Most memorable moments of the 2013 NASCAR season
January 03, 2014, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com
There was heartbreak and history, scandal and suspense.
There was dirt racing and a brand-new vehicle that ushered in some of the best racing in years. There was a historic champion and a race outcome that brought forth some of NASCAR's harshest sanctions.
It was 2013, a year perhaps unlike any other in the sport's storied history.
On the one-year anniversary of the new-look NASCAR.com launch, we present the most memorable moments from a remarkable season as voted on by the editorial staff. That list is below.
Agree or disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments.
TOP 10 VIEWED STORIES ON NASCAR.COM FOR 2013
1. NASCAR penalizes Michael Waltrip Racing
2. Truex out of Chase, Newman in after MWR penalties
3. Tony Stewart breaks leg in sprint car crash
4. NASCAR announces 2014 Sprint Cup schedule
5. Gordon added to postseason picture
6. Harvick: 'Punk ... kids' reasons for RCR exit
7. NASCAR 'continues to gather all the facts' after Richmond
8. Daytona 500 starting lineup locked in
9. Hamlin suffers L1 compression fracture
10. Danica Patrick responds to Kyle Petty's criticism
Jason Leffler wasn't the type of NASCAR driver that would get a starring role. But the 37-year-old simply loved to race. He had 423 career starts in a NASCAR national series, including 73 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series -- the last one came this year at Pocono.
Away from the NASCAR spotlight, you could find Leffler at a short track or in a sprint car or a late model, scratching the racing itch. He died in a sprint car race accident on June 12 in New Jersey.
Although Leffler loved racing, his greatest love was reserved for his son, Charlie Dean. Friends said Leffler's life was transformed when Charlie was born. The Charlie Dean Discretionary Trust Fund was established after Leffler's death, with drivers and friends such as Kasey Kahne ensuring the driver's legacy would last.
Welcome, Generation 6. The vehicle that took more than two years to develop took center stage in 2013. The results? Well, the numbers speak for themselves.
There were 19 track qualifying records set by 11 different drivers. The average margin of victory (1.267 seconds) for the season was the lowest in eight years. Twenty times, a race was decided by less than one second.
The on-track racing appeared markedly better in 2013, and the careful design of the vehicle allowed for more brand identifiable machines.
Considering this was just the first year in the Gen-6 cars, expect the product to get even better in the future.
It happened at Martinsville Speedway, perhaps the most historic track on the NASCAR circuit. In the rolling foothills of Virginia, 30 miles east from Danville where pioneer Wendell Scott was born, Darrell Wallace Jr. won his first NASCAR national series race with Scott's family watching.
Scott was the first African-American driver to win in a national NASCAR series. Wallace joined him 50 years later with his Oct. 26 victory in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at a tiny track that Scott himself raced on 23 times at NASCAR's premier level.
When the gravity of the moment hit Wallace, he began to sob in his truck. In an interview the next day with members of the Scott family, Franklin Scott said of his father: "Well, when the checkered flag dropped, I heard a big boom from heaven, and my daddy said, 'Hell, yeah!' "
The sun shone, the grandstands swelled and, yes, the trucks kicked up plumes of dirt as they maneuvered around Eldora Speedway in late July. If you closed your eyes, it was almost like you were in the 1970s.
In fact, prior to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series competing at the Tony Stewart-owned Eldora Speedway, the last time a national series raced on dirt was more than 40 years ago when Richard Petty won a premier series event in 1970 at North Carolina State Fairgrounds.
The return to dirt lived up to its billing. The racing was fantastic in front of a sold-out crowd. Norm Benning delivered one of the quotes of the year ("I never lifted") and offered a one-fingered salute for good measure after qualifying for the main event, and then young stars Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson stole the show with legendary performances that belied their ages.
"This is special," Dillon uttered after winning the race.
We'd have to agree.
In an announcement that mixed the concepts of history and change, the No. 3 is returning to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series next year.
