A season defined by one night in Richmond
December 24, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Aftershocks of fallout from 2013's final race before the Chase will still be evident in 2014
As darkness fell on Richmond International Raceway on the evening of Sept. 7, it was already clear the remainder of the season would be impacted by the events unfolding on the Virginia short track. This was, after all, the race that set the field for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, the 10-week dash that would decide the championship. For many teams and drivers, seven long months of hard work would come down to 400 miles in the Virginia capital.
But no one -- not in the most twisted of prognostications -- could have anticipated the effect that one night in Richmond would ultimately have. Oh, it determined the championship field, all right, one that would be changed not once but twice before the first playoff race. For one driver, it altered not just a season, but a career. For one sponsor, it was reason enough to withdraw. And for one organization, it left lasting impressions that will still be evident at Budwesier Speedweeks 2014, when Michael Waltrip Racing arrives at Daytona not with three full-time cars, but with two.
The 2013 NASCAR campaign was overloaded with one major news story after another, from Tony Stewart's late-night and season-ending broken leg, to Jimmie Johnson's sixth championship, to the Generation-6 car smashing track records and Danica Patrick winning the pole for the Daytona 500. But none of those made quite the impact or left quite the ripple effects of one night in Richmond, where MWR was at the center of a race manipulation scandal that dogged the sport for weeks. The 2014 team rosters of at least three organizations are directly affected by that night, the shadow of which still hangs over MWR like a dark cloud.
"I never would have dreamed in a million years that that would have escalated into what it did," MWR driver Clint Bowyer, whose suspicious spin in the final laps at Richmond was at the center of it all, said in October. "It was a bad deal. It was the hardest thing I've ever been through in this sport."
By now, everyone knows the story -- Bowyer spins, teammate Brian Vickers pits unexpectedly, MWR's Martin Truex Jr. edges Ryan Newman for the final Chase spot. Days later in the face of suspicious radio communications, NASCAR levies arguably the harshest penalty in its history, and Truex is bumped out of the Chase in favor of Newman. After more radio communications surface involving other teams, NASCAR takes the unprecedented step of adding Jeff Gordon to the playoff as a 13th driver. Matt Kenseth takes the checkered flag at Chicagoland, and everyone hopes the scandal is over.
Except it isn’t. The biggest blow is yet to come, in the form of sponsor NAPA departing MWR, and leaving Truex's No. 56 team without a backer for 2014. In the face of that deficit, MWR contracts from three full-time teams to two. Truex lands at Furniture Row Racing, his crew chief Chad Johnston lands at Stewart-Haas Racing, and Bowyer temporarily becomes a pariah to many of the fan base.
"I think that the repercussions that the team has seen from it are obviously pretty big," Kevin Harvick said a few weeks later. "I think if they look back on it, they would probably say that they would have done things a little bit differently to protect the things and the sponsors that are expected from their fans. You listen to the reaction to Clint and you hear the fans boo and you hear the things that they think about it. I know that bothers him, but it’s had a lot of repercussions. I think if everybody had it to do over again, I’m sure that they would do things differently, but you have to make decisions at the time and those were the decisions that were made. Everybody is trying to move on, and it will definitely be something that is talked about for a long time.”
Even NASCAR chairman Brian France, never one prone to overstatement, admitted to being "pissed off" by the entire episode -- likely one reason the penalties to MWR were so harsh.
"I knew that our credibility would be preserved if we did the right thing and we acted swiftly, and over time. So I wasn't ever worried about that," France said in early December. "But of course, we were disappointed. But that's just the nature, I guess, of competitive sports. You've got human beings trying to do their best, and sometimes they cross lines they shouldn't cross."
And indeed, that's what occurred on one now-infamous night in Richmond, the aftershocks of which will be evident well into 2014. Team changes, driver changes, sponsor changes, rule changes -- they were all results of a race manipulation scandal that was the biggest story of a NASCAR season full of big stories. The rest of the top 10:
2. Smoke sidelined. After walking away from a pair of high-flying sprint car crashes, three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart paid a price for his favorite extracurricular activity in early August. At a dirt track in Iowa, Stewart hit another car and broke two bones in his lower right leg, knocking him out for the rest of the Sprint Cup season. The injury was more serious than many realized, causing muscle and tissue damage and leading to a long and painful recovery process.
