NASCAR: Ranking The 12 Biggest Stories Of 2016

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 NASCAR season is less than two months away but that doesn’t mean that we have to completely close the door on the 2016 season. This past year gave NASCAR fans more than enough moments to carry them through the off-season.

2016 was filled with plenty of ups and downs for NASCAR fans depending on who your favorite driver or team is. Those who support Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott probably walked away from the season in November feeling pretty good about themselves.

Those NASCAR fans who root for Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Carl Edwards might not have enjoyed 2016 as much. Drivers aside, there were plenty of non-driver specific stories that drove the 2016 NASCAR season as well.

Here are the 12 biggest stories of the 2016 NASCAR season, be sure to comment below and let us know which story made it to the top of your list.

Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Honorable Mention – Everyone Goes Chasing

The NASCAR Chase is something that has been a part of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for more than a decade now. While it has become a staple in NASCAR’s premier series, until 2016 it had never had a place in the lower national series.

However, all of that changed in 2016 when NASCAR announced that all three major touring series would have their over versions of the Chase.

Was it the best thing in the world? Maybe not.

Did it have some positive qualities to it? Absolutely.

In the end the addition of the Chase to the Truck Series and Xfinity Series allowed for drivers who might never get to be in a playoff the chance to qualify for one. The addition of the Chase also made the championship races exciting for both series, something that they might not have been had the Chase not been in place.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

No. 12 – JGR Dominates 2016

Who was the best team in NASCAR in 2016? If it takes you more than three seconds to respond and you say something else besides Joe Gibbs Racing, you clearly weren’t watching the same season as the rest of us.

If you count their alliance with the No. 78 machine (which you should) JGR won 16 out of 36 races (44 percent). All four JGR cars plus the pseudo-teammate in the No. 78 machine went to the NASCAR Chase. Once in the Chase all four JGR cars advanced to the Round of Eight. Half of the final-four was made up of JGR cars and if not for a late-race wreck, Carl Edwards most likely would have won the championship.

Heading into 2017 there is no reason to believe that the JGR dominance is going to stop. Their alliance will double with the addition of Erik Jones as a teammate to Martin Truex Jr. in the No. 78 machine. Hamlin and JGR are talking contract extension and the rest of the drivers will be back as well. They might not be the youngest team in NASCAR but they are certainly the most talented right now.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

No. 11 – Surprise Wins

One of the highlights of the 2016 season was a handful of surprise winners. Kyle Larson, Tony Stewart and Chris Buescher each won a race in 2016 and each win was surprising for different reasons.

Stewart, in his final season in NASCAR, missed the start of the season after suffering a back injury. When Stewart returned to the track he was already in a situation where he would have to win a race and get into the top-30 in points if he wanted to make the Chase one more time. Despite not winning since 2013, Stewart used every inch of his No. 14 machine to get around Denny Hamlin on the road course and win one more time in NASCAR.

Larson’s win was a surprise in that it took him as long as it did to finally win a race. Larson had been close to winning a few times prior in his career but was never able to close the deal. This season he finally found a way to close, win a race and make the Chase.

Then there was Chris Buescher, the most surprising winner of 2016. Sure, he won thanks to some rain but in the world of NASCAR, a win is a win. That win put his team into the Chase and created one of the more magical moments of the 2016 season.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

No. 10 – Dale Earnhardt Jr. Gets Married

Well, it finally happened ladies. While the majority of the females in Junior Nation were happy that Amy and him were together, some were probably still holding out hope that if they broke up they would have a chance.

After being together for what seemed like forever, Amy and Dale finally tied the knot to close out 2016.

The New Year’s wedding marked the end of a difficult 2016 for Earnhardt while also providing a positive moment to ring in the new year. The wedding, which was attended by several well-known names, was the talk of the town for Junior Nation in the days prior and immediately after.

