Thanksgiving is over and all the drivers had something to be thankful for this year. It’s time to look back at the season that was for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
The season started a new car in the Generation 6 or Gen. 6 car and with Jimmie Johnson picking up his second Daytona 500 win after holding off Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and the rest of the field. Johnson would sweep the races at Daytona for the first time since Bobby Allison did it in 1982. Matt Kenseth would make Joe Gibbs look like a genius by winning four times in the first 17 races of the season, three coming at 1.5-mile tracks, putting him in good position to be successful in the Chase should he make it. Kenseth’s new teammate, Kyle Busch, would also rebound from a dreadful 2012 season, after picking up two wins early in the season at Texas and California.
While Kenseth and Busch were piling up the wins, their other teammate, Denny Hamlin, was having an interesting season to say the least. NASCAR penalized Hamlin after saying that the new Gen. 6 cars didn’t drive as well as the previous Gen. 5 cars after the second race of the season at Phoenix. In the race at California, that was won by Busch, Hamlin and Joey Logano made contact in turn 3 on the final lap, that sent Hamlin into the inside retaining wall head-on in a nasty-looking accident. Hamlin suffered a compression fracture in his back and was forced to miss the next four races, essentially putting an end to his hopes of making the Chase.
Defending series champion Brad Keselowski made headlines at Texas when he and new Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano were penalized and fined for using unapproved suspension parts. Those unapproved parts got the Penske drivers a fine of $100,000 each, a loss of 25 points, and three weeks without their crew chiefs.
The supposed lame-duck driver of the year, Kevin Harvick won four races in his final year at Richard Childress Racing, including his second win in the Coca-Cola 600. Harvick had announced in November of 2012 that 2013 would be the final year he would drive for RCR, the only team he had ever known since filling in for the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in 2001. Harvick caused a bit of controversy late in the year at Martinsville when he and Ty Dillon got together in a Camping World Truck Series race. Dillon and his older brother, Austin, are the grandsons of Richard Childress, Harvick’s now former team owner. The contact got Harvick so mad, that he told reporters that was “exactly the reason why I’m leaving RCR because you’ve got those kids coming up and they’ve got no respect for what they do in this sport and they’ve had everything fed to them with a spoon.” Harvick also referred to the Dillons as “punka-- kids”. Both sides managed to put the incident behind them and Harvick won another race at Phoenix in penultimate race of the season to keep himself in title contention at Homestead-Miami.
The feel good moments of the year came at Talladega and New Hampshire. In the spring race at Talladega, David Ragan waited out the rain, and then used a push from teammate David Gilliland to take the lead and pull off the upset and get the first win for Front Row Motorsports. It was Ragan’s second career win and his first since 2011. The fall race at Talladega saw Jamie McMurray pick up his first win since October 2010 at Charlotte. McMurray took the lead with 14 laps to go and then avoided having to worry about Dale Earnhardt, Jr. making a last-lap pass when an accident brought out the caution, freezing the field and giving the win to McMurray. As good as those wins were, they couldn’t beat what happened at New Hampshire in July.
Brian Vickers, participating in a part-time role for Michael Waltrip Racing, won his third career race, and his first since August 2009. Vickers was forced to miss the majority of the 2010 season after being diagnosed with blood clots in his leg. He accepted a part-time ride with MWR and made the most of it. Sadly, Vickers was forced to miss the final few weeks of the season, after more blood clots were found in him. Hopefully, Vickers will be healthy and ready to go in Daytona in February.
Another driver that is hoping to be ready to go in Daytona is Tony Stewart. The three-time champion won one race at Dover in June before his season was cut short due to a broken leg suffered in a sprint car crash in Iowa in August. Stewart had won at least one race every year since his rookie year in 1999 and had started 521 consecutive races before having to get out of the car.
Michael Waltrip Racing found itself at the center of attention following the fall Richmond race that decided the Chase for the Championship. Suspicious radio chatter and on-track activity by Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers led NASCAR to do unprecedented actions in deciding the Chase field. NASCAR determined the actions of Bowyer and Vickers deliberately manipulated the outcome of the race so as to get the other MWR driver, Martin Truex, Jr. into the Chase. NASCAR decided to penalize the entire MWR team, removing Truex from the Chase and putting Jeff Gordon in the Chase.
After the Chase was all said and done, Jimmie Johnson held off Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick to win his sixth championship, putting him one behind the all-time record of seven held by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. won the 2013 Rookie of the Year Award with one top-five finish and three top-ten finishes on the season. However, Stenhouse had 25 top-20 finishes on the season, so the potential is there for Stenhouse to improve in 2014. Johnson and Stenhouse will be honored at the annual Champion’s Week this week.
Champion’s Week is a weeklong celebration where the champion is honored for his hard work throughout the season. Champion’s Week has been held in Las Vegas for the last five years. Starting in 1981, an awards banquet has been held the first Friday evening in December, at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, initially in the Starlight Roof. In 1985, the ceremony was moved to the much larger Grand Ballroom, where it would be held until 2001. In 2001, the banquet portion was dropped in favor of a simpler awards ceremony. In 2002, the awards ceremony was moved to the Hammerstein Ballroom at the Manhattan Center. In 2003, the banquet format returned, as the ceremony moved back to the Waldorf’s Grand Ballroom. Fans can watch the award ceremony live this Friday on Fox Sports 2 beginning at 9p.m.