The repercussions were massive: One of NASCAR's most popular drivers was sidelined, SHR teammate Ryan Newman was eventually awarded the Wild Card berth to the Chase that Stewart had been in position for, Mark Martin ended up as a substitute in the No. 14 car, crew chief Steve Addington wound up fired, and co-owner Gene Haas hired Kurt Busch as a fourth driver for 2014 while his partner was incapacitated from the injury. Thankfully, all signs point to Smoke being back in the car for the Daytona 500 in 2014.
3. Johnson takes the sixth. Jimmie Johnson didn't win the most races in 2013, but he broke a two-year drought by claiming a sixth Sprint Cup title that sets him up to join the sport's most exclusive club. Then again, six titles in eight years is something that not even Dale Earnhardt or Richard Petty -- the greats with seven crowns Johnson hopes to match -- could pull off. A victory at Texas in the third-to-last race of the season propelled Johnson into the points lead, and he never let go after that, clinching the title rather easily in the finale at Homestead and placing himself squarely on the doorstep of history.
4. Aches and pains. An on-track feud took a painful turn in late March when final-lap contact with Joey Logano sent Denny Hamlin crashing into an inside wall at Fontana. Hamlin suffered an L1 compression fracture that forced him to miss most of five races, causing him to miss the Chase for the first time in his career. When it came to injuries or medical issues in 2013, he was far from alone. Nationwide Series driver Michael Annett missed two months with a broken sternum, Stewart went out with his broken leg, Vickers sat the final weeks due to a reoccurrence of blood clots, Eric McClure battled a kidney ailment and Trevor Bayne was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Most tragically, former NASCAR racer Jason Leffler lost his life in a sprint car crash, leaving behind a young son.
5. Kenseth's career year. Given that he's one of the steadiest drivers in the garage area, everyone expected Matt Kenseth to succeed at Joe Gibbs Racing, his new home in 2013 after a dozen years with Jack Roush's team. But enjoy a career year? That's exactly what Kenseth did, nearly becoming the first driver to win a title in his first season with a new organization since Darrell Waltrip did it with Junior Johnson in 1981. He set a new career mark with a season-best seven race wins, and led the points for seven weeks down the stretch. A few slip-ups at the end kept him from the championship, but Kenseth's prolific debut at JGR certainly sets the stage for more.
6. Danica at Daytona. Jimmie Johnson may have offered a sign of things to come by winning the Daytona 500, but many eyes over the course of Speedweeks were glued to the green No. 10 car of Danica Patrick. And with good reason -- the rookie became the first woman ever to win the pole for a premier-series event when she unleashed a lap of 196.434 mph, and then held her own in the Great American Race by finishing eighth. She was third in the final laps when her inexperience showed, and she was unable to put herself in position to go for the victory. But no matter -- to many, the final result was a triumph in and of itself.
7. A new Generation. The vehicle that debuted this past season on the Sprint Cup tour was designed with brand identity in mind, to tighten the connections between race cars and their counterparts on the street. But when the Generation-6 car rolled out on the track, it proved to also be something else -- extraordinarily fast. That much was evident from the first test at a 1.5-mile track, when Kasey Kahne turned a lap that would have been a record at Charlotte. The records would fall for real soon enough, with the Gen-6 smashing previous marks in 19 of the 32 qualifying sessions held in 2013. All told, 16 tracks now have new track records thanks to the Gen-6 car, which will continue to evolve into 2014.