Now a happily married man, Earnhardt will be looking to remain healthy and win his first championship in 2017.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

No. 9 – Daytona 500 Finish

The start of the 2016 NASCAR season resulted in a finish that NASCAR fans will be talking about for years to come. Denny Hamlin won the 2016 Daytona 500 when he beat Martin Truex Jr. to the start/finish line by .010 seconds.

The .010 second margin of victory made the 2016 Daytona 500 the closest finish in the 58-year history of the event.

The win was quite special for Hamlin as it was his first Daytona 500 win. Had Truex Jr. won it would have been his first Daytona 500 victory as well.

The finish, while good for Hamlin and not for Truex, did not hold either driver back the rest of the season. Both Hamlin and Truex won multiple races in 2016 on their way to making the Chase. Truex was knocked out in the round of 12 while Hamlin was knocked out in the round of eight.

This season Truex Jr. will be looking to finish the Daytona 500 one spot better than his 2016 run.

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

No. 8 – Carl Edwards Homestead Nightmare

Back in 2011 Carl Edwards came about as close to winning a championship in NASCAR that a driver ever possibly could. At the end of the 2011 Chase Edwards was tied in the final standings with Tony Stewart. Stewart had the tie-breaker on his side and as a result became the 2011 NASCAR Champion.

2016 was not an exact repeat of 2011 but it was still pretty painful for the driver of the No. 19 machine.

Edwards led 58 laps at Homestead and in the closing stages of the race he appeared to be on his way to winning his first championship. However, a late caution bunched the field and the championship contenders back together for a restart and a few moments later Edwards was in the wall.

On that restart Edwards went to block Joey Logano, but Edwards misjudged the timing and the result was a wreck. If not for that caution or that power block, it’s possible that Edwards wins the title in 2016 and not Jimmie Johnson.

In the end though “what if’s” don’t matter because it doesn’t change the heartbreak that was Homestead for Edwards in 2016.

Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

No. 7 – NASCAR Says Goodbye To Tony Stewart

The 2016 season brought with it the end of Tony Stewart’s NASCAR career and it felt nothing like what we had all witnessed the prior season with Jeff Gordon. Sure, Stewart made it clear when he announced his retirement from NASCAR that he didn’t want nor felt that he deserved the send-off that Gordon received.

However, despite his words, it still felt like NASCAR let their three-time champion down. There is a fine line between respecting someone’s wishes and paying someone the respect they deserve and NASCAR missed the boat with Stewart. Leading into the final weekend in Miami, teammate Kevin Harvick voiced his displeasure with the farewell that his friend received.

Lackluster goodbye or not, it doesn’t change how much Stewart has meant to NASCAR and his fans throughout his Hall of Fame career.

No. 6 – Jeff Gordon Returns

The 2016 NASCAR season taught us not to take anything for granted and never to say never. In the middle of the season we lost Dale Earnhardt Jr. to his battle with concussions. While we though Earnhardt was going to only miss a few races, he ended up missing half of the season.

In the absence of Earnhardt, we also got the return of Jeff Gordon. Gordon came out of retirement to drive a handful of races in the No. 88 machine for his former teammate and friend.

Gordon did not light the NASCAR world on fire in his return to the track but he did manage to hold his own. In eight starts while splitting time in the No. 88 machine, Gordon had an average starting position of 16th and an average finishing position of 13th.

At the end of the season Gordon said that he didn’t anticipate being back in 2017 but joked that you never know for sure.

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

No. 5 – Martin Truex Jr. Dominates Charlotte

Martin Truex Jr. provided NASCAR fans with one of the most dominant performances in NASCAR history while on his way to a win in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.

Coming into Charlotte Truex and the No. 78 team had been plagued with a series of “near wins.” Prior to Charlotte there were at least three races that Truex could have won if not for bad luck or .010 seconds like at Daytona.

On Memorial Day Weekend in Charlotte Truex was by far the class of the field. In NASCAR’s longest race of the year, Truex led 392 of the 400 laps. The 588 miles that Truex led set a new NASCAR record.

