The 2013 NASCAR season saw standout performances from young and old drivers alike, a veteran get sidelined prior to the end of the year and a familiar champion. In between there was history making moments, a wide reaching scandal, and the debut of the Generation 6 car in the Sprint Cup series.
Kevin Harvick won the first race of the season, the non-points paying Sprint Unlimited at Daytona; already rumors were swirling that this would be his last full season with Richard Childress Racing. In her first race in her first full year of Sprint Cup competition Danica Patrick made history by winning the pole for the Daytona 500.
The week leading up to the season opening Daytona 500 was relatively quiet until the final lap of the Nationwide race on Saturday when a crash coming to the finish line sent pieces of cars into the grandstands injuring nearly 30 fans. Driver Michael Annette was also injured and spent the night in a hospital; he would later require surgery for his injuries and miss part of the Nationwide season.
The track worked through the night to make repairs to the fence and the Daytona 500 went on as scheduled the following day; Jimmie Johnson won his third 500 leading the final nine laps. Patrick led five laps but was shuffled out of the pack at the end and finished eighth. It would turn out to be her best, and only top 10, finish of 2013.
Matt Kenseth went on an early season tear winning three of the first 11 races in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing; Kenseth would go on to win a career high seven races and finish second in the championship points.
The first big fight of the season came at Bristol in March when Joey Logano, the driver Kenseth replaced at Gibbs, tangled both on and off the track with his former teammate Denny Hamlin. Logano would go on to score a win at Michigan in August and score a career high 11 top five finishes and a career best eighth in the championship standings. For Hamlin the season started badly off the track when he was fined by NASCAR for disparaging comments he made about the new Gen 6 car after the second race of the season at Phoenix. It turned to disaster a week after his dust-up at Bristol when he and Logano got together coming to the checkered flag at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana California. Hamlin crashed head first into the inside wall. While he was being loaded onto an ambulance and eventually airlifted to a local hospital, Logano and Tony Stewart came to blows on pit road forcing crews and officials to separate the pair. Stewart later said Logano had thrown a water bottle at him like a “little girl”.
The next day Joe Gibbs Racing reveled that Hamlin suffered a compression fracture in his lower back; he would miss the next five races returning to competition at the first Talladega race in May.
That first Talladega race had an exciting finish as David Ragan, being pushed by his teammate David Gilliland won the event charging past Kenseth, who had dominated the race, on a green-white-checkered flag finish. The race took a total of seven hours thanks to a three hour rain delay.
A bizarre incident halted the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway a few weeks later. A week after Jimmie Johnson won an otherwise unremarkable Sprint All-Star Race, a cable used by TV for a remote camera across pit road inexplicably fell; the cable draped across part of the grandstands and the track. It was picked up by the cars on track slightly injuring several fans and damaging several racecars. The race was halted for nearly 30 minutes and during the red flag NASCAR allowed the unprecedented move of letting teams make whatever repairs they needed to their cars.
Two weeks later the entire NASCAR world mourned the death veteran driver Jason Leffler who was killed during a dirt track race in New Jersey.
In July NASCAR announced that a new TV rights package had been signed; NBC will replace ESPN in 2015 while Fox will continue to carry the first part of the season. History was again made two nights later as NASCAR staged its first race on dirt since 1970. The NASCAR Camping World Truck series race at Tony Stewart’s Eldora Speedway, won by Austin Dillon, was a hit with fans and competitors and returns for an encore in 2014.
That proved to be the highlight of Tony Stewart’s season as the following week he would break his leg during a dirt car race in Iowa only days after his driver Ryan Newman scored an emotional win at Indy. The three time champion underwent two surgeries and was out for the season.
While Stewart was mending his Stewart-Haas Racing team moved forward, announcing that Kurt Busch would join Kevin Harvick on the team in 2014. The Harvick announcement was no surprise, the Busch announcement was; rumors flew that Stewart had very little himself to do with the decision to sign Busch and instead mostly silent team co-owner Gene Haas had set up the deal.
Martin Truex Jr., who broke his wrist during a crash at the second Bristol race in August, was the driver tapped to replace Busch at Furniture Row Racing for 2014. Ryan Newman, the out man at Stewart-Haas, announced prior to Richmond that he will head to Richard Childress Racing to replace Jeff Burton in 2014. Late in the year Burton let it be known that he would be driving part time for Michael Waltrip Racing in 2014 and heading to the booth as an analyst for NBC Sports in 2015. The day after it was learned that Truex had broken his wrist, Bobby Labonte was hospitalized for injuries he suffered in a bicycle crash.
All of the season’s stories paled in comparison to the scandal that unfolded after the September Richmond race that set the field for the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup. The September race in Richmond, the race that would set the field for the Chase was a chaotic one. Carl Edwards won but not without controversy as many said he jumped a late race restart. That paled in comparison however, to the events taking place behind him. When the checkered flag fell, Logano was in the Chase, while his teammate and defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski was not. Four time champion Jeff Gordon too was out of the Chase as was Newman. Martin Truex Jr. however was in the Chase thanks in large part to a late race caution for spin by his teammate Clint Bowyer. Upon further review though it appeared that Bowyer has intentionally spun to bring out the caution; Monday NASCAR came down hard on MWR issuing its largest monetary penalty in history and fining the drivers 50 points and readjusting the totals that put Truex Jr. out of the Chase and Newman in by virtue of the second Wild Card spot. But that wasn’t the end of the story.
Late that same week in-car radio broadcasts seemed to show that Logano’s team and that of driver David Gilliland had cut a deal to allow Logano to move up enough spots to make the Chase. This put Gordon out of the Chase at the end of the race. NASCAR said that while there wasn’t enough evidence to conclude that a deal did take place in the interest of fairness, a thirteenth driver would be added to the Chase, that driver being Jeff Gordon.
In the fallout from the Richmond scandal, MWR lost longtime sponsor NAPA who elected to end its association with the team at the end of the season.
When the Chase finally started it looked as though Kenseth would be the driver to beat as he won the first two races starting with the race at Chicagoland that took ten hours to complete thanks to Mother Nature. He began to fade however as Johnson and Harvick won races and began to catch-up.
There were stories away from the track during the Chase. Juan Pablo Montoya announced he was heading back to open wheel racing via the IndyCar Series in 2014; Brian Vickers announced that his health issues reappeared and he was out for the rest of the season shortly after MWR named him as the full time replacement for Truex for 2014. In the midst of those stories, driver Travis Kvapil was arrested for a domestic disturbance.
Brad Keselowski won his first, and as it turned out his only, race of the season at Charlotte. Kenseth began to fall from grace at Talladega with a 20th place finish. He fell out of the Chase points lead for the first time as Johnson took control. From that point Johnson never looked back, he won at Texas while Harvick won at Phoenix to keep the Chase interesting. Just prior to the final race at Homestead, 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne announced that he has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The final race of the season was merely a coronation parade for Johnson; Hamlin won his only race of the season, while Johnson celebrated his sixth title nearby. Among the final stories of the season: Travis Pastrana said he was leaving NASCAR at the end of the season, crew chief Steve Addington left Stewart-Haas Racing for Phoenix Racing, and Richard Childress announced the return of the iconic number 3 to Sprint Cup competition with his grandson Austin Dillon behind the wheel.
NASCAR held one final test at Charlotte in early December and delivered the finalized rules package for 2014 to Sprint Cup teams shortly after. They also announced new eligibility requirements for the NASCAR Hall of Fame that will start in 2014.
NASCAR teams from all three of the top touring series will hit the track in preparation for the 2014 season in early January at Daytona International Speedway.