Top 10 on-track moves of 2013
December 28, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Ragan's move up the middle, Kurt Busch's surge on a restart among the best
The ability required to drive a race car at the highest levels is not always an obvious thing. Thanks to in-car cameras, it's evident sometimes when we see a driver's hands fighting the steering wheel, or perhaps working the pedals with his feet. But unlike dunking a basketball or hitting a home run, skill in race car driving is more subtle, more innate, more difficult to define in and of itself. Obviously, it's there. But it's most clearly manifested not through the competitor, but the 3,300-pound vehicle wrapped around him.
It's the cars that act as translator, the cars that put all that skill onto vivid display, the cars that become the physical indication of just how good the guy behind the wheel really is. Outside the cockpit, they can look like everyone else; inside, they become superstar athletes possessing abilities few others can match. The mental and physical wherewithal required to compete at NASCAR's national level can be impossible to deduce from the outside looking in. It’s the cars that speak. And sometimes they speak volumes.
That's never more the case than when a car slides or spins and somehow rights itself, or sails up against the wall in a daring pass, or muscles by another competitor off the final restart. A driver's talent and focus are on maximum display during instances of great triumph or crisis, whether it's passing someone for the victory or trying to pull a car out of a spin. Those are the snapshots that best encapsulate NASCAR, those heart-in-your-throat moments when there seems no way a driver can pull off the impossible -- yet somehow, he does.
Through all the months and weeks and laps of competition, it's those individual moves on the race track that so often stand out, and the 2013 season certainly had its share. Jimmie Johnson may have his sixth Sprint Cup Series trophy, and testing for the 2014 campaign may be mere weeks away, but for the moment let's pause and look back at the 10 best moves from this past season, and marvel once again at how good these guys can be.
10. Synchronized sliding
A tricky triangle, indeed. Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski discovered as much during the June event at Pocono Raceway, when the last two champions of NASCAR's premier division at the time made slight contact driving through Turn 2. That light touch as the cars were running on the outside was all it took to send both drivers into slow, synchronized slides that at one point had their respective front ends pointed toward the inside wall. But both drivers saved it, and Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch somehow avoided any contact as they rushed by on the low side. Stewart even rallied to claim a top-five finish.
9. Spin and win
Kyle Busch's hopes of winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway seemed dashed when he made contact with Sam Hornish Jr. trying to sneak by on the low side through Turn 1. Busch's No. 54 car spun right in front of Austin Dillon, and right toward the outside wall on the narrow Brickyard track. But the Sprint Cup star somehow avoided any contact with anything, staying off the concrete and keeping his black and green vehicle in good enough shape to get back to the front. The end result? He passed Brian Scott with three laps remaining, and recorded the biggest of his 12 Nationwide Series victories in 2013.
8. Save and a beauty
Johnson may have all but secured his sixth Sprint Cup title with a strong run at Phoenix International Raceway, but not until weathering a hold-your-breath moment at the very start of the penultimate event of the season. Johnson started from the pole, but didn't lead the first lap -- he was assaulted at the green flag by an onrushing Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, the latter of whom made contact with Johnson's left-rear entering Turn 3. The No. 48 car fishtailed and wiggled up the track, but Johnson held it together, kept it off the wall, and recovered for a third-place finish that made his sixth championship all but a sure thing.
7. A monstrous moment
Stewart's 2013 season was a star-crossed one indeed, a year that ended with the three-time champion on the shelf due to a broken leg suffered in a sprint car crash. Well before that there were struggles of another kind, as Stewart-Haas Racing tried to find its footing after a sluggish start. The breakthrough came in June at Dover International Speedway, where Stewart reeled in Juan Pablo Montoya and made the pass for the win with three laps remaining. Johnson jumping a late restart may have received much of the attention that day, but the end result for Stewart was a needed victory that kept him in playoff position until his injury.