The win was the first of the season for Truex who went on to win three more times before 2016 came to a close. Truex also had a knack for winning the big races in 2016. After just missing the Daytona 500 and winning the Coca-Cola 600, Truex also won the throwback race in Darlington.

Truex and his team should be primed to contend for a title once again in 2017.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

No. 4 – SHR Moves To Ford

In what might have been the most shocking moment of the 2016 season, Stewart-Haas Racing announced mid-season that they would leave Chevy and switch to Ford for the 2017 NASCAR campaign. The move came as a surprise to many, especially given the close tie that co-owner Tony Stewart has with Chevy.

The announcement also started the rumor mill about Kevin Harvick not being happy with SHR. Despite Harvick telling reporters repeatedly that he was looking forward to the move, the stories about Harvick wanting to remain in a Chevy in 2017 kept coming until later in 2016 when SHR announced they signed Harvick to a contract extension.

What will SHR do in Fords in 2017? Will Harvick see a decline in his performance from what he has done in a Chevy with SHR since 2014? Will the shift to Ford be the spark that Danica Patrick needs to finally contend for a win in NASCAR?

Only time will tell if the SHR move to Ford is a good one.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

No. 3 – NASCAR Names A New Sponsor

NASCAR fans have known for a while that the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was not going to be a thing anymore come the end of the 2016 season. The only thing that they did not know was who was going to come in to replace Sprint and when that announcement was going to be made.

The news finally came following the 2016 season, later than many expected the announcement to come. By this time everyone should know that in 2017 what used to be the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Monster Energy coming into NASCAR appears to be an effort by NASCAR to attract a younger audience. While they might not come right out and say that, declining ratings and attendance for the last decade have laid the groundwork for a much needed change.

Can a new sponsor, retiring older drivers and talented younger drivers make a difference? While it’s hard to answer that, it’s easy to say that none of those are going to hurt reaching a younger demographic.

Then again, if NASCAR thinks they were a new sponsor away from solving their problems, they might be in more trouble than we initially thought.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

No. 2 – Dale Earnhardt Jr. Misses Half The Season

In 2016 the concussion talk that had been plaguing the NFL drifted into the world of NASCAR as a result of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his health struggles. Earnhardt Jr. ended up missing the second half of the 2016 season while he was battling his concussion issues.

Earnhardt’s time away from the track allowed NASCAR fans to gain a better understanding of what concussions are and how they impact a driver. His absence also allowed for the return of Jeff Gordon for eight races albeit under difficult circumstances.

Earnhardt’s struggles highlighted the dangers that these drivers face every time they get into the cars and it pushed the concussion conversation to the forefront in NASCAR. Although Earnhardt is returning in 2017, one has to wonder if he is one wreck away from having more issues.

Hopefully concussions will not be an issue again in Earnhardt’s career as it would be a shame to see a medical issue force the driver of the No. 88 into retirement earlier than planned.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

No. 1 – Jimmie Johnson Makes History

Did you see Richard Petty win his seventh championship? If so, you most likely never thought anyone would match him, and then there was Dale Earnhardt.

If you saw Earnhardt win his seventh you most likely felt the same way, although Jeff Gordon might have scared you a bit.

Then came Jimmie Johnson and with him came NASCAR history. Johnson closed out the 2016 season by winning his seventh championship and he now sits one away from being the only driver in NASCAR history to win eight.

Love him, hate him, despise him, it doesn’t matter because at the end of the day you have to respect what he has accomplished in this sport and what he still might accomplish. Why can’t Johnson win No. 8 in 2017? Why can’t Johnson win No. 9 in 2018? Now that Johnson has won in the current Chase format there is no reason to believe that he won’t be able to do it again.

Some thought Johnson would never get there, some thought they would never see seven again or even a run at eight, Johnson is making it all happen and that’s pretty incredible.

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