After an up-and-down year, 2016 NASCAR season ends on a high note – FOXSports.com

The door is officially closed on the 2016 NASCAR season and in the sport’s vernacular, you could make the case that it was one of those best-of-times/worst-of-times deals. But in the end, what I take away are solid reasons to be optimistic about ’17.

First, let’s start with some of the not good stuff that happened in 2016:

Injuries to two of the sport’s most popular drivers were a big blow. Tony Stewart missed the first eight races of the year with a broken back and Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed the entire second half of the season with a concussion.

Once it became clear that Earnhardt was going to be out indefinitely, fan interest fell off. Say all you want about content being consumed in different ways these days — which is true — but more fans pay attention to the sport when Earnhardt is racing than when he isn’t. That’s not even debatable.

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Another issue: NASCAR inspections and violations became a huge distraction to the on-track product. Way too much was spent talking about lug nuts and LIS inspections and who lost 15 minutes of practice time and who had to go to the back of the pack at the start of the race.

NASCAR inspectors work their butts off to keep the playing field level and those wily crew chiefs in check. Hopefully, next year the powers that be will figure out a way that inspections quit being one of the top stories of the week, every week.

Speaking of wily crew chiefs, the racing was incredible at the start of the year, when NASCAR cut downforce sharply. But as the season wore and crew chiefs got most of it back, the racing got worse.

NASCAR will whack the downforce again to start 2017, but how they keep the crew chiefs from getting it all back again is beyond me. That will be a challenge, for sure.

Another bummer was that the long decline of Roush Fenway Racing culminated at the end of the season with the team announcing that Greg Biffle wasn’t coming back and that they will field just two cars in 2017. Remember it was as recent as 2005 when Roush Fenway won 15 races and had five drivers in what then was a 10-race Chase.

Kind of like with Earnhardt, the racing tends to be more interesting when Jack Roush and his minions are in the mix to win races. And they haven’t been in the last couple of years.

On the good side of the ledger, there was much to be thankful for.

The Daytona Rising project was a huge success, and next year the long-awaited renovation of Phoenix International Raceway will begin.

Throwback weekend at Darlington Raceway for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 was even better in 2016 than it was in the first year, something I didn’t think was possible.

The young bucks in all three of NASCAR’s top series entertained us all year long and put on some great racing. Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher were the first rookies to make the Chase since Denny Hamlin in 2006, Daniel Suarez won the XFINITY championship and William Byron won more Truck Series races than anyone.

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And, oh, yeah, there are about 10 other young guns we could talk about.

More good news is that NASCAR is starting the process of weeding out Cup drivers from lower series races. This is a long overdue move.

Early in the year and in the final couple Chase races, the competition was sensational. The middle stretch of the Chase lacked drama — no drivers fighting after the race or putting each other into the wall — but the final two races were as good as any I’ve seen.

Jimmie Johnson’s seventh championship? Whether you’re a fan or not, you got to witness an extraordinary athlete at the peak of his skills make history, which doesn’t happen very often.

The new title sponsor turned out well, too. Yes, NASCAR was way late in inking a deal with Monster Energy — it was like when you were in high school and prom was a week away and you didn’t have a date yet — but NASCAR and Monster will be a great fit together. I have no doubts whatsoever about that.

Add it all up and here’s my take: NASCAR will start the 2017 season with a new and highly motivated series sponsor that will throw a ton of effort into promoting the sport and attracting new fans.

NASCAR also will get its most popular driver — Earnhardt Jr. — back next year, with a whole lot of young guns returning and/or moving up.

Plus, we’ll start 2017 with some compelling storylines:

What, exactly, will Monster Energy do to make the at-track experience more compelling? (Spoiler alert: a whole lot).

How will Stewart-Haas Racing do as a Ford team?

Can Clint Bowyer get back to winning now that he’s replacing Stewart at SHR?

Will expanding to two cars help Furniture Row Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing?

And last but not least, will NASCAR crown its first-ever eight-time champion in 2017 or will someone else rise up and take the title back from Johnson?

I don’t know about you, but I’m already getting excited for Daytona Speedweeks.

 
 

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