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Driver Reports: Junior completes meteoric finish

November 19, 2013, Brad Norman,

Earnhardt has momentum heading into 2014 after finishing fifth

1. Jimmie Johnson (No. 48)

Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet

Where he stands: Johnson finished first in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings with 2,419 points.
Last week: Say hello to Six-Time. With seeming effortless grace and a dominant car, Jimmie Johnson won his first championship since 2010 and the sixth of his storied career. The driver, as he's done all year, saved himself from trouble (see the video below) when Paul Menard bumped his No. 48 Chevrolet, sending Johnson plummeting down the running order. He avoided potential disasters on the restarts that fanned out to four-wide. And he finished in ninth place to beat Matt Kenseth by 19 points in the final standings, and get one step closer to the hallowed seventh title.
What he said: "When I look back on the year, I think about the Gen‑6 car, the race to figure out what the car wanted for speed, the hard work from everybody at Hendrick, the way we've been able to connect through the 48 team, find speed in the car, develop the car, innovate in the garage area with the setups that are in the car. Just a well‑executed year top to bottom, especially in these final 10 races. We didn't leave many points on the table. Last year we had eight great weeks, didn't come up with it. Matt (Kenseth) had nine. You have to have 10 great weeks to be the champion and we got it done this year."
Recap: In 2013, Johnson finished with six wins, 16 top-fives, 24 top-10s and three poles.

2. Matt Kenseth (No. 20)

Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota 

Where he stands: Kenseth finished second in the standings with 2,400 points.
Last week: At the end of the day, Matt Kenseth wore a smile. In his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth finished 19 points behind Jimmie Johnson and was just short of winning his second career title. But he led the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with a career-high seven victories and added a pair of runner-up finishes, including Sunday's showing at Homestead. After winning the Coors Light Pole, Kenseth led a race-high 144 circuits and challenged teammate Denny Hamlin for the win. He trailed by 28 points entering the finale, and needed Johnson to wreck or have significant car trouble -- neither of which came to pass.
What he said: "It was just an unbelievable year for us really. Obviously, we wanted to finish off and win the championship as good as we ran all year, but couldn't be more proud of the team. They did a spectacular job all season and all day today again. Overall, I don't think you could ask for much more."
Recap: In 2013, Kenseth finished with seven wins, 12 top-fives, 20 top-10s and three poles.

3. Kevin Harvick (No. 29)

Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet 

Where he stands: Harvick finished third in the standings with 2,385 points.
Last week: Harvick could still mathematically win the 2013 championship as the green flag dropped on the Ford EcoBoost 400, but he would need a minor miracle. The Richard Childress Racing driver was 34 points behind Jimmie Johnson and six points behind second-place Matt Kenseth through 35 of 36 races. As Kenseth charged through the field and Johnson stayed out of trouble, it clearly wasn't Harvick's day. That much was certain when he pitted off-cycle midway through to correct his handling condition. That put the veteran down to 29th place and one lap down, but he rallied to finish 10th in his final race for RCR. Harvick will join Stewart-Haas Racing next year.
What he said: "Yeah, we just weren't very good. We were able to salvage something out of the night. Obviously it's not what we wanted, but came back and were way better at the end than what we were in the beginning. It's what we've done all year and I'm just proud of everybody and thank them for everything that they have done."
Recap: In 2013, Harvick finished with four wins, nine top-fives, 21 top-10s and one pole.

4. Kyle Busch (No. 18)

Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota 

Where he stands: Busch finished fourth in the standings with 2,364 points.
Last week: Busch capped the best season of his career Sunday with a seventh-place finish at Homestead. Sure, he's won more races before -- eight in 2008 -- but finishing fourth place in the standings is the best start-to-finish effort in his nine-year tenure in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. In fact, it's just the third time in nine years Busch has finished better than 10th.
What he said: "We were hoping our night was going to turn out a little bit better. We could never quite get the car to where I could drive it the way I wanted to. We were able to dig hard there on the last run of the race and pick up enough spots to hold onto fourth in the standings, which is a big deal. This is my best points finish ever ... and we have something to build upon for next year."
Recap: In 2013, Busch finished with four wins, 16 top-fives, 22 top-10s and three poles.