Richard Childress Racing made the announcement in December, promoting NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Austin Dillon to the Sprint Cup Series to carry the number. The 3 hasn't been seen on the track since the 2001 Daytona 500 in which Dale Earnhardt, who drove the car to 67 of his 76 career victories, died following a late-race wreck.
Legions of Earnhardt fans responded -- both in support and in anger. Dale Earnhardt Jr. signed off on the move and said it's good for the sport to move forward with a new generation. At the very least, you get the sense Dillon realizes his place in history with a new-look No. 3.
"It's a huge responsibility," he said.
Danica Patrick's rookie season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series didn't produce the results the driver wanted. No one can take away Daytona, though.
After a blistering practice in which Patrick turned heads in her green No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet, Patrick won the Coors Light Pole for the season-opening Daytona 500. She was the first woman in history to win the pole for the prestigious race, and backed that up with an eighth-place finish.
It would be her only top-10 of the season.
The garage was a little less noisy through the final third of the season, and certainly was missing some of its character.
We all missed veteran Tony Stewart. Stewart was sidelined for the final 15 races after shattering his leg in a sprint car race accident. The incident came mere days after he chastised reporters who inquired about a previous -- less severe -- sprint car wreck.
That's just 'Smoke,' though. He loves to race and doesn't always need the Sprint Cup spotlight to do so. His first press conference following multiple surgeries was equal parts beautiful and psychological, as he extolled on both racing and the meaning of life. He showed up to the regular-season finale at Richmond on a motorized scooter, his injured right leg bearing scars that looked like a shark took a hunk out of it.
The veteran is expected to be cleared in time for the Daytona 500. We hope that's the case.
Jimmie Johnson claimed his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in two years -- or in JST (Johnson Standard Time), an eternity. The Hendrick Motorsports driver had previously won five in a row before falling short in both 2011 and 2012.
His return to the top was highlighted by a dominant Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, in which he won twice and finished in the top five seven times in 10 races. At the end, Johnson's title was graceful, dominant and marvelous.
With six career titles, Johnson is one behind the record held by both Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Seven can wait, but maybe not for long.
Thirteen turned out to be a lucky number for Jeff Gordon. The veteran was on the verge of missing the Chase for just the second time in his career following a regular-season finale at Richmond that was steeped in controversy.
As NASCAR opened an investigation in the late-race proceedings, Gordon turned into the Rainbow Worrier as he awaited his fate. In the end, days before the Chase was to begin, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France announced the unprecedented action of adding Gordon to the postseason field as the 13th driver.
The Richmond findings, along with alleged collusion between the No. 22 Penske Racing team and No. 38 Front Row Motorsports team, led to a totality of events outside of Gordon's control, France said.
The announcement also served as a signature moment, of sorts, for France, who felt the sport's integrity was at stake.
"I have the authority to do that," France declared in adding Gordon to the postseason. "We are going to do that."
It started with a spin. Clint Bowyer's No. 15 Toyota lost control in the waning moments of the regular-season finale at Richmond, forcing teams to pit road and altering the initial playoff field for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
The end of the race was just the beginning, however. Bowyer was accused of spinning out intentionally, and his Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Brian Vickers pitted after the ensuing green flag dropped following some questionable radio dialogue.
That changed days later after a NASCAR investigation. All MWR drivers were docked 50 points, which ousted Truex from the Chase and added Newman. The organization was also fined $300,000 for attempting to "manipulate the outcome of the race," as NASCAR Vice President for Competition Robin Pemberton said.
The oft-gregarious Bowyer went into a funk for the majority of the postseason, and a major sponsor withdrew its support from MWR, leading to Truex losing his full-time ride there (he eventually signed with Furniture Row Racing).
NASCAR also implemented new rules before the Chase opener at Chicagoland, including "giving 100 percent effort" at all times.
Bowyer never regained his regular-season momentum, Truex ended up on a new team for 2014 and a reinvigorated Jeff Gordon made a legitimate run for his fifth Sprint Cup championship before falling short.
Note: This order was determined by a poll that included staff members Zack Albert, Kristen Boghosian, Pat DeCola, RJ Kraft, Brad Norman, Taylor Starer and George Winkler.