Ranking the 10 Biggest Surprises from the 2013 NASCAR Season
Every NASCAR season has its obvious occurrences. Jimmie Johnson winning races and competing for the series championship is never breaking news. Nor does it shock anyone when Tony Stewart scores at least one victory in a season, as that is something he has done every year of his career.
But once in a while, in between all of the normal run-of-the-mill stories, something happens in the NASCAR world that was totally unexpected and out of the blue.
Those surprising moments are the ones that have us talking long after the fact and keep us continuously tuned in to see what will happen next.
Whether it is a first-time winner, a controversy or a driver predicted to do big things who does not live up to expectations, every year has its surprises, and 2013 was no exception.
In the slides ahead, I will count down the 10 most surprising events from the recently completed 2013 NASCAR season. Whatever the reason, these were the moments that had us shaking our heads in disbelief, and wondering if what we just witnessed really happened or not.
10. Matt Kenseth Has a Huge Year
No one will ever doubt Matt Kenseth's talent or his ability to win. It was just a big surprise to see him have as much success as he did in his first year driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.
After spending his entire career driving for Jack Roush, Kenseth moved to JGR at the beginning of the season. Not only was he switching teams, but he also switched manufacturers, moving from Ford to Toyota.
It was wondered how quickly he would make the transition. He answered those questions emphatically when he scored a win in just his third start with the team.
Kenseth went on to win a total of seven races in 2013, a new career high for one season. He also either tied or set new personal bests in poles as well as laps led.
Kenseth started the Chase as the top seed by virtue of his series-leading five regular-season wins. He maintained a spot in the top two of the championship standings throughout the duration of the postseason, ultimately finishing second.
9. Brian Vickers Wins One for the Part-Timers
In just his 13th start for Michael Waltrip Racing, driving on a part-time basis, Brian Vickers earned the third win of his career at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July.
While running a full-time season in the Nationwide Series for Joe Gibbs Racing, Vickers was once again going to share the No. 55 Sprint Cup Series car with Mark Martin in 2013. The original plan called for Vickers to pilot the automobile in the 12 races that Martin elected to skip.
One of those events was in Loudon, where Vickers scored an improbable victory. He inherited the lead when Tony Stewart had to pit for fuel with less than 20 laps to go. The question then became whether Vickers would have enough gas to make it to the finish.
There was just enough fuel to make it to the end of the race and score a win for a driver who had not won since 2009 and had run only one full-time season in the last four years.
Vickers' New Hampshire win earned him a full-time ride for Michael Waltrip Racing beginning in 2014.
8. Denny Hamlin Struggles
Denny Hamlin was the winner of the final race of the 2013 Sprint Cup season, but even still, there is probably no driver happier to see the year come to a close than him.
Calling 2013 a struggle for Hamlin would be the understatement of the year.
The season started out looking like Hamlin would be a championship contender as expected. Through four races, he was sixth in points, and in the fifth race of the year, in Fontana, he was one lap away from winning his first event.
With the checkered flag in sight, Hamlin's season took a turn from which he was never able to rebound. After contact with Joey Logano (more on that later), Hamlin crashed hard into the inside wall and suffered a back injury.
The accident caused him to miss four races.
Upon his return to the car, Hamlin struggled throughout the year. He finished the season with just eight top-10 finishes and only four top-fives. Both were career lows.
The saving grace for Hamlin was that his win at Homestead allowed him to continue a streak that is now at eight years, winning at least one race per season.
7. Danica Patrick Wins Daytona 500 Pole
The 2013 season started off in historic fashion. With a lap of 196.434 miles per hour, Danica Patrick became the first woman ever to win a pole in any of NASCAR's top three series. Most impressively, she did it in the sport's biggest race, the Daytona 500.
Patrick was one of the fastest cars through all of the practices leading up to the time trials and backed it up with one of the most talked about qualifying sessions in recent memory.
Winning the pole was just the start of a great week for Patrick. During the race, she became the first female driver ever to lead a green-flag lap in Sprint Cup competition when she took the lead for the first time on Lap 90.
Patrick was running inside the top five as the field took the white flag. She ended up getting shuffled out of line as the field was coming toward the checkers, and she had to settle for an eighth-place finish.
The Daytona 500 would end up being her only top 10 of the year.
6. Tony Stewart Misses a Race
One day after finishing ninth at Pocono Raceway in early August, Tony Stewart was involved in a sprint car crash that ended his NASCAR season.
On August 5, Stewart was leading a 30-lap feature race at an Iowa speedway when a lapped car in front of him spun out. Stewart slammed into the spinning car, and his automobile became airborne.
When the dust settled, Stewart had to be helped from the car and taken to a hospital in an ambulance. The result was a broken tibia and fibula in his right leg.
The injury caused Stewart to miss the remainder of the year, as it required multiple surgeries. Max Papis, Austin Dillon and Mark Martin all filled in for Stewart in the No. 14 car.
