MotorSportsTalk’s 2013 Sprint Cup season review, Part 2


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.

A deep dive into the new GR Cup as Toyota branches into single-make sports car racing

Toyota GR Cup
Swikar Patel/Toyota Racing Development

MOORESVILLE, N.C. – Inside this former textile mill, a retro building built in 1892 with massive floor-to-ceiling windows and sturdy brick, Toyota has planted a future seed with the GR Cup.

Once a hub for making cotton dye, the first floor has been turned into a factory that churned out spec sports cars for the past year as Toyota Racing Development prepares to launch its first single-make series.

The inaugural season of the Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Cup will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, the first of seven SRO-sanctioned events (each with two races) featuring a field of homologated GR86 production models that have been modified for racing with stock engines.

Under the banner of its Gazoo Racing (a high-performance brand relatively new to North America but synonymous with Dakar Rally champion Nasser Al-Attiyah), Toyota will join Mazda, Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini as the latest automaker to run a single-make U.S. series (with Ford recently announcing plans for its own in the near future).

It’s grassroots-level amateur racing for manufacturers that are accustomed to racing at motorsports’ highest levels, but there are many benefits through competition, driver development and marketing despite the lower profile.

“It’s not the easiest thing or cheapest thing to do,” TRD executive commercial director Jack Irving told NBC Sports. “But there’s massive value to be a part of it and have our DNA in the cars. You get to race a bunch and get a bunch of data. You get to engage directly in feedback from the people beating those cars up.”

The GR86s being raced are very similar to the street versions that retail for about $35,000 at dealerships that annually sell several thousand.

“It’s a test of the car and your design,” Irving said. “We take an engineered vehicle designed to spec for the road and then apply our resources to make it race ready. Some of those things cross over.

The first floor of Toyota Racing Development’s Mooresville facility that finished the vehicles for the new GR Cup (Swikar Patel/TRD).

“Everyone approaches it differently. It’s a marketing piece for us. It’s a development piece for drivers. We’re supporting grass roots racing. This is a very long-term deal for us. This isn’t something we’re doing two years and done. It’s got a long-term vision. There’s big value in it, and there’s a lot of responsibility with that, too.

“You’re ultimately supporting it. You’re not just selling cars into a series and hoping it goes well. You have to be involved in a very material way to make sure it goes off well and has your fingerprints and represents the brand.”

Early indications have been solid. The GR Cup cars were rolled out on iRacing in January and immediately became one of the platform’s most popular vehicles (with 212-horsepower engines, the cars handle well and are difficult to spin).

TRD’s GR86 factory floor (Swikar Patel/TRD).

TRD has sold 33 cars for GR Cup with 31 racing in Sonoma, easily surpassing initial expectations.

“Our target was to sell 20 cars in the first year, and we could have sold 50 if not for supply chain issues with some vendors,” TRD president David Wilson told NBC Sports. “We basically came up with the idea of taking the GR86 and looking at what it would take to turn that into a little race car and do it affordably and competitively, and what’s come along with that is just a tremendous interest level. It seems like a market that perhaps has been underserved right now.”

Here’s a deeper look at the Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Cup and how the manufacturer built the new series:


The race cars start as production models that are shipped directly from the factory in Japan to a port in Charleston, South Carolina. After being trucked to the Mooresville facility, they are stripped and sent to Joe Gibbs Racing to be outfitted with a roll cage.

Upon return to TRD, the transmission and stock engine is added. The body remains virtually the same as the street version with a slightly altered hood, decklid and splitter for ride height and aerodynamics.

Jack Irving (Swikar Patel/TRD)

The cars mostly are customized to help manage the heat – the stock versions aren’t designed to handle the oil that sloshes around in the high-speed left- and right-hand turns on the road and street courses of the GR Cup schedule. TRD puts about two dozen parts on the cars, using Stratasys 3-D Printers to manufacture many on site (which allows flexibility for adjusting on the fly during R&D). In addition to help with cooling, many of the tweaks focus on allowing a limited number of setup changes.

