A Sunday without racing feels really strange. This past weekend was the first time since mid-February where there was no action on the track. The final checkered flag of the 2013 season fell at Homestead just one week ago, with champions crowned in all the top tier series. Now the long layoff has begun until the next year of action comes in.
But, the look back this season is one that will definitely be remembered. Just like one year ago, I’m going to look back at the top stories that have come out of the season.
Last year, I had this story as one thing that made news heading into the season, because it was a new era in NASCAR with the “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” attitude coming back. The new Generation-6 cars were among the biggest changes coming into 2013, and everyone was curious as to how they would perform.
Turns out, they performed extremely well.
It didn’t matter what track it ran on, whether it was a plate track, intermediate, short track or speedway, the car was simply fast. Track records fell like raindrops from the sky as the car had a better stance, and was modeled exactly like the street counterpart. The Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry and the entirely new Chevrolet SS all made an impact on the track, and all were praised for how they would perform.
Next season will have some changes to the cars, but to make them even better for the new year. Things can only go up from here.
Injuries Send Star Drivers to Sidelines
The hardest part for any driver is to realize he can’t do what he or she wants to do. On two different occasions this year, Sprint Cup was without a top driver.
At the Auto Club Speedway, the final corner of the final lap spelled doom for Denny Hamlin. His battle with Joey Logano for the win caused contact in the fourth turn, and sent Hamlin sliding head-long into the inside wall. His impact was so hard, all four tires lifted off the ground, and when he got out of the car, he didn’t move.
It was later revealed a stress fracture in his back would sideline him for weeks, and meant that Mark Martin and Brian Vickers would take over driving duties until he was healthy. What it also did was mean a dismal season for him when he returned. His season did end with a victory at Homestead, so it wasn’t all bad.
The other travesty was Tony Stewart, who prior to the Watkins Glen race would be involved in a sprint car accident that would break bones in his leg. That meant that in theory, his season was over. Max Papis would drive the No. 14 at Watkins Glen, then Austin Dillon took the reins at both Michigan and Talladega, and Mark Martin would be at the wheel for the remainder of the year, in essence what would be his final season of competition.
Both Hamlin and Stewart will be healthy for the 2014 campaign, but both now will have a bigger respect for the broader picture…health vs. career.
The Trucks Make History on Dirt
How often is it that I mention the other two series in this column? This year, I have to make mention of the Truck Series because this moment in the sport will go down as THE moment of the year in many fans’ eyes.
To hear that NASCAR in general was going back to the dirt was a moment that stood fans and drivers on edge because it was where the sport began. Eldora Speedway, the track owned by Tony Stewart, would prepare for a Midsummer Classic that would forever be remembered. It featured heat races, qualifying, and when the main show began, the infamous four-wide pace laps would just make the moment worth it.
It would be a sold-out crowd on hand for this one, and what they got in return was quite frankly the best race of the year across any of the series. To see these trucks sliding sideways on the upper cushion of the dirt, then along the bottom, and packing the dirt down to where it was almost like concrete, was intense.
The winner of the race was Austin Dillon, who proceeded to do his first dirt donuts in NASCAR, and joined his team with a shovel on the track to dig up part of the dirt on the front stretch to keep as a souvenir. Dillon himself then also did his own celebration, actually getting on the ground and kissing the hard-packed dirt.
That race among fans, drivers, and even media members were praising what they witnessed that night. No lie, this race is on my bucket list for 2014. If it lives up to what the inaugural event was, it will be another spectacular night.
Controversy Kicks off Chase for the Cup
I have never seen more crazy things happen at the end of one race than I saw at Richmond this past season. It shows that sometimes team orders are not the best idea for the sport, and this year it made the sport look bad.
How it was handled afterward was just as bad.
The spin by Clint Bowyer and then suddenly the abrupt pit stop by teammate Brian Vickers all were in an effort to get the third Michael Waltrip Racing car, Martin Truex Jr, into the Chase. It all worked, but even NASCAR was questioning what was happening and vowed to look into the matter. They certainly did that, and suddenly just a few days later, NASCAR officials made it clear that drivers and teams are to give 100% to avoid “purposely altering a race.”
Truex was taken out, and Ryan Newman was added in. But then the next week at Chicagoland, the first race in the Chase, NASCAR President Brian France made an even more controversial call by saying that all the instances that happened at Richmond gave a disadvantage to one driver, and that wasn’t fair. So, at Chicagoland, Jeff Gordon was added to this year’s Chase, the 13th entry.
I have never seen such a crazy couple of weeks in NASCAR, and the trickle-down effect was certainly felt. NAPA left MWR as a sponsor, despite signing a huge extension before the season, and Truex Jr. opted to go to a new team, signing with Furniture Row. This year’s Chase will be remembered for two reasons. Reason one is how it began. Reason two…
The Champ Is Back, With Title #6
If there was ever a doubt of who simply was the best driver all season, that was cemented at the end of Homestead.
He would win the Daytona 500 to kick off the year, and win the second-most races during the regular season, followed up by winning the races he needed to win during the Chase. Consistently he ran up front, not just in the Chase. The team never quit, and wanted to get back to the top of the mountain.
Let’s just face facts, the best driver in this era of NASCAR is Jimmie Johnson. Look at the facts, he has not finished worse than sixth in the standings since his rookie season in 2002, and that includes two years before the Chase began.
Don’t believe he’s that good? Listen to these statistics: 13 years in Cup, 12 of them being full-time seasons; six championships, including five in a row from 2006-2010; 66 career wins (co-owner Jeff Gordon has 88 career wins in 20 full-time seasons); 24 wins in the Chase (more than double of the second-most by Tony Stewart-11); 32 poles; 182 top-fives, 272 top-10’s; 15,841 laps led.
There is no doubt that in this era, Johnson is the man, the gold standard in NASCAR. If there is anyone that could come along and challenge him as the best driver in the Chase era, he certainly hasn’t come yet.
There are only two drivers ahead of him with more championships, and they too were the best in their eras. Both Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt have seven titles, and at the rate Johnson is going, he could not only surpass that number, he could outright shatter it. Johnson is in the prime of his career, and there is no telling what more he could accomplish before he decides to hang up the helmet.
Well, guess now the racing must rest up, and the helmets be retired for a few months. The 2013 season is over, and nothing will happen on-track until late-February. Sad that must happen, but even NASCAR has a rest.
So, until this column comes back to get ready for the 2014 campaign, everyone have a very Happy Thanksgiving, and an extremely Merry Christmas.