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NASCAR Barometer: Johnson Scores Seventh Sprint Cup

C.J. Radune

Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the 2015 Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

Jimmie Johnson scored his seventh Sprint Cup title on Sunday in Homestead in his first appearance in the winner-take-all format. The No. 48 tied Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty for the most titles in the series by scoring his fifth victory of the season in the most unlikely circumstances. Everything seemed to go wrong for the team as they were forced to give up their qualifying position and start in the back of the field after failing prerace inspection. That didn’t stop Johnson from tearing through the field to capitalize on late restarts to claim the historic title.

The incredible close to the finish saw Chase Elliott win Rookie of the Year honors for the team in addition to Johnson’s title, and locked out the dominant Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas in an otherwise dominant season. The title came from Hendrick’s late surge in competitiveness, but culminated in Johnson’s moves on the final restart on Sunday. The season saw 13 winners, but produced one seven-time champion. Winter will be long, but Daytona is right around the corner and preparation has already begun for Miami in 2017.

UPGRADE

Jimmie Johnson – The deck seemed to be stacked against Johnson before Sunday’s championship finale even got started. The No. 48 team had to go through inspection multiple times only to be forced to the back of the grid after visual inspection deemed the team modified the car after it had finally passed the technical obstacle course. That didn’t hold him back from winning Sunday’s race and his seventh championship, however. Johnson made up nearly two spots in the opening laps of Sunday’s race, and he had 20 more to go to climb atop the standings for the first time under the elimination format for the title. The 2016 season has proven that Johnson has more life in this series, and the coming years may see him eclipse the greats.

Kyle Busch – A perfectly timed entrance to pit road saved Busch from what could have been much worse circumstances in Sunday’s championship fight. He made the right call at the perfect moment to save his car from damage and keep his championship hopes alive. In the end it wasn’t enough to see him win consecutive championships, but the 2016 season was not without its share of success. Busch had four wins, 17 top-fives and 25 top-10s in his 2016 season, which is nothing to be disappointed with. The final pit start was Busch’s downfall, and circumstances didn’t fall to his favor. Despite a fantastic season, Busch was left to finish third in his title defense.

Kyle Larson – The 2016 season was one of the best for Larson. He picked up his first win in the series and nearly added a second to his resume on Sunday in Miami. If the team consistently can field a more competitive car for this driver he could be a one of the dominant drivers in the series. He started 24th and finished second in the season finale but proved that fantasy players should expect even more from him in the coming seasons. With 10 top-fives and 15 top-10s from his 2016 season, he should enter the winter full of confidence. If the team can field a machine more on par with Joe Gibbs Racing or Hendrick Motorsports you can expect Larson to be a force of the future.

Kevin Harvick – Despite not being in the running to claim another championship, Harvick was one of the biggest factors in Sunday’s race. He may not have been the most dominant driver throughout the 2016 season, but Harvick is always in contention. He has a habit of getting the results that put him in contention to lift whatever trophy is on offer. He started from pole in Miami and finished the race in third. While that wouldn’t have been enough to earn him a championship had he been among the final four, it was his 17th top-five of the season. With another 10 top-10 finishes added to that tally, Harvick should definitely be considered one of the biggest title threats heading into 2017.

Joey Logano – Another season has gone by with Logano coming up short of the championship, but yet each year he has shown he’s capable of getting the job done. Logano is still a relatively young driver, and his time still seems destined to come. The Penske Racing driver was handicapped by contact with Carl Edwards late in Sunday’s race and ended up in fourth-place. To put the situation in perspective, that fourth-place result was his 16th top-five and 26th top-10 from 36 races this season. Logano was the top driver in 2015 until contact with Matt Kenseth and could have had the 2016 title until contact with Edwards. His time will come.

DOWNGRADE

Carl Edwards – Edwards saw yet another title slip through his grasp Sunday at Homestead. He seemed to be the car to beat all afternoon, but a late string of caution periods proved to be his undoing. One of those restarts saw him collide with Logano in a blocking move gone wrong. The contact created a multicar wreck that halted Sunday’s proceedings and led to Johnson’s triumph. In a completely humbling demonstration of respect, Edwards immediately went to Logano’s pit to wish them luck for the remaining laps. As heartbroken as he must have been, it was an incredible gesture given the circumstances of yet another lost championship. Perhaps his time will come soon.

Ryan Blaney – Blaney’s rookie season was a good one, but it didn’t come without its share of troubles. The young driver started off strongly and picked up three top-fives and nine top-10s from the 36 races. He finished the 36-race season with adversity, however. He was the first car to bounce off the wall and brought out the first caution of the race. More is to come from this driver who’s no longer a rookie. Wins seem to be on the horizon, but he’ll need solid teamwork to support him in that. Wood Brothers’ partnership with Penske helped, but an eventual step into the full-fledged Penske organization could make the difference. Blaney will have many seasons to prove his talent.

Brad Keselowski – In a terrible turn of events, Keselowski found himself knocked out of contention Sunday by teammate Logano. The No. 2 was turned into the outside wall as his teammate moved up the track after contact with the No. 19 machine, which spelled the end of Keselowski’s otherwise impressive evening. He didn’t lead any laps, but he started on the front row and was among the top five during the final restarts until contact ended his season. With four wins, 16 top-fives and 22 top-10s the 2016 season should not be a disappointment for Keselowski. However, any time he isn’t going home with a trophy counts as a disappointment for this driver. Penske has some ground to cover versus Toyota, but the race for 2017 begins now.

Martin Truex Jr. – To see the No. 78 machine in flames doesn’t do justice to the season Truex was able to put together. His early season luck was absent, but the team rallied to fix the problems that kept them from Victory Lane. Truex finished 36th in Sunday’s race but that was a black mark on an otherwise impressive season. With four wins, eight top-fives and 17 top-10s it would be hard to see Truex as a pushover in 2017. Furniture Row Racing doesn’t have the resources of the Hendricks and Gibbs of the series, but they leverage what they do have to achieve greatness. While Miami may have been a disappointment, fantasy players should expect Truex to be even better in 2017 as the team enters their second year of partnership with JGR.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

A.J. Allmendinger – While road courses continue to be the best chance for Allmendinger to find his way into the championship fight, the former open-wheel contender is capable of snagging top finishes more often than not. He was among the top cars in practice and leveraged that early weekend speed to his advantage to grab his ninth top-10 finish of the season. The JTG Daugherty Racing team isn’t one of the most well funded in the sport, bt they continue to punch above their weight. Perhaps with a bit more luck we could see Allmendinger in the Chase again next season. It may take a win on a road course to achieve that, but continued improvement like they showed in 2016 could help make that quest a bit easier.