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ANDERS: Title went to the fastest guy

NASCAR Homestead Auto Racing-2
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Martin Truex Jr., right, and crew chief Cole Pearn celebrate in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series auto race and season championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla., Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

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By JORDAN ANDERS
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, November 26, 2017

For all the twists and turns, after more than 10,000 laps and 13,000 miles across a nine-month season, at the end of the day, the fastest car won.

It’s been a week since Martin Truex Jr. was crowned the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion. It’s weird to think about the idea of a guy who had seven career wins entering this season being Cup champion.

It’s not that hard, though, to take it in considering the fact that at the end of the day in Homestead, just like many other days this season, the No. 78 car was the fastest.

Truex matched and surpassed his career win total this year, taking home eight checkered flags. The last of them at Homestead made him the fourth driver in as many seasons to win the final race and the championship simultaneously under NASCAR’s “Championship 4” format. In three of those four seasons, the second-place finisher was also racing for a championship.

The finale in Florida was supremely entertaining viewing thanks in large part to the fact that the four championship-eligible drivers — Truex, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski — had cars that ran in the top-five for some if not most of the day. Busch and Truex put on a great show in the final 15 laps, and anyone who had any doubt about Truex’s level of talent shouldn’t anymore after the way he flawlessly ran a foot off the wall over that stretch to hold off Busch for the win.

In the first season for NASCAR’s new stage racing format, Truex was dominant. He built up enough stage and playoff points to not even need to win to make it to the Championship 4, but when the cards were on the table and a win needed to be had in order to close the year out with a title, he did just that.

For all the hate the sport gets for relying on gimmicks and parlor tricks — some of which has come from me — at the end of the day, it came down to the two fastest championship contenders battling it out and the fastest guy won.

Truex’s story was one of perseverance all year. From the well-documented story of his girlfriend battling cancer, to the team engineer who died of a heart attack the night before the No. 78 team won at Kansas, to team owner Barney Visser having a heart attack of his own in early November that kept him from being in Homestead to celebrate his team’s first championship, there have been tons of obstacles for Truex and Furniture Row Racing to clear.

They cleared every one and were rewarded with NASCAR’s top prize, and they may not be done. Truex is only 37 and likely has another five years or so of his prime remaining. There’s no reason to believe the No. 78 team won’t be right back in this same spot next year.

Youth is served: While the veteran Truex picked up his first Cup title, a pair of drivers who represent the future of the sport won the other two titles handed out last weekend.

Christopher Bell (23) and William Byron (20) won the Truck Series and Xfinity Series titles, respectively. The duo represents two faces in the wave of young drivers rapidly ascending up the sport’s ranks. Byron will drive the No. 24 car in the Cup Series next season, while Bell will move up to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing full time in the Xfinity Series.

In fact, both of those races saw the young drivers have to outlast older, more experienced drivers — Johnny Sauter for Bell, Elliott Sadler for Byron — in order to claim championships. The performances of both drivers under pressure is a great sign for both their futures and the future of NASCAR.

Signing off: With the season over, this column will go into hibernation for the winter. Thanks for reading during the season. We’ll kick off the season with Daytona in February and do it again next year.

Contact Jordan Anders at janders@reflector.com, 252-329-9594 or follow @ReflectorJordan on Twitter.

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