6. Against the wall
In one of the defining moments of the 2013 season, the simmering feud between Hamlin and Logano went white-hot on the final lap at Auto Club Speedway, where the two rivals made contact and sparked an accident that sent the No. 11 car crashing into an inside wall. Almost lost in the aftermath -- which included a broken back vertebra by Hamlin that would keep him out of four races -- was the winning move made by Kyle Busch, who slipped by almost unnoticed on the high side as the two antagonists were busy going at one another. The No. 18 car slides by against the wall right before the other two vehicles make contact, clearing Logano and Hamlin just in time to avoid the chaos erupting behind.
5. Power move at Pocono
One of the best winning passes of this past season occurred back at Pocono, this time in an August race where Jeff Gordon found himself in the lead with eight laps remaining. But a caution for an accident involving Matt Kenseth forced one final restart, and Gordon lined up on the front row with Kasey Kahne to his outside. Kahne had been the class of the event earlier in the day, and the strength of his No. 5 car was evident on the restart as Kahne pulled even with Gordon entering Turn 1. One corner later he had completed the pass, doing it the hard way by powering around Gordon on the outside lane of the 2.5-mile track. One lap later, he had secured the victory.
4. High, wide and handsome
Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't win a race in 2013, but he certainly seemed capable of it in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, particularly in one galvanizing moment when he made the kind of sweeping pass he's become famous for. In a move that was vintage Dale Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver swept by Hamlin and Keselowski in dramatic fashion, soaring into the lead high on the outside in a move that brought the crowd to its feet. Earnhardt led 28 laps that night, but couldn't hold off Hamlin in the end and settled for third. Even so, it was a move that brought back memories of Earnhardt at his best, and it came in a resurgent season that saw him record his best points finish in years.
3. Train a-comin'
Kenseth dominated the spring race at Talladega Superspeedway, as the restrictor-plate ace led 142 laps on the big Alabama track. He was in front on the final restart, which came in the gloaming near the end of the long day of rain delays. But in an event where strategy often blurs into guesswork, Kenseth found himself in the wrong spot on the final lap. Up high against the wall, he was out of position to try and block the onrushing David Ragan, who burst up the middle off the final corner with teammate David Gilliland pushing him. It was a perfectly-timed move that resulted in a stunning finish, with the Front Row Motorsports drivers snaking past one final obstacle in Carl Edwards, and recording a huge victory for the sport's little guys.
2. He never lifted
Everyone knew the inaugural NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway, NASCAR's first national event on dirt since 1970, would be special. But nobody expected the night's biggest moment to unfold in the last-chance qualifying race. But that's just what happened when the final transfer spot into the main event turned into a personal battle between Norm Benning and Clay Greenfield, and the latter throwing everything he had at the former. Twice over the final two laps Greenfield tried slide jobs on Benning, hammering into the side of the red No. 57 truck. Twice Benning held on. Benning came to the checkered flag pinned to the outside wall, Greenfield right on his bumper, but stayed in front. "I never lifted," the veteran driver said later, after a moment that encapsulated what dirt racing is all about.
1. 'The seas parted'
Kurt Busch needed to make something happen. He was mired back in 11th place on a late restart at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and his hopes of getting single-car Furniture Row Racing into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup were on the line. What happened next was mesmerizing, the single-best individual move of the 2013 season -- a jaw-dropping charge from 11th to second over the course of just one single lap, a surge that essentially vaulted the single-car No. 78 team into the playoff for the first time. "The seas parted," Busch said afterward. But it was much more than that.
Busch had started the night with what he termed a 15th-place car, but his team gradually made it better, and he was 11th on a restart 293 laps into the 325-lap event. What followed was riveting -- Busch charged through the low lane, then sailed high to pass a line of cars though turns 1 and 2, then crossed down to jet around Logano. Suddenly, he was second. On social media, the comparisons to similar moves made by Dale Earnhardt were immediate. "Where everybody else was, I went opposite," Busch said. The result was a fourth-place finish that put Busch 10th in points, and one week later at Richmond he and Furniture Row cruised into the Chase -- thanks in large part to one sensational restart at Atlanta.