“You don’t have a lot of ability to adjust these cars,” Irving said. “It was done on purpose. The intent was you have three spring sets, and you can adjust the shocks and do air pressure. That’s it. We seal the engine and components of it. We dyno everything. Everyone is within range to create as consistent a series as we can.

“Some of that is to mimic what Mazda did. They’ve done a really good job with their series. Porsche, Ferrari and other OEMs have done it very well. We had a learning that was easier to go through their book and see the Cliffs Notes version to get where we are.”

After taking delivery, GR Cup teams are responsible for transporting the cars to each track (and can buy up to three sets of Continental tires per event). Toyota brings two parts trucks to each track


After Sonoma, the GR Cup will visit Circuit of the Americas (May 5-7), Virginia International Raceway (June 16-18), the streets of Nashville (Aug. 4-6), Road America (Aug. 25-27), Sebring International Raceway (Sept. 22-24) and Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Oct. 6-8).

Though Nashville (IndyCar’s Music City Grand Prix) and Indy (SRO’s eight-hour Intercontinental Challenge) are part of weekends with bigger headliners, the GR Cup mostly will be the second-billed series (behind SRO’s Fanatech GT World Challenge) for events that will draw a few thousand. Sonoma had a crowd of about 4,000 last year, and SRO Motorsports America president Greg Gill said its events draw a maximum of about 13,000 over three days.

“There are some iconic venues, and the SRO it’s not IMSA,” Wilson said. “It’s got a different feel to it. It’s not the show. IMSA is kind of the show. I actually think it’s a good place for us to start, because it’s a little bit under the radar relatively speaking. It’s not a venue where you see the grandstands full of fans. It’s very much racers and their families. It’s got a neat vibe to it because it’s kind of small. So for our first effort as a single-make series, it’s the right place for us.”

Toyota GR Cup
The interior of the GR86 that will be raced in the GR Cup (Swikar Patel/TRD).

Though the attendance will be much smaller, Toyota still is bringing a large hospitality and marketing activation area with two 56-foot trucks that will provide a central gathering area for the series.

Teams’ entry fees will include meals there and provide a place to connect with Toyota engineers and other officials.

“I think we have a very different way of engaging with our group of drivers, and this series is similar to that,” Irving said. “Knowing that this isn’t going to get 100K people watching, but we want to have a direct connection with the drivers and understand their feelings about car, how do we make it better and empower them to be brand ambassadors for GR.”


Toyota has positioned the GR Cup as filling a price gap between the Mazda MX-5 Cup (a spec Miata Series known for high-quality racing at very low costs) and the Porsche Carrera Cup

“If you look at the ladder of MX5 to Porsche Cup, the difference in cost is massive,” TRD general manager Tyler Gibbs told NBC Sports. “We slot in closer to Miata than Porsche. We’ll slot another car in potentially in the future above that. It’s a good place for us from a price point perspective. Our road car is slightly more expensive than a Miata, so it makes sense our performance on the car is higher than Miata.”

A GR Cup car will cost $125,000. Full-season costs will vary depending on how much teams spend on equipment and transportation with estimates from $15-35K per event. So a competitive full season probably could be accomplished in the $250,000-$300,000 range.

Toyota GR Cup

“The goal was if you can ‘Six Pack’ it like Kenny Rogers and throw it in the back of a trailer, that would be amazing for us,” said Irving, referencing a movie about being an independent racer in NASCAR. “That would make it more of what we hoped it would turn into, just being as accessible as we possibly can make it.”

Toyota has tried to bridge the gap by posting a purse of $1 million for the season. Each race pays $12,000 to win (through $5,000 for eighth) with the season champion earning $50,000.

“Our hope was if you won, the prize money would cover the cost of that weekend,” Gibbs said. “We’re not all the way there. But almost there.”

Toyota also has posted an additional $5,000 (on top of prize money) to the highest-finishing woman in every race (which dovetails with SRO’s 50 percent female-led executive team structure).

