Top 20 Stories of 2017
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Top 20 Stories of 2017

Top Stories of 2017, #4: Dale Jr. leads big-name exodus from Cup

The seeds of change were planted last fall when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was forced to miss much of the second half of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series due to a concussion.

Top Stories of 2017, #4: Dale Jr. leads big-name exodus from Cup
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Carl Edwards
Carl Edwards, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, crashed car
Carl Edwards wipes a tear from his eye as he announces his retirement from NASCAR
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has a party with his crew members
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Race winner Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Race winner Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Danica Patrick, Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
Danica Patrick, Stewart-Haas Racing Ford crash fire
Danica Patrick, Stewart-Haas Racing Ford

There was no guarantee he would return for the 2017 NASCAR season, and if he did, how long he would remain after that.

The shockwave really hit in January when Carl Edwards – who was in contention down to the final race of the 2016 season to win the series championship – announced his abrupt and immediate retirement from the sport.

The move had big reverberations throughout the sport, forever altering the plans of two Cup series teams, Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing.

As the 2017 season wound down, it became clear it was also going to be final full-time seasons for former champion, Matt Kenseth, who coincidentally entered the Cup series the same year as Earnhardt; and fan favorite Danica Patrick, whose NASCAR experiment came to a close due to a lack of sponsorship backing.

The names – Earnhardt, Edwards, Kenseth and Patrick – have become synonymous with NASCAR in recent decades.

“This is great timing for me. It’s time for somebody else to get in that car and get out of it what they can,” Earnhardt said. “With Alex (Bowman) coming in behind me, it’s just a great opportunity for him.

“It’s his time. It’s now his moment going into next season to take his career wherever he can go. And mine, in my heart, has ran its course.”

Kenseth had perhaps the best going-away present – earning his only victory of the 2017 season in the next-to-last race of the season at Phoenix.

“With only two left (in the season), I didn’t think we were probably had a good chance of getting back to Victory Lane,” Kenseth said. “It’s been I don’t know how many races – somebody’s probably going to tell me tonight – but it’s been at least 50 or 60, so it’s been a long time.

“We’ve had a lot of close ones. Just felt like it was never meant to be and today it was meant to be.”

Each driver already has replacements with their respective teams but it’s a lot easier to change a driver seat then build a fan-following.

Many fans questioned whether NASCAR can afford to lose so much “star power” in such a short period of time.

But change is inevitable and there are already indications there are plenty of young, worthy candidates to propel the sport forward.

The Ford 400 marked the conclusion of the full-time careers of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Danica Patrick – three drivers who combined have garnered the vast majority of fans’ attention over the last 20 years.

The Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway marked the conclusion of the full-time careers of Earnhardt, Kenseth and Patrick, but it also showcased some of the up-and-coming stars.

Christopher Bell, 22, won his first Camping World Truck Series championship, battling two series veterans and a rookie to capture the title.

William Byron, a 19-year-old rookie, won the Xfinity Series championship in a race won by another 19-year-old rookie, Cole Custer, who earned his first series victory.

Although series veteran, Martin Truex Jr., won the title, he is a driver who reached the pinnacle of NASCAR by successfully traveling through its ladder system – clearing the way for the likes of Byron and Bell.

“The big buzz this year – especially the (Homestead) weekend with Matt and Dale Jr. running their last races – is what’s going to happen in the sport. Well, the sport is going to be just fine,” former three-time champion Tony Stewart said.

“There is plenty of good talent that’s coming along that are making names for themselves that will take the places of the guys that are leaving. … There were great drivers here before I got here, and there’s great drivers coming behind us.”

 

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