Biggest Winners and Losers of the 2013 NASCAR Season

Geoffrey Miller@@geoffreymillerContributor INovember 17, 2013

Biggest Winners and Losers of the 2013 NASCAR Season

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    The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season was good to some, and bad the others.
    The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season was good to some, and bad the others.Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    A fresh, new season always instills confidence in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams. It's a chance to undo prior bad tastes and to show off the capabilities of the drivers.

    Inevitably, that feeling of unbridled confidence and brimming potential doesn't stick for every competitor. Some take checkered flags. Some fire crew members. Some run up front easily. Some get caught in every crash.

    Find out which of the sport's key parts, teams and drivers finished 2013 on top—and which ones didn't.

Loser: NASCAR's Injured Drivers

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    Denny Hamlin spent five races on the NASCAR sidelines due to injury.
    Denny Hamlin spent five races on the NASCAR sidelines due to injury.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    NASCAR is a sport built on personalities, and two of the biggest names spent substantial time outside of the driver’s seat in 2013.

    First, it was Denny Hamlin. Hamlin was sidelined when a last-lap crash against an unprotected wall at Auto Club Speedway left him with a lower-back compression fracture. He missed five races and lost his chance to compete for the championship along the way.

    Then it was three-time series champion Tony Stewart who suffered a substantial leg injury in August that knocked him out of the sport for the rest of the season. Stewart had a compound fracture and endured three surgeries watching from home and in the pits while a Chase he was once qualified for rolled along.

Winner: Matt Kenseth

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    Matt Kenseth had a lot to celebrate in 2013.
    Matt Kenseth had a lot to celebrate in 2013.Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

    Matt Kenseth was incredibly apprehensive about his move away from the only Sprint Cup team he’s ever known to start 2013. By the end of the season, there’s little doubt that his jump to the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 proved to be the right move.

    Kenseth won a season-high seven times and became Jimmie Johnson’s toughest foe for the championship. He was ultimately derailed from the title race by a poor outing in the season’s penultimate race at Phoenix.

    Kenseth’s shot at a championship had lagged some in recent years with Roush-Fenway Racing. After 2013, it’s hard not to think he’ll win another one sometime soon.

Loser: Juan Pablo Montoya

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    Juan Pablo Montoya lost his full-time ride with EGR.
    Juan Pablo Montoya lost his full-time ride with EGR.Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    We long knew the grand experiment of Juan Pablo Montoya as a stock car driver had a finite period to generate success. 2013 proved to be the end of the road despite near-wins at Richmond and Dover in the first part of the season.

    Montoya’s subpar results—he won just twice in 253 starts and made just one Chase for the Sprint Cup—proved to be the ultimate reason why Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing decided to take another route with Kyle Larson in 2014. It’s a disappointing end and one not entirely Montoya’s fault thanks to the revolving door of crew chiefs atop the No. 42 box.

    For Montoya’s part, his 2009 Chase berth stands as the only entry ever from that team in the championship fight.

Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a career-best season by some statistical counts.
    Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a career-best season by some statistical counts.John Harrelson/Getty Images

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t win in 2013, and for many fans that’s enough to warrant the season yet another failure for NASCAR’s most popular driver. The stats say otherwise.

    Earnhardt set a new career-best for top-10 finishes in a season, and he had several chances this season to win races that were derailed by mechanical failures beyond his control. But Earnhardt’s Chase performance may have been his most impressive result in 2013.

    Aside from a blown engine in the Chase opener at Chicago, Earnhardt picked up five top-five finishes and eight top-10s. It was a performance good enough to keep him in the championship conversation—if only Chicago’s engine failure wouldn’t have happened.

Loser: Gen-6 Car

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    Single-file racing with tough passing conditions was all too common in 2013.
    Single-file racing with tough passing conditions was all too common in 2013.Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    The fanfare became almost unbearable ahead of the Daytona 500 surrounding NASCAR’s new car design. Nearly every official source touted the beauty of its design, its strong connection to consumer car models found on the street and an improved ability for drivers to race.

    NASCAR’s Gen-6 car, for all intents and purposes, was going to launch the sport to new heights.

