup Series and the XFINITY Series, a driver had to win the race in order to win the championship. The Cup finale was particularly thrilling as all four championship finalists – Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards – spent time out front and had a real shot at walking away with the hardware. Just about anyone would have been hard-pressed to write a more epic script than Johnson scoring a history-making seventh championship after leading just three laps and trailing all of his fellow title contenders for most of the race. In sum: The concept of the Championship 4 is a winner from top to bottom, and NASCAR should be commended for finally deciding to use the format in all three major series.
Drivers Are Willing To Go For Broke For A Title
Sunday’s late-race collision between title contenders Carl Edwards and Joey Logano as the two battled for the lead on a late-race restart illustrated just how far drivers are willing to go to win a championship. With the laps winding down and Edwards clearly having the dominant car among the championship finalists, Logano knew the restart might be his only opportunity to make a winning pass. Logano jumped to Edwards’ inside, but Edwards went low to block and the two collided, ending Edwards’ night with a hard crash. Edwards immediately took the blame for the incident, and even went over and had a brief, conciliatory word with members of Logano’s crew. While some might blame Edwards and others might blame Logano for the incident, the simple fact is that neither driver was willing to give an inch with so much on the line. And it was exactly the kind of scenario to which a winner-take-all championship race lends itself.