8. Kurt Busch is back. The 2004 champion of NASCAR's top series has been on a personal odyssey ever since his surprising split from Penske Racing following the 2011 season. But 2013 was when Kurt Busch finally climbed back to the top, bringing Furniture Row Racing along with him. The No. 78 team became the first single-car entity ever to make the Chase thanks in large part to Busch, who parlayed the breakthrough into a ride at powerhouse Stewart-Haas Racing for 2014. But his 2013 was at times spectacular in its own right, even if growing pains kept his car out of Victory Lane. But with Busch bound for SHR and Truex for his old seat in the No. 78, both sides are better for the experience.
9. Keselowski Chased out. It all started out so well for Brad Keselowski, who finished in the top five in each of the first four races of the 2013 season, and looked primed to pursue a repeat of his 2012 championship. But then came penalties, and a suspension to his crew chief, and mechanical issues, and a inability to get the race win he so desperately needed in the regular season. In the end, Keselowski became only the second champion of the Chase era to miss the playoff the following year. He showed flashes of his usual self all season, and finally broke into Victory Lane at Charlotte in October, but it wasn't enough to prevent his title defense from ending 10 weeks early.
10. Return to dirt. It may have been a Camping World Truck Series event, but that didn't stop it from becoming one of the most anticipated races of the year. The July race at Eldora Speedway marked NASCAR's first national-series event on dirt since Petty won at the North Carolina Fairgrounds in Raleigh in 1970. And it proved worth the wait, with Ken Schrader becoming the oldest pole winner, a fender-banging last-chance race and Nationwide Series regular Austin Dillon besting an all-star field of NASCAR drivers and dirt specialists. The debut event at Stewart's half-mile track was nothing short of a rousing success, and it whetted the appetite for more.
1. Harvick makes it work. A lame-duck season, an angry verbal assault on one of his car owner's grandkids after an on-track incident -- there seemed no way Kevin Harvick and Richard Childress could make it work in 2013. Not with the end coming, not with how they've clashed in the past, not with a split looming between them. And yet, they not only held it together, they succeeded amid it all, winning four races and staying in the title hunt until the final weekend. Despite the odds, they kept it professional and managed a memorable final season before Harvick departed for Stewart-Haas.
2. Furniture Row takes the next step. We all knew Kurt Busch was good. But good enough to lift a mediocre single-car team into championship contention? Yes, that good. Before Busch, the No. 78 team had managed just three top-five finishes in its eight-year history. With Busch they notched 11 in this past season alone, to go with nine front-row starting positions, a high point of seventh in the standings, and a near sweep of the May events in Charlotte. Now the challenge is to keep it going with Truex behind the wheel.
3. Joey Logano breaks through. Keselowski saw enough in Logano that when the No. 22 car became open for 2013, the defending champion convinced Roger Penske that the former Gibbs driver was right one for the job. The result was a race victory at Michigan in August, and the first Chase berth of Logano's career. For a driver who broke in very young and is still just 23, the increased comfort, confidence and maturity levels are noticeable. Keselowski may have missed the Chase this past season, but he laid the groundwork for the one Penske driver who made it.
1. Roush Fenway Racing. While former Roush driver Kenseth was off winning seven times and contending for the title until the final week of the season, his old mates at Roush Fenway Racing were often left scratching their heads. Although Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards combined for three race victories, their highest points finish was Biffle in ninth. Edwards came home 13th, and after a promising start rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. fell to 19th. Roush is a proud organization capable of better, and it shuffled some crew chiefs in the offseason in the hopes of finding combinations that work.
2. Rookie struggles. Speaking of Stenhouse, there's no question he and girlfriend Patrick comprised the strongest Sprint Cup rookie class in years. But there's also no question both of those first-year drivers struggled more than anyone -- themselves likely included -- probably envisioned. After capturing headlines at Daytona, Patrick managed a promising 12th at Martinsville, and then plummeted to 27th in final points in a year SHR often struggled with its race cars. Stenhouse enjoyed a decent start and showed flashes near the finish, but couldn’t maintain it in between. But everything is different at NASCAR's highest level, and more experience can only help.
3. Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. Once again, the most underperforming race team in NASCAR maintains its usual position in this category. Jamie McMurray got off to a nice start and won the fall race at Talladega, but never found any consistency in between. Juan Pablo Montoya nearly won in the spring at Richmond, but the rest of the year was problematic and uneven, and he returned to open-wheel racing after his contract wasn't renewed. Their final points results were 15th and 21st, respectively, a little better than past years but hardly good enough. Perhaps the arrival of rookie Kyle Larson will bring some new life for 2014.
Driver of the Year: Matt Kenseth. OK, nothing against Johnson, whose greatness has been well-chronicled. But what Kenseth did, nearly winning the title in his first year with a new team, crew chief, and manufacturer, is almost unheard of. The fact that he enjoyed his best year ever amid entirely new surroundings is staggering. Runner-up: Jimmie Johnson. Six-time is simply the standard by which all others are measured. Honorable mention: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Returned to the elite even if he didn't win a race.
Crew chief of the Year: Chad Knaus. The difference in the title race this past season was that Johnson's cars were better off the truck when it counted most. Knaus also expertly managed a number of changes on the No. 48 team's road and over-the-wall crews. This title was his as much as anyone's. Runner-up: Steve Letarte. The voice in Earnhardt Jr.'s ear has worked wonders with NASCAR's most popular driver. Honorable mention: Todd Berrier. A chronically underrated wrench-turner who oversaw Kurt Busch's return to the Chase.
Car owner of the Year: Rick Hendrick. Four drivers in the Chase for two consecutive years (even if Jeff Gordon's 11th-hour addition perhaps requires an asterisk) is a heck of a feat. So is an 11th title. Runner-up: Joe Gibbs. Kenseth had a career year, and Kyle Busch enjoyed his best Chase finish. Honorable mention: Barney Visser. The quiet man from Colorado who turned Kurt Busch's career around.
Comeback of the Year: Kurt Busch. From Phoenix Racing to Furniture Row Racing to a ride with Stewart-Haas for 2014. Runner-up: Ryan Newman. After missing the Chase in 2012 and losing his job mid-season, Newman made the playoff this year (again, an asterisk) and secured a ride with Richard Childress Racing for 2014. Honorable mention: Jeff Gordon. Don't tell him he didn’t belong in the Chase. The four-time champion took advantage of the chance, winning at Martinsville and rising as high as third in the standings en route to earning his highest points finish since 2009.
Race of the Year: Aaron's 499, Talladega Superspeedway. David Ragan and David Gilliland burst up the middle at the finish to steal one for the little guys and ruin a dominant day by Kenseth. Runner-up: Auto Club 400, Auto Club Speedway. Logano and Hamlin crash on the final lap, and Logano and Stewart rumble on pit road in a race that alters the playoff picture. Honorable Mention: AdvoCare 500, Phoenix International Raceway. Harvick wins as Edwards runs out of gas on the final lap, and Kenseth's setup struggles open the door for Johnson to claim a sixth title.
Quote of the Year: "You mortals have got to learn." -- Tony Stewart, admonishing the media at Pocono for making a big deal out of his spectacular sprint car crashes. Runner-up: "If I was going to give Matt (Kenseth) a piece of advice, I'd say use the s--- out of him. Every time you get, run him hard, because that's his weakness." -- Brad Keselowski at Phoenix, opining on how to beat Johnson, and stoking the rivalry between the 2 and 48 teams in the process. Honorable mention: "I never lifted." -- Norm Benning, after holding off Clay Greenfield in a last-chance qualifier to earn the final berth in the Truck Series race at Eldora.
Early 2014 Championship Pick
Jimmie Johnson. Kenseth will almost certainly be back, Keselowski and the Roush bunch will almost certainly be better, and Stewart-Haas presents a sizeable challenge in and of itself. But it's just impossible to pick against the guy right now, not with how he dispatched the competition in the final weeks of the Chase, despite a number of changes on his race team and two seasons being elapsed since his last championship. Have we even seen his best yet? At this point, you have to wonder. But for now, history -- and a place alongside the King and the Intimidator -- awaits.