By sealing a historic 7th Sprint Cup championship in 11 seasons, Jimmie Johnson has confirmed his place as one of the greatest stock car drivers in history. Whilst some sceptics may put his success down to the genius of crew chief Chad Knaus, or the resources offered by team owner Rich Hendrick, Johnson’s victory in the final race in Miami typified his ability to deliver when the pressure reaches boiling point.
The regular season had been a challenge for Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates. After winning 2 races early in the season, Johnson struggled his way through the summer, picking up just 2 top 10 finishes in 13 races from the May race at Talladega, to Watkins Glen in August. In fact, Johnson didn’t show any championship winning form until the 5th race of the Chase, when he won the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte, one of his most successful tracks. From there, Johnson would win a further 2 races, including the season finale, to secure his legendary status.
The team that dominated for much of the year was Joe Gibbs Racing. Together, defending champion Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards combined for 1/3 of the season’s victories, including a Daytona 500 win for Hamlin. However, despite all 4 drivers making the final 8 in the Chase, they only won 1 of the last 10 races to miss out on the title.
Team Penske were also strong throughout 2016. Both Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski were title contenders, Keselowski particularly strong during the regular season, Logano peaking in the Chase. However, neither driver could win the championship. Keselowski was looking like a favourite until a crash at Kansas and engine trouble at Talladega ended his chances in the round of 12. Logano meanwhile made it all the way to the final 4, only to finish 2nd in the championship, hampered by contact with Carl Edwards in the closing stages.
Sunoco Rookie of the Year was Jeff Gordon’s replacement at Hendrick Motorsports (Gordon would sub in for Dale Earnhardt Jr due to injury midway through the year) Chase Elliott. Whilst Elliott was unable to take a victory in his rookie season, he would pick up 10 top 5 and 17 top 10 finishes, eventually finishing 10th in the standings, and very much living up to the high expectations placed on him.
One rookie driver who could pick up a memorable victory was the 2015 Xfinity Series Champion Chris Buescher. Driving for underdog team Front Row Motorsports, Buescher ran outside of the top 20 for most of the year, but qualified for the Chase after a different pit sequence at Pocono allowed him to stay out in the lead until fog moved over the track, giving him the victory. Whilst Buescher could only managed 16thin the Chase, this was enough to earn him a move to JTG Daugherty Racing for 2017.
Martin Truex Jr had a breakout season in 2015, and his Furniture Row Racing team improved even further this season, picking up 4 wins, including 2 of the first 3 Chase races. He could well have won the championship if it wasn’t for an unfortunate retirement in Talladega that knocked him out at the round of 12 stage. His standout victory came in the Coke 600 where he led a record 392 laps during a dominant performance in the longest race of the year.
Other notable highlights of the season included a long overdue first Sprint Cup victory for Kyle Larson at Michigan, allowing him to qualify for the Chase for the first time in his career. 3 time champion Tony Stewart marked his final season in full-time NASCAR racing with a memorable victory at Sonoma, where he pulled off a dramatic pass on Denny Hamlin in the final corner of the race.
However, with 5 victories, the most of any driver, the 2016 season belonged to Jimmie Johnson. The joint-most successful driver in NASCAR history will now look to stand alone at the top of the pile next season, and with such a strong team around him, who would bet against the 48 car achieving that feat.
Next season, the cars will be running an even lower downforce package, opening the opportunity for even more exciting races and finishes. The championship is also being rebranded, and will be known from 2017 as the NASCAR Monster Energy Series. It all kicks off again on February 26th for the 2017 Daytona 500, where Johnson will begin yet another title defence.