The checkered flag has fallen on what was an exciting 2016 season throughout racing. We had first-time winners and champions, a seven-time champion, some notable retirements and long-awaited returns to popular tracks. Let's break it down.
The Verizon IndyCar Series had its title fight go down to the last race of the season with Team Penske's Simon Pagenaud besting the field to win his first IndyCar championship. The Frenchman had five wins over the course of the season, more than any other driver. Though the double points awarded at the Indianapolis 500 and the finale at Sonoma Raceway take a little bit away from the pure fight, the series title has been decided in the finale for at least the last 13 seasons. Without a manufactured Chase scenario like NASCAR, that's something for this series to be proud of.
—The 100th running of the Indy 500 saw Alexander Rossi surprise everybody, including himself, by winning on a bizarre fuel strategy that saw him basically coasting around the track the last few laps. It was the American's first career IndyCar win and his only win of the season. His best finish following Indianapolis was a fifth place at the season finale. With Rossi re-signing with Andretti Herta Autosport for next season, maybe he can back up this year's improbable win with more visits to victory lane.
—Perhaps the brightest spots of this year's season were returns to some classic tracks. Phoenix International Raceway, Road America and Watkins Glen International all made it back on the schedule much to the excitement of fans. While the Phoenix race was a bit of a snoozer, it was mostly due to the fact that the series hadn't raced on the oval since 2005 with completely different cars. Road America was an unqualified success with record crowds while the Watkins Glen crowds were surprisingly large even though it was an eleventh hour substitute for the cancelled Boston Grand Prix. All three will thankfully return to the schedule next year.
—Juan Pablo Montoya's third year back in the series after a lengthy hiatus that included sojourns in Formula One and NASCAR proved to be difficult, with only one win and two podium finishes. The 1999 champion and 2015 runner-up won't be back with Team Penske next season except for the Indy 500, which he was won twice. It was a strange turn of events for the Colombian, who after winning the season opener looked like he'd be the one to beat. He'll certainly be one of the favorites at Indy.
—That brings us to Josef Newgarden, who won at Iowa Speedway for his third career win despite breaking his hand and clavicle in an accident at Texas Motor Speedway four weeks earlier. This is the Tennessee native's first chance with a powerhouse team like Penske that has enormous resources and years of background. Newgarden is taking over Montoya's seat and you can be assured that the fan favorite will be one of the most closely watched drivers next season. I expect his win total to at least double from that of this year.
—The 2017 season kicks off March 12 with the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and will run through Sept. 17, again ending with the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. One new addition next season is a race at the 1.25-mile Gateway Motorsports Park oval in Madison, Illinois, a track the series last raced at in 2003. With no fewer than five drivers switching teams, it will be interesting to see if those changes bring more than this season's nine different winners.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season seems to lasts forever and has an off-season just over 90 days. Over 36 races, ten of which are the Chase for the Sprint Cup where a field of 13 drivers is whittled away every three races to four title contenders in the finale, there really was no dominating driver. Eventual champion Jimmie Johnson won three of the final ten races (and five total) to take his record-tying seventh Sprint Cup title, otherwise thirteen different drivers won at least one race.
—If there was any kind of domination this season, it was the entire Joe Gibbs Racing team with drivers Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth. Though the team did seem to fade towards the end of the season, its four drivers combined for twelve wins and they all made the Chase, though only Edwards and Busch were eligible for the title at the season finale. With no driver changes planned for next season, it's very possible that the Gibbs team will be back dominating next season.
—Tony Stewart said farewell as a Sprint Cup driver this season, though he missed the first eight races of the season due to a back injury. After missing the last 15 races of the 2013 season due to a broken leg suffered in a sprint car crash and going winless the last two seasons, Stewart did win in his final season. A last-lap pass on Hamlin at Sonoma Raceway in June gave Stewart his 49th and final career Sprint Cup win. The three-time series champion will continue to head up Stewart-Haas Racing and will no doubt be competing in other forms of racing.
—Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a season to forget after suffering a concussion during a crash at Michigan and missing the final 18 races of the season. The recently retired Jeff Gordon took over for eight races while Alex Bowman piloted Earnhardt's car in the other ten. NASCAR's most popular driver is confident he will return to Sprint Cup racing in February for the Daytona 500. While I have no reason not to believe him, it makes you wonder because this is at least his second concussion that has caused him to sit out races and at age 42, are the risks still worth it?
—Daniel Suarez became NASCAR's first Latin American champion after winning the Xfinity Series title this season driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Suarez won three races and beat journeyman Elliott Sadler for the title by two points. The Camping World Truck Series saw Wausau native Johnny Sauter take the championship in his eighth full-time season in the series. While Sauter is a deserving champion who won three races this season, rookie driver William Byron won seven races, but thanks to the contrived Chase format he missed out on the title. No matter, the 19-year-old signed an agreement with Hendrick Motorsports to drive full-time in the Xfinity Series starting next season.
—The 2017 season kicks off with the recently renamed “The Clash at Daytona” on February 18 at Daytona International Speedway. The Clash takes the place of the formerly named Sprint Showdown, which has been retired with the exit of Sprint as the series title sponsor. While a new sponsor has yet to be announced, this is the first in what will likely be many newly named events next season.
The recently wrapped-up Formula One season didn't really produce any huge surprises this year, though the eventual series champion was perhaps not who many had expected. Heading into the season, it was pretty clear that the title would be decided between the Mercedes duo of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Britain's Hamilton, a three-time champion who won it the previous two years was the clear favorite. While Hamilton had more wins (ten to Rosberg's nine) this season, Germany's Rosberg won the title by five points in a battle that went all the way to the finale.
—Max Verstappen, the 19-year-old in his second year in the series, became the youngest winner in series history when he won at Spain in May. Verstappen had been promoted to Red Bull Racing prior to the Spanish Grand Prix to replace the struggling Daniil Kvyat. While the Dutchman's victory was impressive, it was made possible by Hamilton and Rosberg colliding and crashing out of the race on the first lap. In any case, Verstappen proved throughout the season he is a fearless racer and is not intimidated by anybody. I'm sure he will be champion one day.
—Verstappen's teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, was the only other non-Mercedes driver to win a race this year. The Australian won at Malaysia in October and did his infamous “shoey” celebration where he drinks champagne out of his race-worn shoe. He was somehow able to convince fellow podium finishers Verstappen and Rosberg to repeat the celebration. Ricciardo is a ray of sunshine in the otherwise quite humorless series and is almost always flashing an ear-to-ear grin. You hope he wins or at least finishes on the podium just so the post-race celebrations are worth watching.
—Two drivers who have been a staple in F1 for many years won't be on the grid next season. Felipe Massa retired following the season finale after 15 seasons, 250 starts and eleven wins. All of the Brazilian's wins came during his nine-year tenure with Ferrari, many of which saw him as teammate to seven-time champion Michael Schumacher. Jenson Button, the 2009 series champ, isn't calling it a “retirement,” but rather a sabbatical and will remain an ambassador for the McLaren-Honda team. The Brit, who won 15 races over 17 seasons, has an option to return to the cockpit in 2018.
—The 2017 season kicks off with the Australian Grand Prix on March 26 with a complete rules overhaul. New technical regulations are expected to boost lap times by up to five seconds, which should make for more exciting racing. Even so, you can probably still expect Mercedes to be the team to beat, but perhaps Red Bull and Ferrari can mount more of a challenge.