Transitions. Every Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has them, but few are as emotional or as comprehensive as the transitions that occurred today at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But almost as big were the last rides — or at least the last rides with their current teams — by some of NASCAR’s top names.
With fully 25 percent of the Cup rides changing drivers for 2018, Homestead represented not just the end of the season, but in many ways, the end of an era.
Here are some of the major transitions that took place on Sunday:
NASCAR’s biggest star went out in style, with his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet trimmed out in the old Budweiser paint scheme from his early days. Next year, Earnhardt will become a father and move to the NBC Sports TV booth for their part of the season, while his seat in the No. 88 will be filled by Alex Bowman.
Earnhardt started from the back of the field due to an engine change, but worked his way into the top 20 before making contact with the wall and finishing 25th.
“What a story for Martin. I love it,” Earnhardt said after his close friend Truex won the title. “We retired and Martin wins the championship. That’s storybook. I hope all the fans enjoyed this season. I know it wasn’t everything we wanted on the race track, but we just had fun off of it and I’m going to miss everybody, but we’ll be back.”
The 2003 Cup champion scored a hugely emotional victory in the penultimate race of the season last weekend at Phoenix. Kenseth hasn’t said he’s retiring, but he doesn’t have a ride for next season, when he will be replaced in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota by Erik Jones.
“It was a really cool day, but once you start the engine, really didn’t think about anything to be honest with you, except for trying to go out and perform the best you can and trying to win that race,” said Kenseth, who finished eighth running the DeWalt paint scheme he used as a rookie.
Despite her massive popularity with the public, in five seasons at Stewart-Haas Racing, Patrick was never able to consistently run up front. And with no sponsor for 2018, she will not be back full time in NASCAR, although she will run the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500, with teams and sponsors to be named later. Aric Almirola will bring Smithfield Foods sponsorship to the No. 10 SHR Ford next year.
Homestead did not end well for Patrick, who cut a tire, hit the wall and finished 37th. “I hit the wall in (Turns) 3 and 4 and got some fender rub on the tire and it blew the tire,” said Patrick. “I went a couple of laps and there was smoke in the car, but they thought it was all right, but it wasn’t.”
This year, Blaney won his first race and made the NASCAR playoffs for the first time, advancing all the way to the Elite Eight in the iconic No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford. Next year, he’ll drive the new third car for Team Penske and ought to be a championship contender once again.
Blaney, too, had a rough day in the Ford EcoBoost 400, finishing 29th. “I love driving for the Wood Brothers,” he said. “It’s been a fun three years and I’ll always remember it. They’re very humble people and a humble family. All they want to do is race. They’re racers and that’s how I grew up. I think that’s what made our relationship special.”
Kahne was the surprise winner in the Brickyard 400 earlier this season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2014. But Hendrick Motorsports is promoting newly minted NASCAR XFINITY Series champion William Byron next year, when Kahne will move to Leavine Family Racing.
At Homestead, Kahne got taken out in Danica Patrick’s crash and finished 33rd.
The Arizona native had the best season of his career this year, but in 2018, Kasey Kahne will take over the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Chevrolet. McDowell could end up at Front Row Motorsports in 2018, although that is not confirmed. He finished 24th at Homestead.
It was one-and-done in the Furniture Row Racing No. 77 Toyota for Jones, who in 2018 will replace Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Big things are expected of Jones, who had an excellent rookie season this year. Furniture Row, meanwhile, will scale back to a single car in 2018. In his final drive with the team, Jones wound up 21st.
In six full years with Richard Petty Motorsports, Almirola had good equipment but not great equipment. Next year at Stewart-Haas Racing, he’ll have great equipment when he replaces Danica Patrick. At RPM, Bubba Wallace will take over for Almirola, and the team is expected to campaign Chevrolets. Almirola was a respectable 18th at Homestead.
After seven seasons with Richard Childress Racing, Menard will drive for the highly competitive Wood Brothers Racing team next year. Do not be surprised if Menard has a strong 2018 campaign. No definite word yet on who will be Menard’s replacement at RCR. Menard ran well in his last outing with the team, coming home 16th.
Cassill has said he will not be back with Front Row Motorsports in 2018, although he has not disclosed his plans, nor has the team announced its driver and sponsor lineup. Cassill finished 23rd on Sunday.