One of the most appealing things about NASCAR is that it seems to produce memorable moments every weekend and 2016 is no exception. Whether it be close finishes, lug-nut controversies, or rookies taking poles, the first half of this year has not failed in producing much excitement. So, let’s take a look at some of the most iconic and memorable moments that this sport has already produced this year.
1. Denny Hamlin Wins in Photo Finish at Daytona 500
On February 21, Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500, but, just barely. Hamlin crossed the finish line at about 0.01 seconds faster than the next nearest car, which was Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., a fellow Toyota driver. It was the closest Daytona 500 race finish that Daytona International Speedway has ever experienced and the first Daytona 500 victory for Toyota.
Hamlin, who led for a little over half of the race, claimed that it was a team victory, as for much of the race his teammates, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, along with Truex (Furniture Row Racing has a technical alliance with JGR) led the top four positions. Otherwise, Hamlin was able to make a run on the outside lane in the closing seconds of the race to win one of the greatest Daytona 500 finishes of all time.
2. Kevin Harvick Beats Carl Edwards to the Finish Line at Phoenix
Another exciting photo finish occurred in mid-march of this year, at the Phoenix International Raceway. In fact, Kevin Harvick beat out Carl Edwards at PIR by the exact same time that Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500, 0.01 seconds, and this was the closest ever race in Phoenix.
The final two laps at PIR in 2016 were rather bumpy, as Harvick and Edwards exchanged nudges up to the last few seconds. In fact, the two cars collided twice during the final quarter-mile. In the third and fourth turn Harvick just barely missed the bottom and Edwards took the opportunity to tear into Harvick, which proved to be essentially ineffective. In the end, Edwards just barely pulled out one of the greatest races that PIR has seen in a long time.
3. Chase Elliott Wins the Pole at Talladega
Widely known is the fact that Jeff Gordon retired after the 2015 season and chose Chase Elliott as his replacement. Less widely known, however, is just how great of a driver Elliot really is. That is until he won the pole at Talladega this year. Thirty years ago, Elliott’s father, Bill Elliott, earned the top starting spot at Talladega, with a qualifying speed of 212.229 mph, setting the track’s speed record and coincidentally won the 1986 Daytona 500. Three decades later, Chase is living up to the family name. He not only won the pole for the 2016 Daytona 500, becoming the youngest pole-sitter in Daytona’s history at twenty years of age but also won this year’s Geico 500 pole at Talladega Superspeedway, endangering the position of many NASCAR veterans.
Otherwise, in 2016, Chase has seven top-fives, finishing fifth at Texas Motor Speedway, fourth at Bristol Motor Speedway, fifth at Talladega Superspeedway, third at Dover International Speedway, fourth at Pocono Raceway and second in both races at Michigan International Speedway. He could have finished much better at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, as he was in the top five with 40 laps to go. However, he crashed and finished 38th. For such a young man, Chase is really racking up the stats and will likely be the real deal for years to come.
4. The Lug Nut Controversy
At the beginning of the 2015 season, NASCAR ceased monitoring how many lug nuts were placed on car wheels during pit stops. NASCAR informed drivers that there would no longer be officials in every pit box and that it would be up to each team to make sure that a car’s lug nuts were put properly in place. Many drivers and their crews have taken advantage of this to reduce pit stop times, by only securing as few as three lug nuts.
This, of course, had some drivers genuinely upset. In mid-April, USA Today reported that Tony Stewart was “beyond mad,” largely because of the newly developed “epidemic” of loose wheels on the track. Stewart warned the NASCAR world that it is only a matter of time before something terrible happened. For the most part, Stewart claims NASCAR has done a fine job in ensuring the safety of drivers, such as requiring safety changes to superspeedway cars in technical bulletins. However, on the “lug nut issue,” Stewart felt like NASCAR officials were dropping the ball.
NASCAR fined Stewart $35,000 for his remarks but soon after revised their policy. On April 25 they sent a memo to all the teams stating that each wheel must have five lug nuts installed in a proper manner. Failure to do so will result in the driver being called back to the pits during the race. If the infraction is found after the race, the crew chief will be fined a minimum of $20,000 and receive a one-race suspension.
Some have suggested changes to car specifications that would speed up pit stop times and general safety, such as changing wheel requirements to use a single hub for the wheels of NASCAR cars. However, going from one lug nut to a single hub nut and bolt assembly similar to the open wheel series requires a shift in car specifications, namely, the front and rear suspension. So far, NASCAR has been unwilling to do this.
5. Tony Stewart Wins at Sonoma
The NASCAR fan favorite and much-respected veteran Tony Stewart hadn’t won a race in over three years. This was largely due to the fact that Stewart had suffered personal tragedies and various injuries. But, in April of this year, Stewart came back after recovering from injuries sustained on an all-terrain vehicle in February and went on to win at Sonoma Raceway in June. It was an especially sweet victory for Stewart because Sonoma has been one of Stewart’s career best tracks and he beat out this year’s Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin to gain the victory. Stewart, in dramatic fashion, pushed Hamlin into the outside wall in Turn 11 for a last lap pass for the Sonoma victory at the Toyota Save Mart 350.
More to Come in 2016
Of course, I could have discussed many other exciting events and NASCAR drama that has already unfolded this year, such as the long-awaited first race victory of 2016 for Matt Kenseth, the drama filled “bump-and-run” episode between Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards at Richmond International Raceway, or Jeff Gordon calling out the Brad Keselowski team for an illegal body modification on a pit stop. But these were my top five picks for the most exciting NASCAR events in 2016. With all the excitement that 2016 has already brought us, the rest of the season is sure to bring us more memorable moments.