MotorSportsTalk’s 2013 Sprint Cup season review, Part 2

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Yesterday, myself and Tony DiZinno got MST’s NASCAR Sprint Cup year-in-review rolling with our respective lists of the biggest stories in the 2013 season. But now, we’re going to focus in on the drivers that made the biggest impact this year.

When we made our Top 10 IndyCar drivers of 2013 lists earlier this month, we did them with the mindset of not letting the championship results completely dominate our way of thinking. And for our Cup versions, we’ve opted to stick with that notion.

On with the show…

Chris Estrada’s Top 10 Drivers

1. Jimmie Johnson

Champions always perform when the pressure is on and Johnson did just that by putting together an almost-perfect Chase (one finish outside the Top 10 at Talladega) to claim his sixth Sprint Cup title. While his final place in the pantheon of NASCAR legends remains to be determined, the “Six-Pack” appears to have forced even his harshest critics to show some grudging respect for what he’s done in his decade-plus of Sprint Cup racing. And he could have close to another decade of competitive racing left in him. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again – he and “Team 48” are the standard-bearers for the sport.

2. Matt Kenseth

To earn a title in the current Chase era, it takes being solid for all 10 post-season races. Kenseth was solid for nine. His struggles in the penultimate race at Phoenix put the former champion in a hole he couldn’t climb out of in the Homestead finale. But still, what a tremendous first year he had for Joe Gibbs Racing. With a series-high seven victories (including back-to-back triumphs to open the Chase at Chicagoland and New Hampshire), there’s no reason for him or the No. 20 squad to be down for long about missing out on the title. One anticipates what they’ll do for an encore in 2014.

3. Kevin Harvick

Harvick’s final season at Richard Childress Racing had its ups and downs, but it ultimately worked out well enough with four wins. His post-season victories at Kansas and Phoenix enabled him to stay in contention for the championship all the way to Homestead despite a 20th-place stumble in Chase Race No. 2 at Loudon in September. Unfortunately, he just had the misfortune to fight against two incredibly consistent drivers in Johnson and Kenseth. But he still earned his third Top-3 finish in the standings over the last four seasons and with his move to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, he could easily be a title threat again next fall.

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

While we’ve all been waiting for Earnhardt to return to being a regular winner, the son of the Intimidator has been steadily developing the consistency necessary to be a champion. His season-opening run of five Top-10s got him to the top of the standings, and while he subsequently cooled down over the summer, he was still relatively decent. Then, after blowing his motor at Chicagoland to begin the Chase, Junior put together an impressive final nine races that featured three runner-ups and no finishes worse than 15th. More wins would be nice, but things are definitely looking up for him.

5. Kyle Busch

If you notched the best championship finish of your career (fourth) while shedding your bad rep for faltering in the Chase, chance are you’d be pretty happy. But you’re not Kyle Busch now, are you? Chances are he’s not sending a Christmas card to Kansas Speedway this year after his 34th-place finish there in October knocked him out of the title picture. But he still picked up a four-pack of victories this year and instead of crumbling post-Kansas, he hung tough and kept his place in the Top 5 of the standings. But we know “Rowdy” is likely still far from satisfied with 2013; only a Cup crown will do.

6. Joey Logano

Like Earnhardt, Logano will carry heightened expectations thanks to a steady post-season. He too blew his motor at Chicagoland but bounced back with three Top-5s and five Top-10s in the remainder of the Chase. And let’s not forget the awesome job he and his No. 22 Penske Racing team did just to put themselves into position to compete for the championship: Six Top-10s (including a win at Michigan) in the final seven “regular season” contests resurrected the season for “Sliced Bread.” And with Cup career-highs in Top-5 (11) and Top-10 (19) finishes, he should be itching to get to Daytona for Speedweeks in February.

7. Jeff Gordon

After being added to the Chase by NASCAR following the events of this past September at Richmond, Gordon made the most of a less-than-ideal situation. Five Top-10s in the first seven Chase races plus his first win of the year at Martinsville helped the four-time champ legitimize his bid for the 2013 title until a crash at Texas stopped his momentum cold. But while his post-season showed that Gordon is far from finished in his quest to add a fifth Cup to his trophy case, he still had to endure an uneven regular season that featured five DNFs. He and his No. 24 camp can’t afford that again if they want to keep their momentum going next year.

