With Champions Week in Las Vegas coming up on Dec. 3-6, there’s still one more bit of business for the drivers and teams of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2013. But with things seemingly set to be quiet until then, now’s a good time for myself and Tony DiZinno to take a look back on the nine-month, 36-race season.
Just like we did with IndyCar, we’ll begin with our Top-5 on-track stories in Sprint Cup and then go on from there over the next several weeks.
Chris Estrada’s Top Five
NASCAR dodges a bullet after Chase scandal: When Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer intentionally spun out late at Richmond International Raceway in September, it began one of the ugliest episodes in NASCAR history. By the time the dust settled in the race manipulation scandal, MWR had lost a big sponsor and its third full-time program; Martin Truex Jr., the one that Bowyer and Brian Vickers had intended to help make the Chase at RIR, had lost his post-season berth – followed by his ride (he found another one); and Jeff Gordon was bestowed a 13th Chase spot.
But it could’ve been worse. Bowyer, the instigator, was allowed to stay in the “playoffs” but was never a factor for the title. Meanwhile, the uncontroversial Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth charged into the spotlight in the final 10 races. As a result, the Chase may have lacked some spice. But after the Richmond incident, NASCAR was probably glad for that.
Tony Stewart’s sprint car crash: One week after emerging unharmed from a sprint car crash in Canada, three-time Cup champion Stewart was involved in another wreck at the Southern Iowa Speedway. This time, he didn’t walk away – Stewart broke his right leg and it was enough to end his 2013 season as he was holding one of the two Chase wild card spots. The injury forced Stewart-Haas Racing to call upon Mark Martin, Max Papis and eventual Nationwide Series champ Austin Dillon for fill-in roles, and it also robbed NASCAR of one of its most engaging personalities just before the biggest stretch of the year.
Jimmie Johnson returns to the top: After a subpar-by-his-standards 2011 (two wins, sixth in points) and a loss to Brad Keselowski for the 2012 Cup title, Johnson reclaimed his throne this fall with a superb Chase. He and Matt Kenseth were neck-and-neck for the prize but the penultimate race at Phoenix was where everything changed: Johnson rallied from contact on Lap 163 to finish third, while a poor-handling car and a 25-second pit stop doomed Kenseth to a 23rd place result. One week later at Homestead, Johnson finished ninth to lock up his sixth Cup crown and join Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the ongoing debate over who is NASCAR’s greatest ever.
Spotter’s guide, anyone?: Silly Season was just plain wacky. Kevin Harvick (formerly of Richard Childress Racing) and Kurt Busch (formerly of Furniture Row Racing) are now heading for Stewart-Haas Racing. The aforementioned Truex is replacing Busch at FRR and Ryan Newman is leaving SHR for RCR. We don’t know what Jeff Burton is doing just yet, but we do know Juan Pablo Montoya has gone back to IndyCar. Longtime veterans Mark Martin and Bobby Labonte both may be done with Sprint Cup, while Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon are set to begin their runs at the top level. And A.J. Allmendinger has earned his second chance. Hope you’re not too confused after all of that.
Gen-6 still needs work: This week, NASCAR released an infographic on the new Gen-6 Sprint Cup cars’ first year of duty, trumpeting aspects such as the lowest average margin of victory since 2005 (1.267 seconds) and an increase in green flag passes for the lead. But in regards to improving the racing product – especially on the intermediate ovals – the Gen-6 was largely ineffective. It may look better than the Car of Tomorrow, and with 19 track qualifying records in Year One, it’s definitely fast. But track position is still everything.
Give NASCAR credit for trying to solve the Gen-6’s problems, though. After testing the cars in October at Charlotte, they’ll be back there Dec. 9 for continued tweaking of the intermediate package. Let’s hope they find something good.
Tony DiZinno’s Top Five
Chase-Gate: I’m looking at the saga of Richmond in September from the human angle, and the collateral damage that caused several entities beyond just altering the Chase.
Clint Bowyer never directly answered whether he spun on purpose, and realistically he couldn’t say yes because of the repercussions. Bowyer’s a throwback, a dirt tracker-to-NASCAR driver from Kansas who has a great ability to connect with NASCAR’s roots and its Southern fan base. Admittedly, his reputation was tarnished as a result.
The employees let go from Michael Waltrip Racing would have to scramble to find new work. It’s one thing if a team closes due to performance or budget shortfalls, but to lose a full-time team as a result of a race-fixing scandal is one of the worst ways to go out.
Add in the nature of the Monday late-night press conference, the snap decision to add Jeff Gordon as a 13th Chase driver, on Friday the 13th of 2013, and a lot of folks had egg on their faces.
JJ’s six-pack: After two years dethroned, Jimmie Johnson came out swinging in 2013 once the Chase started. It was a particularly impressive effort after a lackluster final month leading into the Chase, where Johnson’s regular season points lead vanished almost entirely.
Knowing the margin for error was razor thin with Matt Kenseth pushing him every weekend, Johnson consistently had the upper hand, and didn’t have the one bad race – a la Kenseth at Phoenix – that dented his points lead. It was controlled, laser precision from JJ and the 48 crew in crunch time, once again. And it was just that bit better than Kenseth, who had an excellent first season at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Injuries doom chances: Tony Stewart’s sprint car accident and Denny Hamlin’s Cup crash in Fontana shut down two of NASCAR’s most intriguing personalities for extended stretches of time. Stewart hadn’t missed the Chase since 2006, which coincidentally was Hamlin’s first full season in Sprint Cup. Hamlin hadn’t missed it in his career.
Hamlin was unable to overcome the injuries and rough start to the year, but at least ended 2013 on a high with a win at Homestead. Stewart’s recovery is a longer one, and remains to be seen how he’ll return next spring.
Danica fizzles in rookie season: Stewart-Haas Racing as a whole didn’t seem as strong in 2013 and while I’m not going to suggest the arrival of Danica Patrick negatively impacted the organization, she was really in at the deep end for her first full season in NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Patrick’s qualifying was undoubtedly her weakest point. Her average was only 30.1 and outside of the four restrictor-plate races, where she excels, she only qualified in the top 25 seven other times. Finishing-wise, her best track outside the restrictor-plate races was Martinsville, with respectable efforts of 12th and 17th.
As SHR’s fourth driver in 2014 behind title contenders Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, Patrick will either thrive out of the spotlight and improve, or remain mired in midpack obscurity.
Changing of the guard: Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte, Ken Schrader and Terry Labonte – stars of NASCAR’s past era dating to the 1980s and 1990s – are pretty much at the end of their careers. Martin treated Homestead like a retirement, even if he didn’t say the word. Burton has the best shot at a full-time seat next year but it likely won’t be at a front-running team. The Labonte brothers and Schrader, meanwhile, are less likely to run more than a handful of events in 2014 and beyond.
We’re at the crest of a tidal wave of new talent entering Sprint Cup over the next three to five years. The Dillon brothers, Kyle Larson, Justin Allgaier and others such as Chase Elliott, Parker Kligerman and Darrell Wallace Jr. all seem set to move up sooner rather than later. It will be fascinating to watch the sea change as the newcomers arrive and work their way to the top.