Winners and Losers of the 1st Half of the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Season

Geoffrey Miller@@geoffreymillerContributor IJuly 3, 2013

Winners and Losers of the 1st Half of the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Season

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    Despite Danica Patrick's pole at the 2013 Daytona 500 seeming like it was just days ago, NASCAR's halfway point in the 36-race regular season is here. Oh, what a go we've had.

    From Jimmie Johnson's assertive win to open the season at Daytona, to Brad Keselowski's takedown of garage area tactics, the big names and big stars have been making their usual ruckus. We've endured the worry for Denny Hamlin's injury and listened to Kyle Petty lament Patrick's use in the sport. Then there was Kurt Busch causing a big crash and David Ragan somehow winning a race.

    Through it all, there have been plenty of winners and losers along the way in this edition of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. The season's second half promises to bring plenty more chargers and chumps as the summer heat wanes to fall championship pressure. Some will rise; some will fall.

    But until then, here's a look at some of NASCAR's best and worst of the first half of 2013.

Winner: Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20

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    No other top-tier, championship-caliber Sprint Cup driver made as bold or as big of a switch as Matt Kenseth prior to the 2013 season. It was such a startling bolt that even the only team owner Kenseth had ever raced for in the series felt surprised about the suddenness of Kenseth's signing with Joe Gibbs Racing.

    But by Daytona in July, Kenseth had already amassed four wins—a total more than any one of his final six seasons competing for Roush Fenway Racing—and looked to be the most worthy competitor to at least slow Jimmie Johnson's march toward championship No. 6.

    Kenseth has shattered the mold of drivers moving to new teams needing time to adjust to the programs and processes before gaining full competitiveness. In his first race at JGR, Kenseth led over 80 laps and only missed his chance to take a third-career Daytona 500 win thanks to a blown Toyota Racing Development Engine. Kenseth won just two races later.

    Now, even with a another great run at Dover International Speedway wiped by more engine troubles, Kenseth is primed to be a thorn in the Chase for the Sprint Cup battle.

Loser: NASCAR's Television Partners

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    Nowhere has television more impacted a race this season than when the overhead camera cable in use at the Coca-Cola 600 broke mid-race, fell, injured fans and heavily damaged a slew of cars—including the race leader. But that was a failure that can be rectified and prevented in the future, unlike the weekly train wreck happening as NASCAR fans tune in on television.

    Perhaps it's just the tipping point, or perhaps things have gotten decidedly worse. Whatever it is, NASCAR's product is getting no favors from the early season broadcast providers in Fox and TNT. Plus, a channel dedicated to motorsports—though SPEED has been an embarrassing shell of its once proud self in recent years—is going kaput by August in favor of Fox's new attempt to compete with ESPN.

    On the NASCAR broadcast front, the same issues continue to lag the sport that have lagged the sport for years. There are too many commercial breaks (hey, someone has to pay for the massive rights fees!), too many of the sport's commentators have become little more than hot air-spewing talking heads, stories get missed and an on-line streaming component is still non-existant.

    It's all creating an atmosphere ripe for changing the channel—a move that the television ratings show many NASCAR's casual fans have already made. It's long past time for an overhaul of how this sport gets shown on TV.

    But don't expect it.

Winner: Kurt Busch, Furniture Row Racing No. 78

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    The talent of Kurt Busch—NASCAR's 2004 Sprint Cup champion—has never been in question. The application of it, however, has.

    Busch hasn't been perfect in 2013, but his move late in 2012 to Furniture Row Racing has already paid off in the form of strong race cars and plenty of laps led. It's light years beyond the depths of career prior to the 2012 season when he was fired from Penske Racing for an inability to stay cool under pressure.

    Busch still struggles with that at times in the No. 78, but he's making progress. At the very least, Busch looks to be en route to either building Furniture Row (a satellite team of Richard Childress Racing) into a steady win contender or making the case for a bigger team to take another chance on him.

    Being in the top-15 of the point standings by the series' halfway point has been notable for Busch and a team that has never led this many laps or had this many consistent finishes. Seeing if he can transition that success to a win as the season progresses will be key.

Loser: Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11

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    Four top-10 finishes and three top-5 finishes in the first 13 races of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is a more than respectable start. Unfortunately for Denny Hamlin, by the time of his 13th race, NASCAR had already completed 17 on the year.

    Hamlin missed four starts after suffering a serious back injury during a last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway in the season's fourth event. At the time, Hamlin was battling for the lead with new apparent nemesis Joey Logano on the last lap.

    The result has been a first half where Hamlin has to be thinking what might have been. Teammate Matt Kenseth has a series-high four race wins, while his other teammate Kyle Busch has two. Meanwhile, Hamlin missed races, suffered the excruciating back pain and has since crashed twice in his return.

    Hamlin had wild dreams of leading a charge to the point standings' top-20 and then picking up enough race victories to qualify for the Chase. But his two crashes and other poor finishes have dashed those hopes.

    All in all, 2013—save for the birth his baby daughter in January—has been one to forget.

Winner: Auto Club Speedway

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    Racing at southern California's Auto Club Speedway has long been a bane on the existence of long-time, die-hard NASCAR fans.

    The track—rather the track's owners and officials—was implicit in the demise of NASCAR's traditional Southern 500 leaving Darlington Raceway and Labor Day Weekend in 2005. It left a bad taste on the tried-and-true aspects of the sport so tied to southern culture and heritage that only a drastically amazing race in California could overcome.

    But Auto Club could never produce that. The racing was strung out. The passing was minimal. The yawns were ever-present.

    Until 2013.

