Where Each Driver Who's out of Contention Went Wrong in 2013 NASCAR Chase

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistNovember 6, 2013

Where Each Driver Who's out of Contention Went Wrong in 2013 NASCAR Chase

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    If you're a fan of the 11 drivers that are no longer in contention for this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, I'm sure you've asked yourself one very simple yet poignant question already:

    "What the heck happened to my driver in the Chase this year?"

    Indeed, even without defending champion Brad Keselowski who failed to qualify or three-time champ Tony Stewart who's injured on the field, this year's Chase was one of the strongest in terms of overall talent in its 10-year existence.

    Then how did so many drivers go so wrong and so fast? Here we are, with still two races to go, and it's down to a two-driver battle between Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth.

    Was it one race that did your driver in?

    Did he simply just get off to a bad start and could never rally back?

    Or were there other reasons why your driver came up short in his title bid?

    Let's look at those 11 drivers and find out.

Kevin Harvick

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    Kevin Harvick was bound and determined to not only earn his first Sprint Cup championship in 2013, but to also leave Richard Childress Racing on top.

    Unfortunately, Harvick, who moves to Stewart-Haas Racing next season, won't be able to do the former, nor will he present Childress with his first Cup championship since the late Dale Earnhardt did so nearly 20 years ago in 1994.

    It didn't help that Harvick publicly blasted and lambasted Childress' grandchildren, Austin and Ty Dillon, who are likely the future at RCR, two weeks ago at Martinsville, making Harvick look real bad in turn.

    Austin will in effect replace Harvick next season on the Cup series, joined by holdover Paul Menard and recent addition Ryan Newman.

    As for Harvick, coming so close but falling short may be great motivation at his new home next season.

    But he'll also have a couple of teammates in Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch who will also have great motivation to do better in 2014, as well. It's been a great run for Harvick at RCR.

    He took over after the death of the legendary Earnhardt and represented himself and RCR well most of the 13 seasons they were together.

    We wish him the best at his new home and for the next chapter of his career.

Kyle Busch

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    What happened to Kyle Busch?

    This was supposed to be one of his best chances to win his first Sprint Cup championship.

    Unfortunately, just like has done in pretty much every other Chase he's been in, the younger Busch brother faded, if not folded.

    He was in it until Texas this past Sunday, but it's over now and time to move forward into 2014.

    Granted, Busch has had some issues—many brought on by himself—in the last few years, but this was a season where he seemed like he finally had put everything together, only to be upstaged by new Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth.

    So much for 2013 being Busch's year.

    It makes you wonder if 2014 will be much better.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a decent season in 2013, even if he didn't win a race (yes, there are still two races left for him to change that). He just didn't seem to have enough to mount a true challenge to Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth for the Chase title.

    At the same time, Earnhardt, who turned 39 last month, is running out of years and seasons to win his first-ever Sprint Cup championship.

    That's a sad reality, but there is optimism at the same time.

    Earnhardt made the Chase for the third straight season for only the first time in his career.

    He continued a string of consistency that stretched back to last season, became even closer with crew chief Steve Letarte and showed some critics that he may not be as bad of a driver as they might believe.

    Unfortunately, NASCAR is a sport of results—both wins and championships—and Earnhardt won neither yet again in 2013.

Jeff Gordon

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    So close, yet so far.

    That pretty much is the story of Jeff Gordon's hopes for a fifth career Sprint Cup title.

    Gordon looked ready to give Johnson and Kenseth a run for their money after winning at Martinsville nearly two weeks ago.

    He then came into Texas this past Sunday with a full head of steam and momentum, only to crash into the wall under mysterious circumstances. Was it indeed a tire or not that caused his misfortune?

    Gordon went from 26 points back to 69 points—a drop of 42 points in one race, which has to be some kind of Chase record (or if it's not, it should be).

    Don't forget that Gordon originally didn't qualify for the Chase, but based upon NASCAR Chairman Brian France's purview, this year's field was expanded for the first time in its history to 13, in light of the shenanigans of Michael Waltrip Racing in the last pre-Chase race at Richmond in early September.

    Gordon had it all going in the right direction until Texas.

    Unfortunately, he'll now wind up his 12th straight season since his last Cup championship (2001).

    It has to make a Gordon fan wonder: Given how close he was this year, will he ever be able to get this close again?

Clint Bowyer

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    Even though he finished second in last year's championship battle to Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer never had a chance in this year's Chase.

    It wasn't so much about performance, but rather the whole fiasco in the final regular season race at Richmond in September before the start of the 10-race Chase.

    When Michael Waltrip Racing was caught intentionally trying to manipulate the outcome of the race to assure Martin Truex Jr. would make the Chase (he ultimately didn't, and MWR was handed a slew of record penalties as a result of their underhanded ways), Bowyer's script was pretty much written before it even began.

    How would you like to be the driver who has the eyes of every NASCAR official on you—not to mention every fan, reporter and sponsor's representative—for every single second of every Chase race, just to make sure you don't step out of line?

    What about the lingering whispers that Bowyer intentionally spun late in the Richmond race to further aid Truex (a fact Bowyer still denies to this day)?

    It was announced last week that Truex will replace Busch at Furniture Row Racing next season when Busch moves to Stewart-Haas Racing.

