Take a deep breath and enjoy the off weekend in the Cup Series. While the Xfinity Series will give some of us a needed fix of road-course racing on Sunday, the Cup Series is off for the final time this weekend. Darlington starts a 12 races in 12 weeks push to the finish that will culminate with someone raising the Cup Series trophy as the 2017 champion.
To celebrate the last off weekend of the year and the two-thirds mark of the season, let’s take a look at the five best races of the year.
5. Richmond, April 30: This race was a bit discombobulated at times, but it had most everything a race fan could ask for. Long green flag runs? Check. There was a stint of 91 caution-free laps and a stretch of 88 caution-free laps. Teammate drama? Check. Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had an accidental run-in off turn 2.
Rules issues? Check that off the list too. Drivers were caught driving over the commitment box marker at the beginning of pit road. Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch were both fast but both had to go to the back of the back after running over the orange box on the track.
And it had a flurry of late restarts too. There were four restarts inside the last 50 laps and Joey Logano passed Kyle Larson — who had older tires — for the win with 17 laps to go.
4. Martinsville, April 2: It’s not often that you get to see the two best cars during an entire race stage a heads-up battle for the win, but that’s what happened with Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski.
Keselowski led 48 laps early and then was caught speeding on pit road. By the time he got back to the lead, Kyle Busch had led 247 laps. Keselowski took the lead from Busch on lap 406 and the two traded the lead four more times before Keselowski took the lead for the final time on lap 458.
It was Keselowski’s second win of the season through the first six races of the season. It looked like he was going to start racking up the regular season wins. He hasn’t won since.
3. Watkins Glen, Aug. 6: This race’s finish didn’t have the craziness that the 2012 finish did with Busch, Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose, but it was almost as dramatic. With teams trying to stretch their fuel mileage, no one watching was sure just who was going to make it to the end with a full fuel tank.
Busch might have had the race’s best car, but he lost all his track position after a pit-stop penalty following his stage one win. He tried to get it back but ended up losing it again after contact with Keselowski sent the two spinning.
The contact worked out well, at least temporarily for Keselowski, as an alternate strategy put him into the lead. But he had to pit with four laps to go and gave up the lead to Ryan Blaney who ran out of fuel.
Blaney’s dry fuel tank handed the lead to Martin Truex Jr., who had been saving so much gas since he was passed by Keselowski for the lead with 24 laps to go that he had plenty to make it to the end and hold off Matt Kenseth.
2. Daytona 500, Feb. 26: Here’s that fuel-mileage thing again. Thanks to a 47-lap run to the finish without a caution flag, it was anyone’s guess who was going to make it to the end of the race first.
The lead changed hands seven times in those 47 laps and it sure looked like Chase Elliott had an advantage. He led 23 laps but ran out of fuel on lap 198. That gave the lead to Martin Truex Jr., who led for a lap before being passed by Kyle Larson in what would have been a race-winning pass for the ages had Larson had enough fuel to make it to the end. Larson led lap 199 before giving way to Kurt Busch, who hadn’t led a lap all day and had been involved in an accident on lap 128.
Busch’s first lap led was the final one, and he scored his first Daytona 500 victory and first points win on a restrictor plate track.
1. Indianapolis, July 23: Yeah, this race was a marathon and Indianapolis still doesn’t produce the most thrilling racing overall with the current aerodynamic rules on Cup cars. But damn, if the end of it wasn’t worth the wait.
The two most dominant cars in the first half of the race — Truex and Busch — took each other out on a restart. That opened up the race to a host of other options and for a while it looked like it could even turn into a fuel strategy race that produced a surprise winner.
But once Clint Bowyer spun and collected three other cars with nine laps to go, chaos reigned. The restart produced a fiery crash involving Kyle Larson and the restart following Larson’s crash produced the best moment of the year in the Cup Series as Jimmie Johnson, Keselowski and eventual winner Kasey Kahne went three-wide into turn three for the lead. Oh yeah, Johnson’s car was billowing smoke too.
Johnson didn’t make it through the corner, leaving Kahne and Keselowski to battle it out over two more restarts. Yeah, the race didn’t end smoothly; the red flag for the calamity on the frontstretch following Johnson’s wreck dragged on and the overtime line came into play.
And hell, NASCAR’s hesitancy with the caution flag at the end of the race even indirectly led to the overtime line disappearing from the NASCAR rulebook. It wasn’t pretty or even fulfilling, but the six hours of waiting produced a finish that was so very NASCAR.
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