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88)

Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet

Where he stands: Earnhardt Jr. finished fifth in the standings with 2,363 points.
Last week: No one finished the season as strongly as Earnhardt Jr. -- and that includes a certain six-time champion. Junior capped a strong Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup performance by steering his No. 88 Chevrolet to a third-place finish at Homestead. He led 28 laps in the Ford EcoBoost 400 and was in position to challenge for the win alongside Denny Hamlin (who won) and Matt Kenseth (who finished second). In the final five Chase races, Earnhardt's average finish was a series-best 3.8. In the 10 postseason events, he had five top-fives and eight top-10s, with a blown motor at Chicago in the opener spoiling what could have been a special championship Chase.
What he said: "This has been one of the best years I've had, certainly the best year I've had working with Hendrick. Just want to give my team a lot of credit. (Crew chief) Steve Letarte, my engineers, did just an amazing job providing these good cars every week. (I'm) hoping next year we continue that trend and that trajectory and get a shot at winning a championship. I think we can do it."
Recap: In 2013, Earnhardt Jr. finished with 10 top-fives, 22 top-10s and two poles.

6. Jeff Gordon (No. 24)

Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet 

Where he stands: Gordon finished sixth in the standings with 2,337 points.
Last week: A poor qualifying effort relegated Gordon to starting 26th in the Ford EcoBoost 400, a race he won last year. His No. 24 Chevrolet was among the fastest in the field, running second for a while, but the driver ultimately finished 11th to cap his 10-race stretch in the postseason. Gordon picked up his first win of the year at Martinsville to climb into championship contention, but finished outside the top 10 in the final three races of the season. It was nearly worse at Homestead as Gordon spun his tires on a restart to avoid smacking Denny Hamlin, which set off a chain reaction involving title hopefuls Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson.
What he said: "That (was) the second time this year I have done that right in front of Matt (Kenseth) and he has drove right into the back of me and about wrecked us both. The last thing I would want to do in front of Matt is that, but you can't run into the guy you know. It was a bad, unfortunate situation and it just trickles on back from there. It could have been even worse."
Recap: In 2013, Gordon finished with one win, eight top-fives, 17 top-10s and two poles.

7. Clint Bowyer (No. 15)

Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota 

Where he stands: Bowyer finished seventh in the standings with 2,336 points.
Last week: The long runs proved beneficial to Bowyer, who started 25th at Homestead but churned his way through the field over long green-flag stretches. In fact, Bowyer ended 2013 by notching his 10th top-five of the season (he finished fifth in the race), matching last year's career-best effort. Last year was a breakthrough for Michael Waltrip Racing, with Bowyer finishing second in the final standings. Following the events at Richmond, Bowyer struggled initially in the Chase before closing the postseason with four top-10s in the final five races.
What he said: "That was a good night for us and MWR. We had a pretty good season and kept our eye on the ball throughout a lot of stuff this season. They could have easily lost focus, but they never gave up and worked like heck. I'll take some time off and we'll be ready for testing and go get us a championship in 2014."
Recap: In 2013, Bowyer finished with 10 top-fives and 19 top-10s.

8. Joey Logano (No. 22)

Penske Racing, Ford 

Where he stands: Logano finished eighth in the standings with 2,323 points.
Last week: Logano had another fast Ford and notched another top-10 finish. His eighth-place showing at Homestead capped the best year of his career and ensured he would finish eighth in the season standings, two points ahead of Greg Biffle. In Logano's first year with Penske Racing, he finished with a career-high of top-fives and top-10s. | Click here to read a roundup on the six members of the Coca-Cola Racing Family
What he said: "We did a good job this year and learned a lot about each other, and learned a lot about where we could have done a better job in races and where we need to improve next year and where to work on our cars during the offseason. I had a lot of fun this year and this was my best season personally. I'd still call it a good season, not a great season. We were just talking about the opportunities we had to win and we feel like we had the chance to win five races and we capitalized on one of them, so that's a good area we can learn from."
In 2013, Logano finished with one win, 11 top-fives, 19 top-10s and two poles.