    If you were Bowyer, how would you feel knowing that because of your organization's dirty pool ways, it cost your teammate (Truex) his sponsor and ultimately his ride at MWR?

    Bowyer's Chase was over before it began.

    Perhaps the biggest question of all is whether or not he'll ever be able to completely recover from all the criticism and cynicism and wind up with another season like he had in 2012?

Greg Biffle

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    What happened to The Biff?

    Even though he left the Chase opener at Chicago in 10th place, Greg Biffle quickly rebounded the following week to fifth at Loudon.

    Unfortunately, he's slowly dropped to his present location of eighth place since.

    As a result, Biffle's hopes for his first Cup championship wound up like all the others, and he has to wait until next year.

    Biffle is the only driver in NASCAR history to win Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series championships. It's no wonder he wants to be the only guy to add a Cup crown to that mark, as well.

    It very well may be time for Biffle to start thinking about moving to another team if he's ever going to mount a serious run for the championship because he just doesn't seem to have it at Roush Fenway Racing.

    Perhaps Biffle will eventually take a page from former teammate Matt Kenseth, who left RFR after last season and has enjoyed his most successful season in the Cup series with his new team, Joe Gibbs Racing.

Joey Logano

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    Joey Logano finished with a flourish in the last four races of the regular season to make the Chase with a full head of steam, but that steam quickly faded as Logano couldn't come close to expectations that he could pick up where Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski left off at the end of last season: as champion.

    Logano had a good season nonetheless.

    He made the Chase for the first time in his career, was the only Chase representative for Penske Racing and won one race.

    Logano fans will hopefully take consolation that with all the lessons their driver learned in his first year with the Penske organization, he'll come back stronger than he ever has been in 2014.

Kurt Busch

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    What a storyline it would have been if Kurt Busch had taken the single-car Furniture Row Racing operation to the championship in his final season with the organization.

    For the first few Chase races, Busch looked bound and determined to do just that.

    As each week wore on, however, he suffered one round of bad luck after another, to the point where he was all but out of it by Martinsville.

    The elder Busch brother moves on to Stewart-Haas Racing next season and should likely thrive with better resources, three teammates (Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick) and knowing he's finally gotten back to the top tier of Sprint Cup racing after two seasons of near-obscurity at times, first with Phoenix Racing and then FRR.

    Yes, it would have been a Cinderella-like story if Busch had somehow managed to pull off his second Cup and Chase crown this year, but it just wasn't meant to be.

Carl Edwards

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    Who is that man behind the wheel of the No. 99 Ford, and what has he done with Carl Edwards?

    Surely, Edwards has been replaced by an imposter.

    How else would you explain how a driver that was considered to be among the top Chase contenders has pretty much been stuck in neutral since the Chase opener at Chicago in mid-September?

    To think, Edwards is just two seasons removed from his best season ever, when he tied Tony Stewart for the championship—only to lose the crown on the first tie-breaker (five wins for Stewart to Edwards' one).

    Of course, at least Edwards made the Chase this year, which he failed to do in his horrible follow-up to 2011 in 2012.

    Like teammate Biffle and former teammate Kenseth, Edwards might want to start thinking about moving elsewhere if he falls short of a title over the next two or three seasons.

Ryan Newman

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    Ryan Newman gave it a valiant try early on, but it was also clear pretty quickly that this just was not going to be his season.

    Let's face it, what motivation did he have in the Chase when he was told before it started that he would not be returning to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014?

    Let's not forget the bittersweet feeling that Newman was told he wouldn't be coming back next season due to lack of sponsorship, only to subsequently find out enough dollars were found by team co-owner Gene Haas to hire Newman's former Penske Racing teammate, Kurt Busch, for next season, effectively replacing Newman.

    Let's also keep in mind that the team's other co-owner, Tony Stewart, was seriously hurt in a sprint car wreck, ending his season and his hopes for a fourth Cup championship.

    All of a sudden, Newman became SHR's lone Chase representative by default, and the organization's hopes rose and fell with him. For a guy who was soon going to be out of a job, did he really want that kind of pressure on his shoulders?

    Let's also not forget that he originally didn't make the Chase until NASCAR disqualified Truex and replaced him with Newman and Gordon, expanding the Chase field from 12 to 13 drivers.

    With only Danica Patrick as his teammate—and really, how often did we hear about the two of them working together on the racetrack this season—Newman essentially wound up being an island unto himself in this year's Chase.

    Although it brings a sad closure to his tenure at SHR, Newman will likely have a better—and happier—season in 2014 as he moves to Richard Childress Racing.

Kasey Kahne

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    Wait, Kasey Kahne actually made the Chase this season?

    You could have fooled me, given the fact he's been mired at the bottom of the 13-driver standings for so long.

    When Kahne moved to Hendrick Motorsports last season, he instantly showed what his vast talent, coupled with resources he's never had, could do together.

    Kahne finished fourth in the championship battle in 2012 and appeared headed to an even greater year in 2013.

    He did well at the outset with two wins and made the Chase, but once the last 10 races kicked off, it's almost as if Kahne forgot how to drive a race car.

    Hopefully, 2014 will be better for Kahne because things couldn't get much worse than they have in the 2013 Chase.

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