Length: 1.5 Mile
The final race of the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup season at Homestead-Miami Speedway brought with it many stories as well as questions. It was the final ride for veteran racer Tony Stewart who had announced his retirement earlier this year. The question came in the form of ‘how much pageantry and celebration would end his Sprint Cup career?’ given that he had asked his exit to be downplayed.
As for the four potential champions – Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson – it wasn’t just a matter of who would claim the cup, it was a matter of 1) Would Edwards be vindicated for 2011? 2) Would defending champion Busch claim back to back victories? 3) Would Logano be one of the youngest drivers to claim his first series cup? and perhaps the biggest story and question of them all – would Johnson tie the formidable record of legendary drivers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with a 7th championship?
Yet, despite all of the hype, speculation, and pressure that accompanied the Ford EcoBoost 400, ironically, the first 250 laps were relatively uneventful with the exception of a few wall-rubs (2 of which involved Ryan Blaney), some debris on the track and a few single car slides. Although Johnson had been sent to start at the back of the field due to last minute modifications, very quickly he worked his way to the front and within approximately 50 laps of the race, all 4 would-be champions were running within the Top 5. However, the most speed was seen in the #42 Target Chevy driven by Kyle Larson who comfortably ran the wall throughout the race and led for a total of 132 laps, at times holding onto a 3+ second lead. Kevin Harvick in the #4 Jimmy John’s Chevy also led for 79 laps. Meanwhile, teammates Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch put on an impressive show while trading back and forth for second place.
With only 14 laps remaining, it looked promising that Kyle Larson would win the race and Carl Edwards, who was running P2, would assume the championship. And then… there was the caution flag that changed everything when Dylan Lupton cut his right rear tire and spun on the entrance to pit road. All lead lap cars pitted and took on new rubber and fuel to finish the race. But major drama ensued mere seconds after re-starting when Joey Logano dove to the inside of Carl Edwards in an effort to slingshot past in Turn 1- a move he had to make in order to get out front. Edwards turned left to block Logano and instantly got hooked and spun up the track, resulting in a 9-car wreck that involved Chase Elliott and slammed Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. into the wall, whereupon Truex erupted in a fireball.
Edwards, the class-act that he is, apologized to Logano’s team and sent a message to Joey to ‘Get it done!’ before heading to the medical center to be examined. After a 31-minute red flag to clean up the track, the race re-started with 4 laps remaining but instantly came to a grinding halt once again when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spun on the front straightaway. While on pace laps, Kyle Busch was called into pit, which ultimately cost him positions and his chance at the title.
With Joe Gibbs’ teammates now out of the running, it came down to Johnson and Logano, who restarted with 3 laps to go in P2 and P3 respectively. Kyle Larson, who was still P1 was unable to get the restart that Johnson did and fell to second as Johnson developed an impressive lead and held onto it to the finish line. And then the celebration began…
“It’s just beyond words,” Johnson said. “I just didn’t think the race was unfolding for us like we needed to do to be the champs, but we just kept our heads in the game. (Crew chief) Chad (Knaus) called a great strategy, made some great adjustments for the short runs. Luck came our way and we were able to win the race and win the championship.”
Johnson’s 2016 title comes on the 10-year anniversary of when he won his first Sprint Cup Series championship (2006), which he won convincingly by 56 points ahead of runner-up Matt Kenseth.
In addition, Hendrick Motorsports took home their 12th series owners championship, which is the most all-time in the sport. It is also Hendrick Motorsports’ 15th NASCAR national series owners championship, extending its all-time record.
Chad Knaus, crew chief for the No. 48 team, was equally as ecstatic with taking home the championship.
Chase Elliott, driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, won the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award. Elliott finished the season with 10 top-5 and 17 top-10 showings.
Three-time Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart finished 22nd in the final race of his legendary career.
With new stories having unfolded and most questions answered by the end of the race, one thing remains unclear – given that Sprint is ending its 13-year sponsorship of the premier NASCAR series, who will assume the role in 2017?