    Finally, something about the track surface's age, NASCAR's new Gen-6 car and whatever else came in to play made Auto Club a racy place that put on a great 400-mile show. The downside of the close racing in March was the fact that Denny Hamlin ended up badly injured when his car hit an inexplicably unprotected wall head-on.

    But Hamlin's crash came when Auto Club was its best: Joey Logano, Hamlin and Kyle Busch locked in a three-way bumping and battle for the lead on the final lap. Kyle Busch won the race, but Auto Club Speedway started to win our hearts.

Loser: Brad Keselowski, Penske Racing No. 2

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    The heat on Brad Keselowski in his maiden season with the title of Sprint Cup champion has come from nearly every corner in the first half of 2013.

    There was Jimmie Johnson detailing why he thought Keselowski didn't represent the sport well. A hasty meeting with the sport's CEO Brian France was scheduled before the Daytona 500 after Keselowski openly questioned NASCAR in a USA Today interview. There were penalties against his team at Texas Motor Speedway, and an accompanying assertion from Keselowski after the race that the garage area was dirty and underhanded.

    And that was all before Keselowski's season on-track derailed starting at Richmond. In a span of nine races starting at the Virginia short track, Keselowski turned in just one top-10 finish. The larger result was his plummet in the point standings to a range where missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup seems like a realistic possibility.

    It's been a disappointing start to his title defense campaign, but Keselowski isn't quite out of it yet.

Winner: AJ Allmendinger

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    It was NASCAR's return trip to Daytona in July of 2012 that started AJ Allmendinger's nightmare.

    There, he was drug tested randomly by NASCAR officials and found to have a positive result. He was immediately out of the ride of his life—driving Roger Penske's No. 22 Sprint Cup machine—and in, at first, a mode to clear his name largely through denial. But the real story eventually came out (Allmendinger had taken a stimulant while out with friends days before the 2012 race at Kentucky) and Allmendinger had to issue an apology and enter a NASCAR drug treatment program.

    For the vibrant IndyCar-turned-NASCAR driver, it was his lowest of lows. A ride with one of NASCAR's best teams was gone. His future in racing looked decidedly dim.

    Fortunately, Allmendinger's 2013 has been nothing short of a drastic resurrection of his career. He finally won a NASCAR race—the Nationwide Series event at Road American for none other than Penske—and even had all of the indications of a late-race challenger for the win during his first Indianapolis 500 in May.

    Allmendinger has also driven impressively for James Finch's Phoenix Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing. Nothing is full-time for Allmendinger as of the season's halfway point, but his level of success has been nothing short of a win after the gut-wrenching lows of 2012.

Loser: Toyota Racing Development Engines

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    Reliability hasn't been the buzzword for the engines produced by Toyota for the Sprint Cup Series in recent seasons, and the problem reached a tipping point this season when multiple failures and one massive penalty put the brand's engine production unit on the hot seat.

    The mess started when Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch suffered engine failures within laps of each other while running strong in the Daytona 500. The hits kept coming, too. Martin Truex Jr. lost a motor at Dover. Kyle Busch lost one at Charlotte. Others suffered Toyota trouble too that ultimately forced Toyota to publicly state they were tuning down their engines at Pocono Raceway to boost reliability.

    Most alarming, though, was the penalty and accompanying wrath extreme NASCAR wrath Kenseth's team was hit with after his race-winning Toyota at Kansas was found to contain connecting rod elements that weighed just under specification. NASCAR initially dropped the napalm hammer on the team with penalties and sanctions, but most were lifted during an appeal process when the team demonstrated the engine wasn't an advantage.

    But the embarrassing lack of quality control in the engine department Toyota Racing Development in California was clear after the case, and started to shine a light on perhaps why Toyota struggled with reliability on that front.

Winner: Clean Air

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    The phrase "clean air" has been around NASCAR and other forms of racing for a long, long time. Surprisingly, Daytona officials haven't pioneered a method to incorporate the aerodynamic effect term into their growing environmental program. Instead, it remains the best way describe why the leader of a race gains an inherent advantage over a trailing competitor.

    Put simply, "clean air" is merely undisturbed air and provides the most downforce on a race car, boosting handling. In 2013, the phenomenon has seemed to play a bigger role on the sport than previous seasons.

    Carl Edwards first proved that at Phoenix in February when his best strategy to win was simply the strategy that put him in the lead during the final pit stop. Trailing drivers just couldn't gain enough front tire grip in the disturbed air behind him to mount a true charge. Matt Kenseth has played the game well, too, holding off Kasey Kahne twice by simply mimicking Kahne's preferred corner racing line to reduce Kahne's front downforce in late race situations.

    It's all above board—you can't blame drivers for trying to win—but it is a concern for the sport when a race leader's track position advantage is only the start of the overall advantage he or she holds over the field when the checkered flag nears.

Loser: Bobby Labonte

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    The high point of Bobby Labonte's career still doesn't seem that long ago.

    But for the 2000 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, the end of the road as a full-time NASCAR driver closer than ever for the younger of Labonte brothers. Bobby was replaced by AJ Allmendinger—just temporarily, the team said—in the JTG Daugherty No. 47 Toyota at Michigan International Speedway in June. 

    But Labonte promptly wrecked Finch's ride, and when JTG Daugherty wanted to try out Allmendinger again at Kentucky Speedway, Labonte was left without a ride for the first time the 1993 Daytona 500. In that 703-race span, Labonte piled together 21 wins, the title and 115 top-5 finishes.

    But Labonte's streak ended at a point where he had shown hardly any competitive results in his two seasons at JTG. Labonte will return to the No. 47 for much of the rest of 2013, but the future isn't looking promising.