GR86 Manufacturing at GRG before the first 3 cars are picked up.
—Swikar Patel/TRD

“If you’re a female driver who wins, you could get very close to sustainable” and cover a team’s race weekend costs, Irving said.

There are four women (Mia Lovell, Toni Breidinger, Cat Lauren and Isabella Robusto) slated for the full schedule.

The 31 cars will be fielded across more than a dozen teams including Smooge Racing (which fields GT4 Supras in SRO) and Copeland Motorsports (with Tyler Gonzalez, a four-time winner in MX-5 Cup). After a test last month at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, teams began taking delivery on Feb. 24.


Toyota fields Lexus in the GT categories of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship but elected to go with the SRO Motorsports Group (“SRO” stands for Stephane Ratel Organization; Ratel is the founder and CEO) as the sanctioning body for the GR Cup.

With a heavy focus on GT racing, SRO’s marquee events are 24-hour races at the Nurburgring in Germany and Spa in Belgium. In the United States, SRO primarily is focused on GT3 sprint racing, and Gill said it’s viewed as a “gateway to IMSA” and its endurance events.

In choosing SRO, Gibbs said “the schedule was a big part of it.” GR Cup races will be held almost exclusively on Saturday and Sunday mornings in a consistency that would have been difficult with IMSA (which runs a greater volume of bigger series).

“Our people can show up Friday, race Saturday and Sunday and be on the way home Sunday afternoon,” Gibbs said. “For our customer for this car, that was important. They still have jobs and particularly the younger drivers have to go to school. The SRO really fit us. They were very interested.”

Irving also was drawn to SRO’s flexibility with digital media right and free livestreams of races that Toyota can use on its platforms.

Toyota GR Cup
The SR86 in testing at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (TRD).

Said Irving: “It’s hard to get a schedule that made sense and having a break between races so an amateur can repair their cars and have a month to regroup was a big deal. The long-term vision of SRO was a big part of that. IMSA runs a lot of classes. How we fit in was difficult. Would they have done things to make it work, yeah. But they just didn’t work for the vision we were doing. This is its own thing for us.”

Gill said the SRO is focused on “customer racing” that balances individual interests against factory programs – while still putting an emphasis on the importance of manufacturers such as Toyota.

“We were very impressed with the development of sports car racing at Toyota and what they wanted to do for the brand and the very strategic way they looked at things,” Gill told NBC Sports. “We had enjoyed real success and had a lot of admiration for the programs that Honda and Mazda developed with sports car racing at the grass roots and entry level. We thought they’d done an excellent job. Toyota has taken it to another level and should be commended because it’s good for the entire industry.”


Irving said Toyota has set a goal of turning Gazoo Racing into the premier performance brand in the United States within a decade, and the GR Cup is part of that thrust.

Gazoo Racing is the baby of Toyota Motor Corp. president Akio Toyoda, who founded a separate company called “Garage Racing” while racing under a pseudonym for many years.

Toyoda, who eventually would race a Lexus LFA at Nurburgring, eventually transitioned the program into Gazoo Racing (Gazoo translates to photographs in Japanese; Toyoda often took pictures of vehicles he wanted to build and race) as he rose through the ranks of Toyota.

Toyota GR Cup

“The concept of the brand is we’re going to build cars that are fun to drive, not just for accountants,” Gibbs said.
Irving said the intent of GR is “the car is born on track and not the boardroom.” In order to be certified by Toyota for Gazoo Racing, the GR86 had to decrease its lap time by a certain percentage over its street model.

In the long-term, Irving said Toyota could work with another series to adapt the GR86 to endurance races. But in the short-term, there are plans to roll out a “dealer class,” possibly by its COTA round in May.

“That’s our version of a softball league with dealership principals who purchase cars and race against each other,” Wilson said with a laugh. “As competitive as dealers are, we’ll sell a lot of spare parts. It becomes a way to generate competition amongst our dealer body, and we’re going to have some fun with it.”

Toyota GR Cup
Toyota Racing Development’s fleet of GR86s shortly before GR Cup teams began taking delivery (Swikar Patel/TRD).