    Instead, it was often a dud. The car seemed to exacerbate aerodynamic handling problems and handed a distinct advantage to the race leader in those situations. Passing was tough. Moving through the field was tougher.

    Changes are coming to the car in 2014, and for periods of 2013, fans could hardly wait.

Winner: Joey Logano

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    Joey Logano showed his talent during a move to Penske Racing.
    Joey Logano showed his talent during a move to Penske Racing.John Harrelson/Getty Images

    Joey Logano left Joe Gibbs Racing when the team decided signing Matt Kenseth was a better priority for the future, offering the young Logano little more than a full-time Nationwide Series contract.

    Logano, feeling disrespected, sought to drive somewhere else and found a happily willing home in Penske Racing. Logano became teammates with the 2012 series champion Brad Keselowski and showed his talent immediately with three top-five finishes in the first nine races.

    With a strong close to the summer, Logano used a win at Michigan International Speedway to buoy into his first career appearance in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Loser: NASCAR Credibility

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    NASCAR made some extraordinary decisions concerning the Chase field in September.
    NASCAR made some extraordinary decisions concerning the Chase field in September.Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    NASCAR ultimately did right by taking some sort of action after the ugly finish to the final regular-season race at Richmond International Raceway back in September. The actions of Michael Waltrip Racing had tainted the results and legitimacy of the Chase field.

    But the way NASCAR handled it—in two uneven actions—left a stain on the future credibility of the sport's officials.

    First, there were the penalties doled out to MWR that dropped Martin Truex Jr. from the Chase and allowed Ryan Newman back in. Then, nearly a week later, CEO Brian France unilaterally decided to allow Jeff Gordon in the Chase as an unprecedented 13th driver to make up for the MWR actions that had left him on the outside looking in.

    The decision itself was debatable and likely the best course of action. But the power of the sport's CEO to make such drastic competition decisions beyond the rulebook will leave a lot of questions about the sport's fairness going forward.

Winner: Kurt Busch

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    Kurt Busch made unprecedented progress with Furniture Row Racing in 2013.
    Kurt Busch made unprecedented progress with Furniture Row Racing in 2013.Ed Zurga/Getty Images

    The revamping of Kurt Busch’s NASCAR career started a year ago when he spent most of the season with the underfunded Phoenix Racing. He was trying to salvage his future in the sport from the ashes of a character meltdown that had severed ties with Penske Racing at the end of 2011.

    Busch moved to Furniture Row Racing late in 2012 and became an instant must-watch for much of 2013. While Busch never won with the team, he shot the team to heights that many would have never expected from the single-car operation. Busch made the Chase and, most importantly to him, earned a new ride in the top-tier Stewart-Haas Racing for 2014.

Loser: Martin Truex Jr.

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    Martin Truex Jr.'s future was thrown in a tailspin when he was excluded from the Chase.
    Martin Truex Jr.'s future was thrown in a tailspin when he was excluded from the Chase.Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Martin Truex Jr. finally got a win in 2013—at a road course, no less—and at the end of the regular-season finale at Richmond seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as he had qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

    Improper actions by his teammates, however, sunk that idea when NASCAR levied substantial penalties against Truex for being associated with the activities despite not having any in-race awareness of what had transpired. Truex was booted from the Chase.

    It got worse, too, when just a few weeks later his sponsor NAPA Auto Parts revealed it was severing ties with Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of the 2013 season. Truex was forced to switch teams and sign with Furniture Row Racing for 2014.

Winner: Jimmie Johnson

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    Jimmie Johnson scored his sixth career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
    Jimmie Johnson scored his sixth career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Before our very eyes, Jimmie Johnson is transforming into a legend of auto racing.

    The 38-year-old scored his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title in impressive form once again, winning twice during the Chase and holding all challengers at bay. He's without a doubt one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history and now begins his march to join Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only seven-time champions in the sport.

    Johnson's 2013 was remarkable. He scored six wins, averaged a finish of 10.7 and made it impossible for others with Chase dreams down the stretch to snatch the title away. What's more is that Johnson likely left at least five more wins on the table when he stumbled during races at Michigan, Dover, Kentucky, Indianapolis and Pocono in 2013.

    Johnson is in a class of his own, and his reign of championships has likely started anew.