9. Greg Biffle (No. 16)

Roush Fenway Racing, Ford 

Where he stands: Biffle finished ninth in the standings with 2,321 points.
Last week: Biffle entered Homestead with three wins at the South Florida track, but he finished 24th on Sunday, last among Chase drivers. Teammates Carl Edwards and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also struggled, as Roush Fenway Racing as a program simply missed its mark. Still, Biffle finished the season in ninth place. It's the fifth time in the past six seasons he's finished the year in the top 10. | Click here to read a roundup on the six members of the Coca-Cola Racing Family
What he said: Biffle was unavailable for comment.
Recap: In 2013, Biffle finished with one win, four top-fives and 13 top-10s.

10. Kurt Busch (No. 78)

Furniture Row Racing, Chevrolet 

Where he stands: Busch finished 10th in the standings with 2,309 points.
Last week: Capping a season in which he became the first driver of a single-car team to qualify for the Chase, Busch finished 21st at Homestead. It was a bittersweet showing for the veteran, who has said all year he wants to put the black No. 78 Chevrolet in Victory Lane. Homestead was his final chance. Busch will drive for Stewart-Haas Racing next year, while Martin Truex Jr. joins the FRR fold.
What he said: "For this little single-car team out of Denver, to finish 10th in points is quite an achievement and the credit goes to Barney Visser (team owner), Joe Garone (general manager), Todd Berrier (crew chief) along with our entire road crew and all the guys back at the shop. They gave everything they had to give and you can't ask for anything more. I made a lot of friends with this Furniture Row team and will always look back at this season with a special fondness."
Recap: In 2013, Busch finished with 11 top-fives, 16 top-10s and one pole.

11. Ryan Newman (No. 39)

Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet 

Where he stands: Newman finished 11th in the standings with 2,286 points.
Last week: Newman was among the many veterans taking the last ride for his current team at Homestead. After five years at Stewart-Haas Racing, Newman will drive the No. 31 car for Richard Childress Racing in 2014. His final race wasn't the result he wanted -- he finished 17th. | Click here to read a roundup on the six members of the Coca-Cola Racing Family
What he said: "I've got to thank Matt Borland (crew chief) and everyone on this No. 39 team for their hard work tonight and all season. We won the Brickyard 400, we made the Chase, I think we had top-10 finishes in half the races. We certainly can't hang our heads about that. But as racers, you always want more. So I'm proud of what we were able to accomplish, but I certainly hoped we would be able to end the year on a higher note than we did."
Recap: In 2013, Newman finished with one win, six top-fives, 18 top-10s and two poles.

12. Kasey Kahne (No. 5)

Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet

Where he stands: Kahne finished 12th in the standings with 2,283 points.
Last week: Kahne's topsy-turvy Chase ended with a 13th-place showing at Homestead. Kahne was running near the top 10 with 100 laps to go when he felt a vibration and had to pit for tires. He came out 26th after changing the left-side tires before rallying. In the 10-race postseason, Kahne finished as a runner-up twice, but also finished outside the top 10 seven times.
What he said: Kahne was unavailable for comment.
In 2013, Kahne finished with two wins, 11 top-fives and 14 top-10s.

13. Carl Edwards (No. 99)

Roush Fenway Racing, Ford 

Where he stands: Edwards finished 13th in the standings with 2,282 points.
Last week: One of the best drivers on the circuit at the wide, sweeping 1.5-mile Homestead oval, Edwards was strangely average on Sunday. He finished 12th, gaining ground late when he went up high and ran inches away from the wall, but was never in contention for the win. In fact, he didn't run higher than ninth place. It was a disappointing end to the Chase for Edwards, who qualified for the postseason after a one-year absence but then finished last in the 13-driver field.
What he said: "It was a frustrating race because we never really had any speed. I had a blast there at the end racing right on the fence, but it wasn't enough. This is the first time we've run that poorly in this race. This track is usually our bread and butter, so this style of track and this track particularly has been really good, so it's tough."
Recap: In 2013, Edwards finished with two wins, nine top-fives, 16 top-10s and two poles.