Finley Factor: 2017 Championship Picks
by Michael Finley On Thu, Feb. 16, 2017
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Champion: Timothy Peters
Peters’ situation in the Truck Series is one of the most stable in all of NASCAR. Since winning his first race for Red Horse Racing in his first start for the Truck Series team in 2010, he hasn’t missed a single race. Last season was the first time since 2008 that the veteran didn’t find victory lane, but it was statistically his best season since finishing runner-up in points in 2012. Peters made the inaugural Truck Series Chase and the championship four but his ninth in the season finale was behind the other three Truck drivers. Peters has been a model of consistency, with only one points finish outside of the top-five since 2011. The 36-year-old from Virginia is the best Truck series veteran to have never won the series championship- expect that to change in 2017.
NASCAR XFINITY Series Champion: William Byron
With Matt Tifft being the lone full-time JGR Toyota and just about everybody else in the series either being a fellow rookie, a teammate of Byron’s, or in a relatively underfunded ride, Byron has to be the favorite. When it comes to drivers moving teams, Byron’s decision to leave Toyota to go over to Hendrick Motorsports was the surprise of last year’s Silly Season. Byron was dominant last year, winning seven truck races after entering the season with just one career start in the series. He just missed out on making it to the championship four at Homestead but won the race anyway. Byron was so good that NASCAR’s new playoff point structure seems to be structured more to prevent such a dominant driver from being so easily eliminated in the Chase, rather than an answer to Jimmie Johnson’s season last year as some in the media argued.
Of the entire flock of full-time drivers this season in the XFINITY Series, Byron is probably the favorite to win a championship in most people’s eyes and there’s no real argument against that. JR Motorsports does a great job of teaching young drivers, with Brad Keselowski being its first graduate and Chase Elliott being its latest. Byron is even stepping into the same car that Elliott drove to a championship his own rookie year; there’s not a lot to go against Byron with besides “He’s a rookie!” or “He’s never even made a start in the series!”, none of which will matter when we get to Homestead and he’s one of the final four.
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion: Erik Jones
I love making risky picks. I picked Kyle Larson to win it all last season; it was a genius pick at Richmond when Larson was red hot entering the Chase and it was a stupid pick at Dover when Larson was one of the first eliminated in the Chase.
This isn’t a risky pick.
Erik Jones is a rookie who will be competitive out of the gate. Erik Jones will win races. Erik Jones will become the first driver to win a championship in their rookie season.
Jones has been fast in everything he’s gotten into. When Kyle Busch went down at Daytona in 2015, it speaks volumes that Gibbs wanted Jones to sub for him on day one but had to wait because he was a Truck Series rookie with little experience running big racetracks.
In three races subbing for Busch in 2015, Jones performed very well for an 18-year-old Truck Series rookie. He was on his way to contending for a win in his very first start at Kansas before spinning out. That’s pure insanity. He won a Truck Series championship that season with an average finish of 6.3, then came up to the XFINITY Series in 2016. Jones had consistency problems but was seemingly unstoppable if the car that week was good-to-great and didn’t lose out on strategy.
Toyota seems to be in the best position of the three manufacturers this season. Ford teams are a huge question mark right now. We don’t know if adding four teams will be too big of a strain on the Roush-Yates engine department and we don’t know if Stewart-Haas Racing is going to be able to just continue being great immediately following the move to the blue oval.
Meanwhile, on the Chevrolet side, Hendrick Motorsports presents the biggest challenge to the Toyota dominance of the series but with possibly only two teams. Dale Earnhardt Jr. might take a while to get back up to speed and there are no real signs that show Kasey Kahne significantly improving this season. Chip Ganassi Racing will be interesting to watch, but Larson may be distracted by contract talks and cars get slower if the driver is leaving after the season. Finally, Richard Childress Racing and its satellite teams are probably a year or two from becoming a race-to-race challenge for the rest of the competition.
Now, this pick has one caveat to it. It’s assuming that Furniture Row Racing will receive the same level of support as it did last season when Martin Truex Jr. basically ran the fifth JGR car. As long as this new second car team is getting the same attention as Truex’s team this year, there’s no reason the No. 77 won’t be running at full speed by Charlotte in May.
Jones should be able to get over his consistency problems. Chris Gayle will be a rookie crew chief to go along with his rookie driver, but he isn’t new to being a crew chief; he won 12 races last season working with a variety of drivers in the No. 18 on route to making it to Homestead in the championship four in owner’s points. JGR crew chiefs who move up to the Cup Series rarely strike out; Gayle might not have Kyle Busch in his car this season but he will have a younger, somewhat similar driver.
Jones has a lot to prove. With William Byron’s dominant season in the Truck Series, Daniel Suarez winning the XFINITY Series championship, and Chase Elliott’s impressive rookie season, Jones will be out to prove himself as the best of the young coup invading NASCAR. He hasn’t proven many people wrong so far.