Richard Petty. Dale Earnhardt. Jimmie Johnson. The Hendrick driver joined elite company on Sunday, as he claimed a historic seventh Cup Championship - joining the two Hall of Famers as the only drivers to accomplish such a feat. "I was driving the same race cars for the same team as Jimmie and getting beat by Jimmie," said former teammate Jeff Gordon. "To me, he’s the best I’ve ever seen." It didn't come easy for Johnson, who worked his way up from the back of the field before claiming the lead during the final overtime restart in NASCAR's thrilling season finale. "Just beyond words," said Johnson. "Just didn't think the race was unfolding for us like we needed to do to be the champs, but we just kept our heads in the game."
Twelve wins, 3,769 laps led, four Chase drivers, and two in the Championship 4. Yes it was Jimmie Johnson hoisting the Sprint Cup trophy on Sunday night, but 2016 could be remembered as the year Joe Gibbs Racing established itself as a premier team in NASCAR. Their historic season propelled Toyota to their first ever manufacturer's title in the Cup series, snapping Chevrolet's 13-year winning streak. If you throw in the accomplishments of alliance member Martin Truex Jr. (another four wins and season-high 1,809 laps led), his future teammate Erik Jones, and an XFINITY Series Champion in Daniel Suarez - what team has a brighter future?
Speaking of futures, 2016 proved that NASCAR has a promising one. The 2016 Chase field saw four newbies all under the age of 27. Rookies Chase Elliott (20) and Chris Buescher (24) joined Austin Dillon (26) and Kyle Larson (24) as first-time Chase competitors, with Elliott advancing to the Round of 12 and Larson having arguably the best car at the Championship race in Homestead. Rookie Ryan Blaney (22) had a strong campaign with nine Top-10 finishes, while Team Penske's Joey Logano (26), has established himself as one of the sport's most dangerous drivers with nine wins over the past two years and a Championship 4 run in 2016. Furniture Row Racing signed Erik Jones (20) to a full-time Cup ride in 2017, and his XFINITY Series teammate Daniel Suarez (24) took home the XFINITY Series Championship. Watch out next year, folks, these youngsters mean business.
This season was definitely one for the books, punctuated by Denny Hamlin's historic start at the Daytona 500 and Jimmie Johnson's historic finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And while the sun has barely set on the 2016 season, already the NASCAR landscape is beginning to change. What will the Cup Series look like without Tony Stewart? How will his team, Stewart-Haas Racing, perform with their transition to Ford? Will 2016 go down as a career year for Joe Gibbs Racing - or just the beginning of something more? After a 12-year run with the sport, who will replace Sprint as the Cup Series sponsor? We won't have to wait long to find out - the 2017 Daytona 500 is just 95 days away.