8. Kurt Busch

Even though their post-season was not particularly stellar, there’s no doubt that 2013 was still a success for Kurt Busch and the single-car Furniture Row Racing outfit. “The Outlaw,” now heading for Stewart-Haas Racing, has certainly earned his ticket back to the land of the NASCAR powerhouses but it was fun watching him and FRR make like David against the Goliaths. When they earned their Chase spot with a runner-up at Richmond in the final regular season race, it made for one of the best moments of the season, up there with Brian Vickers and David Ragan’s upsets at New Hampshire and Talladega respectively. You just wish they had been able to hit Victory Lane like Vickers and Ragan did.

9. Clint Bowyer

The man at the middle of all the Richmond chaos was unable to follow-up his second-place showing in the 2012 championship, going winless en route to a seventh-place result in 2013. Bowyer had his share of strong runs, but you never had the sense that this was going to be a guy in the hunt. Then came all the controversy, which naturally makes you wonder how much of a mental toll it took on him. In my opinion, though, I don’t think it psyched him out come Chase time. I just think he and Michael Waltrip Racing had too many “OK” days and not the great ones they needed just to stand a chance.

10. Kasey Kahne

Despite winning twice in 2013, the most memorable moment of Kahne’s year may be opting not to dump Matt Kenseth for the win in the August night race at Bristol. He took some heat for that from the fan base, which was unfortunate but expected – for better or worse, fans expect the chrome horn to come out in “Thunder Valley.” Kahne could’ve overshadowed that with a good Chase, but he never really found a post-season rhythm; nice outings at Charlotte (second), Texas (fifth) and Phoenix (fifth) were not enough to counterbalance numerous subpar results such as a 37th at New Hampshire and a 36th at Talladega.

Tony DiZinno’s Top 10 Drivers

1. Jimmie Johnson

Not his most dominant title of his six, but measured as ever with a solid start to the season to build up a regular season points lead, got the bad races out of the way before the Chase, and focused, determined and clutch as ever in the final 10 races. A clinical and athletic performance, just as we’ve come to expect from the 48 bunch.

2. Matt Kenseth

If only it wasn’t for Phoenix, Kenseth could have had his second title 10 years after his first. Excelled at the 1.5-milers and raised the game of the entire Joe Gibbs Racing operation in his first season in new pastures. It was a revitalizing season for one of the best drivers of this era.

3. Kevin Harvick

With a little bit better luck in the Chase, could have been the third straight “lame duck” entity to win a title, after Tony Stewart’s crew chief Darian Grubb in 2011, and Brad Keselowki’s engine manufacturer, Dodge, in 2012. The fact he was as dedicated as he was, considering it was his final year at RCR, was a testament to his resolve and will to win.

4. Kyle Busch

Yes, so the top four here matches the top four in points, but this seemed a better and less tempestuous Busch in 2013. He didn’t completely get it together in the Chase – his traditional Achilles’ Heel – but four wins elsewhere and his working well with new teammate Kenseth helped raise his Cup game just that bit more in 2013.

5. Joey Logano

I was most impressed with the year-on-year growth for the driver known as “Sliced Bread” in 2013. Logano showed the early season tenacity at Bristol and Fontana that showed he meant business. He earned a deserved win at the fall Michigan race. Lastly, he was the first driver of the No. 22 to avoid the axe from Roger Penske in the last three years. While there was a minor controversy with him at Richmond, this was an improved version of “JoLo” this year.

6. Jeff Gordon

A strong second half of the season and strong Chase – albeit gifted a spot in the Chase rather than earning it on merit – seemed to revitalize Gordon after a lackluster first half. As most of NASCAR’s “old guard” moves on, Gordon has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.

7. Kurt Busch

Busch didn’t win in 2013 but that was the only thing he didn’t accomplish. With his season-long consistency and occasional great runs for Furniture Row Motorsports, he single-handedly raised the profile of a perpetual midpack team and reminded the entire garage area of his talent. After two years in the wilderness, he’ll be back with a title-contending team in 2014.

8. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Consistency on a one-car team out of Denver versus consistency on the widely regarded best team in the garage is why I’ll place Dale Jr. in his old number, P8. He had several near misses, with second at Dover in the Chase to Johnson standing out. A good but not great year, per usual, for NASCAR’s most popular driver.

9. Kasey Kahne

One of NASCAR’s most statistically successful drivers in 2013 with two wins, 11 top-fives and 14 top-10 finishes, but the opposite of Dale Jr. – Kahne was Hendrick’s most inconsistent finisher in 2013. A largely forgettable Chase was also a disappointment.

10. Martin Truex Jr.

The luck never came together for Truex in 2013, despite his best pure driving season in several years with Michael Waltrip Racing. He broke his six-year winless drought at Sonoma, and made the Chase on merit, only to have his spot taken away by circumstances outside his control. A shame we didn’t get to see what he could have achieved in the final 10 races with a title shot.