NASCAR's regular season has already come and gone for 2013.
It may be one of the longest seasons by calendar length in all of sports, but there's little doubt that the 26-race regular-season portion of NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series is often gone before you hardly knew it.
For the drivers, each race can mean so much. Each win means even more. Look no further than the two-point difference that kept Jeff Gordon out of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Look no further than the hole Brad Keselowski couldn't dig himself out of to defend his title.
Opposite those who may have 'lost' the regular season, there are drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch who have scored a whopping 13 combined wins this season and who will head to the Chase as presumed favorites.
Of course, this is NASCAR. Not everyone or everything that made this end-of-regular-season rating list is a driver. Find out more with a click.
Controversy surrounded this restart at Richmond and others this season.
From inexcusably failing to penalize Carl Edwards in the final regular-season race at Richmond, to hosing Jimmie Johnson out of a win at Dover when they black-flagged the five-time champion for apparently jumping a restart, one of the biggest black eyes of this NASCAR season is the sport's inability to find a viable way to police those critical race situations.
Thanks to restart zones, giving a leader the right to actually commence the restart and not actively using the start/finish line as a start/finish line, NASCAR has left competitors more than confused about what they can and can't do. It's left a gray area that's been both exploited and unfairly governed.
Complications and confusion from restarts this season have effectively changed the outcome of several races. At this point in time, one would hope NASCAR has the technology and shared interest to find a better solution.
Kurt Busch catapulted both his team and his career forward this season.
Kurt Busch didn't need Tony Stewart to get hurt for his No. 78 to make the Chase. But things were made a little bit easier for the resurgent driver and upstart Colorado team when Stewart, who figured to be a key part of the championship battle, was knocked out for the season in early August.
Busch has already matched the total number of top-five finishes he earned in his final season with Penske Racing in 2011 at eight. The team hasn't won yet, but they've been quite close. And personally for Busch, his successful stint in the Richard Childress Racing satellite operation has translated to a full-time gig in 2014 at Stewart's organization.
For a guy looking to resurrect career, doing it in less than two seasons is pretty impressive. That speaks to how strong Busch has looked in equipment previously considered quite inferior.
Missed opportunities haunted much of Jeff Gordon's 2013 regular season.
The disappointment in Jeff Gordon's 2013 regular season will only compound on itself as the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet races the final 10 events with no ability to satisfy his grandiose dream of his fifth Sprint Cup championship. He missed the championship fight by two points.
It's not altogether surprising for Gordon considering he spent just three of the 26 races inside the top 10 of the series point standings. He gave away a win at Pocono to teammate Kasey Kahne, and likely lost his chance at others thanks to both mechanical problems and team strategy errors. As it stands now, Gordon will have to score top-five finishes in three of the final 10 races to even tie his worst top-five performance of the last 15 years.
Joey Logano is all smiles after earning his first Chase bid.
Even with his second career win last season, the pieces of the Joe Gibbs Racing puzzle just did not seem to be fitting for the much heralded young phenom. Talk even bubbled up of sending Logano back to a full-time Nationwide Series ride with the JGR crew.
Undoubtedly, that left the Connecticut driver feeling a little bit disrespected and he started looking elsewhere. He found home at Penske Racing, enjoying defending series champion Brad Keselowski. Boy, was it a relationship that shined.
Logano accomplished two central things in the regular season: He won a race, and he also stood up for himself when a strange feud with former teammate Denny Hamlin came to the surface. The dividends of that demanded respect will continue to pay off. But, most importantly, Logano earned a spot in the Chase. That's a successful 26-race span.
After an embarrassing amount of hype, NASCAR's Gen-6 car underperformed for much of the regular season.
Don't take this wrong: NASCAR's new generation six-race car was a long time coming and was long needed. It was something fresh and more sporty.
The car however could not live up to the hype. While that is far from unexpected since it can happen any time a sport brings a new substantially changed piece of equipment to the field of play, it's unfortunate that NASCAR's hyperdrive marketing proclaimed it similar to the sport's second coming. With limited track testing, you could still scrambling to find parts as the season began. That just wasn't feasible.
One good note, perhaps, is that the car has produced speeds that have caused people to take notice. Now if it only could race like that, too.
Matt Kenseth put a lot on the line with his offseason move—and it paid off.
Matt Kenseth's departure from Roush-Fenway Racing last season ranked as one of the biggest stories of the year. It also proved to be one of the biggest question marks for 2013: Would Kenseth, a veteran with experience in NASCAR's top series with only one team, be able to translate his talent and knowledge to a team running a completely different style of car? After all, he left the Ford camp on a resurgent course. In 2011 and 2012 he scored six wins and 25 top fives.
With five wins so far this year, Kenseth put all of those questions to rest. Now, he enters the Chase as the top-seeded driver. What else could he want?
Many expected more from Brad Keselowski after his 2012 title.
As defending champion, Brad Keselowski had no problem using his platform to speak out about issues facing the sport this year or ruffle feathers of competitors. The only problem? He could never back it up on the track.
Keselowski missed the Chase and didn't win in the regular season. More, his team was penalized early in the year for suspension infractions at Texas Motor Speedway. With a combined eight wins in the past two seasons, this year was far from what he expected. It was also far below what many thought was capable of the Penske team after its transition to Ford and the associated increased access to manufacturer technical information.
When Tony Stewart isn't racing, he's bound to not be too happy.
Prior to his injury, Tony Stewart seemed to have just about everything starting to go for him. Both the cars he was driving for Stewart-Haas Racing and the ones wheeled by Ryan Newman were starting to contend for wins. He also had just hammered out a new deal to bring Kevin Harvick and his substantial sponsor funding to the team next year.
But Stewart's on-track part fell apart in early August when he suffered the broken leg in a short track race in Iowa. The season-ending injury not only took Stewart from the car, but it likely put him in a rough place with some sponsors as the team expands to four cars in 2014. The best news, of course, was that Stewart will at least return to racing.