In 2017, they converted a season of eight wins, 19 top-five and 26 top-10 finishes into a championship. With those type of numbers, he was easily the driver of the year in the Cup Series.
The best single-weekend performance, however, belonged to Kyle Busch, who was runner-up for the Cup title.
He swept the Truck Series, Xfinity Series and Cup Series races at Bristol Motor Speedway at August, matching the feat that only he had accomplished seven years earlier. It was truly a driving spectacle, with Busch working his way up through the field to win all three races. It led Kyle Larson to declare that Busch was the most talented driver with whom he’d ever raced.
That was saying something considering the year which Larson had. In the Cup Series, Larson won four times — which included beating Truex on late-race restarts at both Michigan and Richmond. His most impressive performance came on the dirt tracks, where Larson had an incredible summer streak of six consecutive sprint car victories.
The race of the year had a familiar theme to it. Chase Elliott dominated much of the action, but was unable to close the deal. At Martinsville in October, Denny Hamlin wrecked Elliott with two laps to go causing all kinds of chaos. On the restart, Hamlin got pushed out of the lead and it ended with a thrilling fight to the finish — where Busch barely held off Truex. The post-race was just as chaotic as Hamlin, a Virginia native, was roundly booed by his home-state crowd.
That race at Martinsville as well as those at Bristol and Richmond showed why the Cup Series needs more short-track races. Those races consistently produce the best racing in my opinion, although I do understand how some fans love the restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega with the big packs and big wrecks.
The biggest disappointment in 2017 was Joey Logano. Sure, he won at Richmond, although the race was ruled encumbered for a rear suspension violation. Encumbered meant that Logano was still listed as race winner, but the race didn’t count toward qualifying for the 10-race playoffs.
At that point of the season, one would have believed no big deal, that Logano would bounce back. Instead, Logano and his team underperformed, while his teammate Brad Keselowski posted a solid season of three wins and qualified for the final race at Homestead.
The surprise of the year was Ryan Blaney driving the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford to a win at Pocono and making it to the second round of the playoffs.
The biggest news of 2017 wasn’t so much what happened on the track, but the news that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth would retire at the end of the season and that Danica Patrick was calling it a career after running the 2018 Daytona 500 and one last race in the Indianapolis 500.
Heading into 2018, the sport faces several issues, most notably replacing the big-name drivers of the past few years. Can the guys like Larson, Elliott, Blaney and Erik Jones make the sport more appealing to a younger generation of fans? It remains to be seen, but all the changes certainly make it interesting for the coming year.
Thunder Valley schedule set
Bristol Dragway has released its 2018 schedule featuring the annual Father’s Day weekend return of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series with the 18th annual Thunder Valley Nationals on June 15-17.
The 53rd season of racing gets underway in early April with the DER Bracket Racing Series featuring 12 races over six weekends.
Street Fights return with a different look on five Saturdays. Besides drag racing enthusiasts going down the track in street-legal rides, there will be drifting events, audio competitions and other contests.
Other special events include the Fitzgerald Peterbilt Truck Show on May 4-5, which puts a spotlight on some of the most sophisticated semi-trucks in the world, and one of the largest Chevy shows in the country with the Bristol Chevy Show on Sept. 28-30. The Chevy Show is paired with the Beef O’Brady’s Thunder Valley Mayhem which features racing, fireworks and other entertainment.
The NHRA Jr. Drag Racing Eastern Conference Finals will be held July 19-21 and will play host to more than 500 youth racers.
A pair of prestigious bracket races will take place. The World Footbrake Challenge on July 5-8 features the best footbrake racers around gunning for one of the largest payouts in bracket racing. The Fall Fling brings the nation’s best Super Pro racers together on Sept. 19-22.
For more information on events at Bristol Dragway and to purchase tickets, please visit BristolDragway.com or call 423-BRISTOL.
No mechanical bulls
John Travolta is trading in the iconic white suit worn in “Saturday Night Fever” for a racing suit, and instead of riding a mechanical bull like he did in “Urban Cowboy,” he’s behind the wheel of a dirt-track car for the new movie “Trading Paint” — due out next June.
Parts of the movie were filmed at the Talladega (Ala.) short track and it pairs Travolta with country music legend Shania Twain as his love interest. He plays Sam Munroe, a veteran dirt-track racer, and focuses on his relationship with his son, an up-and-coming driver, and other racing rivalries.
(Jeff Birchfield is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Reach him at [email protected])