NASCAR begins and ends each season in Florida. From the Daytona 500 in February, 43 teams go through a season of 36 races culminating in the 400 mile race in Homestead the third week in November.
Before this season’s Daytona 500, NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon announced that this season, his 21st as a driver, would be his last. After 93 career victories and four NASCAR championships, each track would prepare their respective send-offs.
The year began well for Gordon. He earned the pole position for his final Daytona 500, but Joey Logano gave a preview of a strong year ahead with a victory in the sport’s premiere race. He would win six races in 2015.
Things did not begin so well for Kyle Busch. The day before the Daytona 500, he broke his leg in a crash that would force him to miss the first 11 races.
That made him a long shot to secure enough points in the next 15 races to qualify for the championship round, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. He struggled upon his return.
Busch’s first four races saw him finish no higher than ninth including a last-place finish at Michigan International Speedway on June 14. He then proceeded to win four of the next five races, leading him to a strong finish and an improbable in the Chase.
He was joined by former champions such as Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, and Brad Keselowski. Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. also qualified for the top 16.
After six weeks, the contenders were reduced to eight drivers. Kenseth was on his way to winning at Kansas Motor Speedway and making the semi-finals. Late in the race, Kenseth was spun out by Logano, who had already qualified, effectively eliminating Kenseth.
The eight drivers moving on were Logano, Kyle and Kurt Busch, Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Keselowski and Gordon. Logano won all three races in the round of 12 and appeared to be the one to beat for the championship.
Kenseth had other thoughts. With Logano leading at Martinsville and Kenseth several laps down following a confrontation with Keselowski, Kenseth put Logano into the wall ending his day.
Gordon was the recipient of Kenseth’s take-out and won the race, qualifying for the championship race at Homestead. Logano would not recover over the following two weeks and missed out on a chance for his first title.
On Nov. 22, three other drivers joined Gordon with a chance for the championship: Harvick, Truex and Kyle Busch. Gordon, frequently booed during his career, was the crowd favorite.
They came to see a storybook finish with Gordon going out on top with his fifth championship. Instead, they saw Busch write his own story.
After Harvick led early, Gordon took a turn, then Keselowski. In the end, Busch took the lead and hung on to win the race and his first title. Harvick finished the season in second with Gordon third.
“I kind of got excited and got my hopes up there,” Gordon said after the race. So did most of the Homestead crowd.
With the 2016 season less than two months away, new storylines will develop. Three-time champion Tony Stewart has announced that the coming season will be his last.
NASCAR and the television networks hope Stewart can generate some excitement on his farewell tour. They also hope TV ratings and ticket buyers will not dwindle in Gordon’s absence.
The Daytona 500 is Feb. 21.