2013 Season Capsule: After many oddities, the year in ends in a familiar, legendary way
2013 was a page-turning, eyebrow-raising, history making, and sometimes sleep-inducing season. The highly hyped Gen-6 cars took to the track as NASCAR's solution to the gripes about the lack of manufacturer autonomy and inability for the Cars of Tomorrow to race well. NASCAR still needs to tweak the car and some other elements of the competition rules to make the racing action better, but the cars received less than a tenth of the criticism of their predecessors.
Danica Patrick's first full season saw her finish a disappointing 27th in points, but she did win the Daytona 500 pole and finish that race in the top 10 ( both firsts for women in the Sprint Cup Series). And no, competing against boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for Rookie of the Year (he won) did not derail their relationship. She did wreck quite a bit and did a poor job qualifying, but at least improved her finishes a bit toward the end of the season.
Jimmie Johnson set the table for his season, taking his first of six wins in the Daytona 500. He ended the season, of course, hoisting his 6th Sprint Cup trophy. His Chase stats were impressive: two wins and a worst finish of 13th. The season was nearly perfect, except for a pre-Chase swoon that saw Team 48 finish four-straight races outside the top 25. Nonetheless, Johnson now moves just one championship behind all-time leaders Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. And his Hendrick Motorsports team passes Petty Enterprises, by winning its 11th Sprint Cup. Dominant.
Johnson's biggest points foe was Matt Kenseth, who opened the Chase with two wins and finished the year with a career-high seven. Kenseth's first season in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20
should have been more touch and go and in some ways was. Toyota Racing Development's ultra horsepower turned into issues of faulty reliability. And then a scandal with a miss-sized part in Kenseth's motor after his Kansas win mixed in to make for a stressful midseason for all of Toyota. But the No. 20 team overcame those issues to show well in the Chase and keep step with Johnson almost to the very end.
Silly Season took some hard turns. Kevin Harvick ends a 13-year Cup career at Richard Childress Racing, departing for Stewart-Haas Racing. He did win four races and stayed close in the points, but fell short of his first Cup. Kurt Busch leaves Furniture Row Racing for SHR as well, but did get the team in its first Chase. This displaces Ryan Newman from his five-year home at SHR and moves him to RCR, where he'll replace Jeff Burton. Burton, winner of 21 Cup races, leaves RCR's No. 31 after nine-and-a-half seasons and has no full-time ride lined up for 2014. Mark Martin probably has known a while that his part-time 2013 campaign would be his last, but had no idea it would end in the No. 14 SHR entry, instead of Michael Waltrip Racing's No. 55. Juan Pablo Montoya got a pink slip from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing's No. 42, as the team and sponsor Target have chosen to promote the talented Kyle Larson. JTG-Daugherty Racing chose to replace Bobby Labonte in some races with once-disgraced A.J. Allmendinger and then announced Allmendinger would replace Labonte full-time in 2014. With no 2014 plans, the end of the road could be here for 2000 champ Labonte. And then there's sponsor NAPA and its decision to leave Michael Waltrip Racing after the cheating scandal at Richmond in September. That move displaced Martin Truex Jr. from the No. 56 and he moves to replace Busch at FRR.
"Spin Gate" at Richmond was surreal. NASCAR's unprecedented move to not only remove Truex Jr. from the Chase (as the spin of his teammate Clint Bowyer and slowing down of other teammate Brian Vickers helped him qualify for the playoffs), but also replace him with Ryan Newman in the Chase devastated the team and prompted NAPA to back from its longtime partnership with Michael Waltrip. That black eye for the sport only got bigger, when more audio about drivers giving up positions surfaced and NASCAR decided the Friday before the Chase began at Chicagoland to place a 13th driver, Jeff Gordon, in the Chase. Very weird.
And speaking of weird: Tony Stewart missed the last third of the season after breaking his leg severely in a Sprint Car crash; Denny Hamlin missed a couple of races after hurting his back when he and Joey Logano wrecked at Auto Club Speedway - and Hamlin proceeded to have by far the worst season of his career; Bobby Labonte missed a couple of races after his bike crashed and he broke ribs; Brian Vickers missed the final few races of the season after being placed (again) on blood thinners; Jason Leffler tragically lost his life in a Sprint Car crash; NNS driver Eric McClure developed an illness that caused him to miss several races in the last couple of months; doctors diagnosed Trevor Bayne with MS this week; NASCAR suspended NNS driver Jeremy Clements for using a racial slur; Kyle Larson's car smashed the Daytona fence and nearly killed several fans.
The Nationwide Series was stacked with sponsored teams, but Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske Racing used mostly their Cup drivers to snag all but five of the series' wins. Austin Dillon was consistent, but was a winless champion, just beating Sam Hornish Jr. and his single win. Kyle Busch had 12 wins in 26 starts and Brad Keselowski seven in 16. The dominance of Cup drivers overshadowed what should have been a great season for NASCAR's 2nd series.
The Camping World Truck Series is struggling to fill fields, but the top teams jousted well. Matt Crafton became the first driver to complete every lap in a season and finished nearly every race in the top 10, en route to his first championship. Darrell Wallace Jr. became the first black driver to win in NASCAR's top three series since Wendell Scott years ago. Another youngster, Ryan Blaney, showed strength winning in both Trucks and NNS this year. And even younger drivers had success as 17-year-old Chase Elliott spun Ty Dillon to win at Mid-Ohio, only to have Erik Jones break his "youngest to win" record, taking the crown last week at Phoenix. And then there was the incredibly entertaining Mudsummer Classic on the dirt at Eldora Speedway - a thrilling event won by 2011 Truck champ Austin Dillon.
Many will write off 2013, because Jimmie Johnson won another championship. But so much happened and so many storylines arose that only the future can settle. Johnson did not run away with the title and before he ever got there, so many oddities and historical events took place that may never happen again. The biggest rub against 2013 is that the biggest, best stories took place off the track and not on it. With the sport looking into 2014 competition changes, one can only hope the racing will be better then. But for now, let's savor what is and what was, knowing it will never be just like it ever again. They seem like they are, but moments in time do not replicate. The 2013 season has passed right before our eyes.