Hot 20 – If dreams do come true, why not a Dale Earnhardt 500 at Talladega?

With more than a month left in the old year, talk about the new is already starting to dominate. Tony Stewart is now retired, with Clint Bowyer no doubt thrilled at the chance to get back into quality equipment as his replacement. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is getting ready to return to racing, though that message from fiance Amy Reimann seems to indicate he never really left. Greg Biffle has left Jack Roush after all these years, with his old ride apparently being put on blocks for next season.

Dear NASCAR: Please start branding your races so they might one day become stand alone marquee events. Along with the Daytona 500, the Southern 500, and the Brickyard 400, change it back to the World 600 at Charlotte and summertime should mark the Firecracker 400 at Daytona. While we are at it, who would not want to win at Talladega, taking the Hellmann’s Dale Earnhardt 500, or STP’s Richard Petty 500 at Martinsville? A Ridgeway grandfather clock with the King’s face on the face. Hey, it is not our circus, but we have grown fond of some of the monkeys.

Jimmie Johnson has another trinket to keep polished. NASCAR, in its stupidity, has few iconic events, we know, but Johnson has won them all. Daytona 500? Twice. Southern 500? Twice. World 600? Four times. Brickyard 400? Four more. Ten-time winner at Dover. Nine at Martinsville. Did anyone mention seven Cup championships? Is it too early to wonder about an eighth? Jimmie Johnson is a living, breathing active iconic legend of the sport. Enjoy him while we can.

Most athletes are done by the time they hit 40. NASCAR is lucky in that way, but even at that age folks start asking the drivers “how much longer?” once they hit the milestone. Johnson, Junior, Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick have already reached the peak of that mountain. The good news is that young gents such as Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, and Austin Dillon have already arrived, with Ty Dillon coming soon, along with the likes of Erik Jones and Darrell Wallace Jr. Those are just the ones with decent rides, either at this level or the one just below. Like XFINITY champ Daniel Suarez, for instance.

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Elliott, Cup’s top rookie, turns 21 within the week. There are 50 drivers younger than him with some experience in the Cup, XFINITY, Camping World, or ARCA series. Harrison Burton finished 22nd in a truck race, third in an ARCA event. Jeff Burton’s boy turned 16 in October. Cole Custer does not turn 19 until January, yet was 10th best in the trucks this season, with a pair of XFINITY Top Tens to his credit in just five attempts. Tomorrow’s stars are coming.

Let us not rush things, though. 2016 gave us a nice mix of seasoned veterans and fuzzy-cheeked talent, as our Hot 20 bears out.

1. JIMMIE JOHNSON (5 WINS – 11 T5 – 16 T10) 5040 PTS
Gunning for eight in 2017. What, too soon?

2. JOEY LOGANO (3-16-26) 5037 PTS
I will never forget what he and Brittany did to honor the family of Jake Leatherman.

3. KYLE BUSCH (4-17-25) 5035 PTS
If NASCAR was Canadian, would Kyle be sponsored by Smarties?

4. CARL EDWARDS (3-9-18) 5007 PTS
Not at the front of the field in the end, but left as the class of the field.

5. MATT KENSETH (2-8-19) 2330 PTS
With the Biff leaving, that ole Roush gang have now all departed for greener pastures.

6. DENNY HAMLIN (3-12-22) 2320 PTS
Average finish over the final 21 races was 8.5. Thirtieth at Charlotte ruined everything.

7. KURT BUSCH (1-9-21) 2296 PTS
Was better in the first half than the second. The good news is that 2017 begins with the first half.

8. KEVIN HARVICK (4-17-27) 2289 PTS
Best damn driver in NASCAR this season is a champion…just not for this year.

9. KYLE LARSON (1-10-15) 2288 PTS
Second-best 20-something driver this season, and seems to have designs on #1 in the next.

10. CHASE ELLIOTT (0-10-17) 2285 PTS
Not all Rookies of the Year are stellar choices, but this one most definitely is.

11. MARTIN TRUEX JR. (4-8-17) 2271 PTS
Next year, Erik Jones becomes his new teammate. If the boy wins, soda pop for everyone.

12. BRAD KESELOWSKI (4-16-22) 2267 PTS
Brad does not think the format led to great racing last week. Brad did not have my television.

13. JAMIE MCMURRAY (0-2-12) 2231 PTS
Joined by Larson, McMurray gave boss Chip Ganassi a pair in the Top Five last Sunday.

14. AUSTIN DILLON (0-4-13) 2223 PTS
Some wags figure if Woody from Toy Story drove in NASCAR, he would look a lot like Austin.

15. TONY STEWART (1-5-8) 2211 PTS
As iconic as Johnson, Petty, Earnhardt, Gordon, L. Petty, Pearson, Yarborough and Waltrip

16. CHRIS BUESCHER (1-2-2) 2169 PTS
Proof that one race can make a season.

17. KASEY KAHNE (0-3-13) 898 PTS
2004’s top rookie teams with a seven-time champ, a 13-time most popular, and 2016’s top rookie.

18. RYAN NEWMAN (0-2-10) 895 PTS
If he had actually been driving a Caterpillar, the car would have looked better after last Sunday.

19. A.J. ALLMENDINGER (0-2-9) 830 PTS
If getting the wave around works good enough to claim eighth at Homestead, why not?

20. RYAN BLANEY (0-3-9) 812 PTS
Turns 23 on New Year’s Eve. Talk about welcoming in a new year twice at the same party.

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