As the Florida sun faded to darkness at Homestead-Miami Speedway and a first-time champion was crowned, here is what was surprising and not surprising in the season’s final race, the Ford EcoBoost 400.
Surprising: Although Stewart-Haas Racing has always touted its Hendrick Motorsports partnership, it was surprising to learn in more detail just how important that connection has been to the new NASCAR champion and the winning race team.
Kevin Harvick, winning his first ever NASCAR Cup Championship, specifically and repeatedly paid homage to Hendrick Motorsports six-time champion Jimmie Johnson in his post-race and champion-clinching comments.
“Jimmie Johnson was a huge help in just helping — he’d show up in the trailer after every practice and called and texted to Rodney (Childers, crew chief) and myself,” Harvick said. “You’ve got to remember, Jimmie and I have — we’ve known each other for a long time. We slept on those same couches at Hornaday’s house adjacent to each other in the game room.”
“He’d go race his ASA cars, and I’d go race the trucks for the Spears bunch, so we spent a lot of time together as friends and have grown to be better friends as we’ve gone past the last few years for sure.”
Tony Stewart, co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, echoed his driver’s comments about the HMS connection.
“We’ve got a great partnership with Hendrick Motorsports, and like Kevin just mentioned, when you’ve got eight drivers that are sharing information, it’s a lot easier to race seven guys than it is to try to worry about racing 34 or 35 guys.”
Not Surprising: Although they are three very different drivers, in age, size and style, they all had one thing in common after the final race was run. All three races were visibly despondent, from Ryan Newman, who finished the best of the three contenders in the second spot, to Denny Hamlin who finished seventh and Joey Logano who finished an even more disappointing sixteenth.
“We had a couple pit stops that kind of put us back,” Newman said. “It is disappointing, don’t get me wrong, but there’s no point in being a sore loser. We came back for the entire season to make our best finish our last finish.”
“The race did not go too well for us,” Hamlin said. “Obviously we had a championship-type car, championship-type effort, but those last breaks just didn’t go our way. We just struggled with restart speed.”
“Obviously our race was not too good,” Logano said. “We knew what we had to do, we just didn’t execute from every angle it seems like. I hit the wall a bit early in the race and then we came down pit road, made a mistake and went to the tail end of the lead lap.”
Surprising: Jeff Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson had a surprisingly testy exchange at the end of the race, all about whether or not to pit from the front of the pack for tires in the latter part of the race.
Gordon was one of the few drivers who stayed out late in the race and when another caution came, he desperately pleaded for tires. Crew chief Gustafson argued against giving up track position but Gordon was insistent and down pit road he came.
After starting mid-pack, the driver of the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet rallied back to finish tenth.
Not Surprising: Who knew that Kyle Larson, officially named Sunoco Rookie of the Year, had his own bandwagon?
“There was a lot of room on the Kyle Larson bandwagon on to start the season,” Larson said. “I think a lot of people chose Austin Dillon to win it, and I was pretty confident in myself and in my team that we could do it.”
“I knew there would be some ups and downs, but I felt like we would be the top contender once we got halfway through the season, and we definitely were. We’ve gotten better throughout the season, and just is a huge honor to win this title with all the other names that have won it.”
Surprising: During the race, NASCAR made a surprising announcement that Chad Knaus was called to the NASCAR hauler for disobeying a NASCAR directive. The issue, involving the team’s use of a wheel spacer, turned out to be much ado about nothing as confirmed by Robin Pemberton, Vice President for Competition.
“We just had a discussion on pit road between our official and Chad and really it was just to discuss it,” Pemberton said. “It was really not a big deal. We were just trying to clarify what went on, that’s all.”
“Everything is fine.”
Not Surprising: Greg Biffle ended his difficult year with a blowout, of the unfortunate tire type. He was having a solid run when he blew a tire, hit the outside wall and had to go to the garage for repairs.
Biffle finished 41st in the season finale and ended 14th in the championship standings.
Surprising: The crew chiefs, teams and drivers that were racing together for the very last time sadly did not finish on the best of terms.
“It had gotten dark, and the track was doing just what Trevor and Donnie expected,” team co-owner Eddie Wood said. “The track was coming to us, and Trevor was running some really good lap times. He had gotten in the lucky dog position, which would have gotten us back on the lead lap when the next caution came out.”
“Unfortunately, that caution flag wound up being for us.”
Carl Edwards and Jimmy Fennig also parted ways after the season finale, with Edwards going to Joe Gibbs Racing and Fennig ratcheting his time down on the box.
“Jimmy Fennig is an unsung hero at Roush Racing,” Jack Roush, owner, said. “He doesn’t do things that create a personal image away from the driver or away from the sponsor or away from the team. He’s the trooper that’s back there doing everything that he can every day.”
Probably one of the most dynamic driver/crew chief duos also did not finish off their relationship in quite the manner that they wanted.
Dale Jr. and Steve Letarte raced one last time as driver and crew chief, finishing 14th in the Ford EcoBoost 400. The two summed up their feelings on Twitter as Letarte leaves for a television broadcasting career next season.
“Me and Steve didn’t count on becoming such great friends,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “That’s just really been a bonus to the whole thing.”
“I might not be talking to @DaleJr thru the headset any more but we will still be friends,” Letarte tweeted. “Taught me a bit about racing and a lot about life.”
Not Surprising: Chevrolet had a big night at Homestead-Miami Speedway, with their driver winning the championship, six Chevy drivers in the top-ten, and securing their 12th consecutive manufacturer’s championship.
“Winning the Manufacturers’ Championship is one of the goals we set at the beginning of every season,” Jim Campbell, U.S. Vice President, Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, said.
Surprising: Matt Kenseth had a surprisingly good weekend, as the highest finishing Toyota and also winner of the Nationwide race.
“It’s been a long time since I won a race in anything, so just happy for Kevin (Kidd, crew chief),” Kenseth said. “He’s been trying to get a win over here for a long time, and he’s going on to something different next year.”
“Happy to send him off with a win here; that was pretty good.”
Not Surprising: There was at least one drive ready for Daytona after his third place run in the season finale.
“Yeah, it was a heck of a season, not just for me but for all of Team Penske,” Brad Keselowski said. “I’m kind of wishing it wasn’t over, but we still have some work to do to continue to work and get better.”
“In some ways, I hate to see the season come to an end, and honestly I’m ready to be at Daytona next week for the 500. That’s probably not the most popular comment in the world, but sometimes I’m not the most popular guy.”
Final Note: In a most unusual year with the brand new Chase format, it has been a pleasure to share the surprising and not so surprising moments of the season. So, sit back, enjoy the off-season and as Brad Keselowski said, see you in Daytona!