Top 10 moments in the 2013 Chase
November 21, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
From Chicagoland to Homestead, lasting impressions abound
It came to an end in familiar fashion, with the most dominant driver of his era standing on a stage in South Florida, receiving a giant silver trophy as confetti and fireworks were shot into the air. But Jimmie Johnson's road to his sixth championship was hardly as straightforward as the oval at Homestead-Miami Speedway. This Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup had all the twists and turns of a road course.
There were contenders who rose and fell, others who fell and rose, whole races and individual moments that played large roles in determining who would eventually wear the crown. Through it all, the focus returned again and again to two men -- Johnson and Matt Kenseth -- who would ultimately wage an individual duel, owning the top two positions in the standings for the final eight weeks of the playoff.
Others tried to insert themselves into the mix, but Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick couldn't sustain momentum, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. never recovered from an early stumble. If any one of several circumstances had broken differently -- a tire that didn't cut down, an engine that didn't fail, a setup that didn't go awry -- the entire face of the Chase may have changed, and someone other than Johnson may have been standing on that stage in the subtropical night.
But they didn't, and he was. No question Johnson earned it, using strong performances at Texas and Phoenix to set the stage for title No. 6, and then securing it on a relatively smooth night outside Miami. But no question others had their opportunities, combining with the eventual champion to create the top 10 moments in this year's Chase.
10. Stated like a champ
Brad Keselowski's season was rife with issues, from penalties incurred due to technical violations, mechanical failures and a summertime skid that left him outside the Chase and unable to defend his 2012 championship. The Oct. 12 race at Charlotte seemed more of the same after he dragged a jack out of his pit box following an early stop. But the Penske Racing driver rallied, passing Kasey Kahne with nine laps remaining to snap a 37-race winless skid and crash the championship race for his lone victory of the season. There was no oversized beer glass this time, but the celebration was still a robust one. "We've had what we need to be a championship team. We just haven't put them all together," Keselowski said. For one night, they did.
9. 'Ol Texas back-step
Jeff Gordon wasn't even supposed to be in the Chase after missing by a single point the final spot awarded on standings. But NASCAR gave him new life by placing him in the playoff as a 13th driver in the wake of a race manipulation scandal that rocked the regular-season finale, and the four-time champion took advantage by winning at Martinsville to emerge as an outside title threat. But that opportunity was effectively ended one week later, when Gordon cut a left-front tire and crashed hard Nov. 3 at Texas, damaging much more than just his No. 24 car. "It's devastating," Gordon said. In a Chase that left little room for error, Gordon plummeted to sixth in the standings, and his quest for a fifth title would have to wait another year.
8. Kansas strikes again
It may be difficult to remember now, but this season saw Kyle Busch get off to the best Chase start of his career. He was runner-up to Kenseth in the first two playoff races, and was third in the standings three weeks in. Then came the Oct. 6 race at Kansas, a track which is definitely no place like home for the younger Busch brother. His long list of career mishaps at the 1.5-mile facility was extended by a series of on-track incidents, the last one being contact with Carl Edwards and Brian Vickers that left the No. 18 car dangling from a wrecker. It was the third straight Kansas race where Busch had wrecked, and this one was perhaps the most costly -- he left Kansas City fifth in points, his strong start suddenly but a memory. "We're in Kansas, right?" he asked. "Just run over the 18 car and get what you need."
7. The longest day
It was supposed to be a day race, but Mother Nature had other ideas. Persistent rain pushed the Sept. 15 Chase opener at Chicagoland deep into the evening, extending a long week dominated by the race manipulation scandal that knocked Martin Truex Jr. out of the playoff in favor of Ryan Newman, and then saw Jeff Gordon added as a 13th driver. But in the end, normalcy returned in the form of steady Matt Kenseth, whose prowess on intermediate tracks shined through even on a soggy day into night. The No. 1 Chase seed got a push from Kevin Harvick and passed Kyle Busch on a restart with 23 laps remaining, rolling into Victory Lane in the wee hours of Monday morning. After a week of uncertainty and upheaval, the focus was finally back on the competition.