When Stewart missed the Sprint Cup Series race at Watkins Glen, it snapped his streak of 521 consecutive starts. It was the first time since the season's final race in 1998 that Stewart did not take the green flag.
5. Joey Logano Becomes One of the Sports' Bad Boys
When the Sprint Cup Series made its lone visit of the year to Auto Club Speedway in March, Kyle Busch ended the day in Victory Lane, but it was Joey Logano who was making all the headlines.
One week earlier, Logano and Denny Hamlin were involved in an on-track altercation at Bristol. The result saw Hamlin get into the back of Logano's car and spin him out.
The following week in Fontana, the two drivers were at it again. As the white flag waved, Hamlin and Logano were side-by-side racing for the win. The two drivers made contact with both drivers slamming into the wall.
Logano hit the outside wall but continued on, finishing in third place. Hamlin, meanwhile, crashed violently into the inside wall and suffered a back injury that forced him to miss four races.
If the contact with Hamlin was not controversial enough, following the race, Logano and Tony Stewart engaged in a shoving match because Stewart was upset with how Logano raced him on a late-race restart.
Between his incident with Hamlin and the subsequent brawl with Stewart, Logano instantly transformed from one of the sport's good guys into one of its bad guys.
It was a heel turn that would have made the folks in WWE proud.
4. Jeff Gordon Becomes the 13th Chase Participant
No race during the 2013 season was more controversial than the regular-season finale at Richmond. By now, everyone is familiar with the story and how it played out.
Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. were each docked 50 points for attempting to manipulate the outcome of the race. The penalty had no impact on Bowyer's playoff prospects, but Truex's loss of points caused him to fall out of a Chase position and allowed Ryan Newman to take the final spot.
While that was a minor surprise in itself, what happened later in the week was an even bigger one.
NASCAR ruled that Jeff Gordon was also unfairly affected by Michael Waltrip Racing's attempts to manipulate the race, and he should be included in the Chase.
The decision to allow Gordon into the postseason marked the first time that more than 12 drivers would compete in the Chase.
While the decision to give Gordon a spot in the Chase seemed like a fair one, the biggest surprise was the timing of the announcement. His inclusion into the postseason came just hours before the cars were on the track for the first practice of the playoffs.
3. David Slays Goliath
Restrictor-plate tracks are known for producing surprise winners. The spring race at Talladega was no exception.
In one of the biggest upsets the sport has ever seen, David Ragan earned the win thanks to his last-lap pass of Carl Edwards.
The win was only the second of Ragan's career with his first occurring at Daytona, also a restrictor-plate track. Making it all the more improbable, the victory was the first in team history for Front Row Motorsports, one of the sports' many underfunded teams.
After starting the race's green-white-checkered finish in 10th place, Ragan worked his way to the front of the pack while his teammate David Gilliland pushed him. The duo wasted no time getting to the back bumper of second-place runner Matt Kenseth.
With a strong head of steam, Ragan dove to the bottom of the track and got underneath Edwards for the lead. As the field stormed to the checkered flag, Ragan defended both lines and scored the upset victory while Gilliland finished second, making it a 1-2 finish for Front Row.
2. Brad Keselowski Misses the Chase
Brad Keselowski made unwanted history in 2013. He joined Tony Stewart as the only drivers ever to miss the Chase the season after winning the championship.
The year started off with plenty of reason to think that Keselowski would contend for the title once again. He posted top-five finishes in each of the first four races of the season and had seven top-10s through eight races.
Following the eighth race of the year, Keselowski was third in the standings. Then it all fell apart.
Over the final 18 races of the regular season, Keselowski scored just four top-10 finishes while posting six finishes of 30th or worse. He left Richmond in 15th place in the standings and out of the Chase for the first time in three years.
Keselowski did manage to get things turned around in the Chase, however. In the final 10 races of the year, he earned his lone victory of the season and finished 11th or better in seven events.
Keselowski finished 14th in the standings, the highest finishing non-Chase driver.
1. Kurt Busch Turns Furniture Row Racing into a Contender
The 2013 season was a breakout year for Furniture Row Racing, and maybe more importantly for its driver Kurt Busch, it was the season he needed to get his career back on track.
Thanks in large part to Busch, Furniture Row Racing became the first single-car team ever to qualify for the Chase. The team ended the year 10th in the owner's standings. That is 14 positions higher than it had ever been.
The rest of the statistics this team accumulated were just as impressive.
Busch ended the season with 16 top-10 finishes. Prior to this year, the team had only amassed 11 top-10s in its eight-year history. Before 2013, Furniture Row cars had led a combined total of 48 laps in the team's existence. Busch led 448 laps this season.
The only thing missing for this team from the 2013 season was a win. It finished fifth or better 11 times, and if not for a bad final pit stop, it looked as if it was the car to beat at the All-Star Race.
For some teams, going winless and finishing 10th in the standings may be considered an off year. For a single-car operation based on the western side of the country, it was nothing less than a dream season, and easily the biggest surprise that we saw all year.