From Daytona to Sonoma: An incredible NASCAR FOX season

We began the FOX portion of the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season with the closest Daytona 500 finish since the advent of electronic scoring, and we ended it with an incredible battle at Sonoma Raceway.

I can’t think of a better way to bookend the FOX season than with Denny Hamlin winning his first Daytona 500 by 0.010 seconds and Tony Stewart passing Hamlin on the 1,100th and final corner to win at Sonoma. Great stuff for sure.

Some observations from yesterday’s race and the season to date:

— Anyone who says Hamlin gave Stewart the win is dead wrong. That said, had it been a Chase elimination race, both drivers would have been a lot more aggressive about blocking and more aggressive about moving each other. That’s a subtle distinction, maybe, but it’s true. Stewart had a lot more to gain than Hamlin and he raced like it.

— The absence of road-course ringers is a good thing. Because they weren’t running NASCAR every week, some ringers took ridiculous chances and created calamity. And the NASCAR regulars cut them no slack because they knew they wouldn’t see them again soon. Yeah, it was fun to watch guys like Boris Said, Ron Fellows and Scott Pruett on track, but the racing is better now. It just is.

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— Sure, Stewart’s surprise victory was one of the feel-good stories of the year, but it has some very practical benefits. If Stewart makes the Chase — and he almost certainly will — it will be worth millions of dollars to the team in sponsors incentives and prize money. Making the Chase is huge for any race team’s health. Plus it gives Stewart-Haas Racing three bullets in the Chase instead of two.

— At this point in the season, there have been 11 different winners in 16 races. I very much doubt there will be 16 or more winners by the time the 26-race Sprint Cup season ends. But the only driver in the whole field who is comfortably in on points right now is Chase Elliott. Just 31 points separate 12th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. from 17th-place Ryan Blaney. Those guys ought to be nervous, as should the four guys in between them –€” Ryan Newman, Austin Dillon, Jamie McMurray and Kasey Kahne.

— At this point, it looks like there are three groups that are the championship favorites: The five factory Toyotas of Joe Gibbs and Furniture Row, SHR and Team Penske. Hendrick Motorsports clearly has work to do.

— Last but not least, no one believed Kyle Busch could win a championship after missing the first 11 races of 2015, but he did. After positing zero victories and only three top fives in the 2011 regular season, Stewart thought he was wasting a space in the Chase. And then he went out and won five of 10 Chase races in the greatest stretch run in NASCAR history.

Regardless of who ultimately wins the title, we might just be in for another remarkable finish this year. It’s about to get real, friends. Enjoy.