6. Junior goes boom
In that very same Chicagoland race, something occurred that at the time seemed relatively unremarkable -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. blew an engine. He had entered the Chase ninth in the standings, and after a strong start to the playoff opener had fallen back in part due to front-end damage suffered in a pit-road collision with Kasey Kahne. But on Lap 277, smoke began emanating from the No. 88 car, and the ensuing 35th-place finish knocked NASCAR's most popular driver back to 13th in points. "It's tough," Earnhardt said. "It's going to be really hard to win a championship this far behind." His words would prove prophetic, given that Earnhardt went on a tear in the final nine races, recording an average finish of 5.6 over that span and finishing fifth in final points. If not for the blown engine at Chicago? Who knows.
5. Two for two
It was one thing to see Matt Kenseth win at Chicagoland, given that he was the class of the season to that point on intermediate tracks. But flat, technical, one-mile New Hampshire? A place where Kenseth had never won, and hadn't cracked the top five in eight years? Continuing a theme that saw the first-year Joe Gibbs Racing driver excel even at venues that had once been a weakness, the Chase leader led the final 53 laps and became the third driver to sweep the opening two playoff races (Greg Biffle did it in 2008, Tony Stewart in 2011). If there was a high mark of Kenseth's season, Sept. 22 in Loudon -- in his 500th career start, no less -- was it. "More than a stretch, more than a dream," he said of the victory, which would prove his career high seventh and final race triumph of the year.
4. Masters of Martinsville
It was supposed to be the weekend when Jimmie Johnson silenced all doubts. He had taken a four-point lead over Matt Kenseth the previous week at Talladega, where neither contender could make much headway in the draft at the end. But Oct. 27 at Martinsville, a track where Johnson had won eight times, shaped up as something else altogether. But a funny thing happened -- Kenseth, who had never enjoyed much success on the flat 0.526-mile track, outscored Johnson on arguably the latter's best track, finishing second while his rival for the championship came home fifth. After another pivotal day in south Virginia, Kenseth and Johnson were tied atop the standings. And in another twist, the Hendrick Motorsports driver who made the loudest statement was Jeff Gordon, whose victory moved him up to third.
3. The hat fits
For the first seven weeks of the Chase, it seemed to be Matt Kenseth who had the momentum. The tide turned Nov. 3 at Texas, where Jimmie Johnson gave everyone a glimpse of the way things used to be -- and what was still to come. It looked like the heyday of the old, untouchable Jimmie, a dominating effort where the No. 48 car led 255 laps and its driver wrested control of the playoffs. Kenseth finished a respectable fourth, but his cars were suddenly a work in progress, and Johnson suddenly led the standings by seven points. Standing in Victory Lane with his new black cowboy hat, he looked big and bad indeed.
2. Hello, Six-Time
By the time the circuit reached Homestead and the season finale Nov. 17, Matt Kenseth was in dire straits. An uncharacteristically poor effort the previous weekend had sunk him to 28 points behind Jimmie Johnson, and barely ahead of third-place Kevin Harvick. Amid those swaying palm trees, Kenseth did about all he could do -- won the Coors Light Pole, led the most laps and battled eventual winner Denny Hamlin for the victory before finishing second. But it wasn't enough. After a scrape on a restart, Johnson put it on cruise control and easily wrapped up his sixth title at NASCAR's top level. He needed to finish only 23rd -- and came home ninth, clinching the crown by 19 points. "You're the best out there, buddy," crew chief Chad Knaus told him over the radio. No one was inclined to disagree.
1. Drama in the desert
The real dramatics that had shaped the Chase endgame had come seven days earlier, in a Nov. 10 race at Phoenix that blew the playoff open. Still riding high after his Texas victory, Jimmie Johnson entered seven points ahead of Matt Kenseth, who lagged behind the championship leader throughout qualifying and practice. Once the race began, it was clear why -- Kenseth had a car that was a beast to drive, didn’t respond well to changes and at one point had him two laps down. Johnson battled his issues as well, most notably a run-in with Carl Edwards that nearly sent the No. 48 car into the wall, and still cost it track position as its driver struggled to keep it pointed forward.
Kenseth, though, was in no position to take advantage. The most consistent team of the 2013 season whiffed on the setup at the worst possible time, on an afternoon where Johnson rallied to finish third and Kevin Harvick won to give himself a mathematical chance in the finale. What had been among the tightest title races ever was suddenly a 28-point lead in Johnson's favor. "We haven't had a day like this all year," Kenseth lamented after finishing 23rd. His run almost overshadowed a gutty effort from Johnson, who would own the spotlight the following week. "We're heading into Homestead in the position we want to be in," he said then. Seven days later, he held a sixth silver trophy in his hands.