The Hottest Storylines in NASCAR Coming out of the 2013 Season
Well, folks, we've made it to the end of another great season of NASCAR, and once again, we weren't disappointed. That is, unless you're not a Jimmie Johnson or Austin Dillon fan.
Throughout the year, we've shared some highs and lows, many of which could have a profound effect on the 2014 season. We're saying goodbye to some childhood heroes while welcoming a new bunch of rookies that would look more at home on the Disney Channel.
Let's take a look at that and other stories that made 2013 memorable.
Safety was once again a major issue this season, as it is every season. However, several incidents this season raised questions regarding to driver safety and spurned officials into action for safety at the race track.
In February, Kyle Larson's spectacular crash at Daytona made national headlines as fragments from his disintegrated Chevy rained onto the spectators after his car was sent sailing into the catch fence on the last lap. Several fans were injured in the accident, prompting officials to reinforce the catch fence protecting the fans and moving the steel crossover gate further away from the fans.
The next month, Denny Hamlin suffered a massive L1 compression fracture when he crashed at Fontana on the last lap, hitting a portion of the retaining wall that was unprotected by a SAFER barrier. In October, the Auto Club Speedway completed installation of a 1,000-foot SAFER barrier in the very location that Hamlin hit the wall.
In May, 10 fans were injured when a nylon rope from an overhead camera snapped and fell into the crowd. None of the injuries were life-threatening, and the rope also damaged several cars, including the Toyota of then-race leader Kyle Busch, who later blew an engine. NASCAR would go on and ban use of the camera at future events.
In August, three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart was forced to sit out the rest of the season after breaking his leg in a Sprint Car crash in Oskaloosa, Iowa. The No. 14 Stewart-Haas machine underwent several substitute drivers before ending the season with Mark Martin. Stewart is eyeing a 2014 return.
With the exception of Stewart's accident, as such accidents are to happen in racing, the proper approaches have been made to ensure similar incidents won't happen again. In 2014, we will see where else the safety argument takes us, and let's hope that 2014 is a safe year.
Can a Relationship in Racing Work? Yes, Apparently It Can
One of the biggest headlines this season was the announcement that fellow Sprint Cup rookies Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick were in a relationship off the track. Patrick, who has been racing's media darling since her rookie season in IndyCar in 2005, went public with their relationship prior to the beginning of the 2013 Sprint Cup season.
They were involved in a few scrapes during the course of the season, such as when Stenhouse wrecked Patrick in the Coca-Cola 600, and when Patrick wrecked Stenhouse at Loudon in July. However, at season's end, the two are still going strong as Patrick stated that there was "little banter" over their duel for the Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year battle, which Stenhouse ultimately won.
A Changing of the Guard
Come 2014, we'll be seeing one of the most relevant rookie classes in recent memory as a pair of established young Nationwide stars will be gracing the Sprint Cup Series full time. 2013 Nationwide Series champion Austin Dillon will be moving up to the Sprint Cup in the prolific No. 3 Chevy owned by Richard Childress, while Drive for Diversity graduate Kyle Larson will be taking the reins of the No. 42 Earnhardt-Ganassi Chevy.
Meanwhile, we'll have to get used to not seeing some of the most familiar names in Cup racing in the last 20-plus years, as names like Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte won't be racing full time in the Sprint Cup Series next year, and drivers Ken Schrader and Mark Martin have confirmed that they won't be racing a Sprint Cup car after the 2013 season.
Still, as with all things, it's just a matter of evolution. The face of NASCAR continues to evolve, and we'll continue to see proven champions in the making in the years to come.
Same Stars, Different Cars
A lot of stars will still be sticking around in 2014, however. Former Richard Childress Racing staple Kevin Harvick will be moving to Stewart-Haas Racing to drive the No. 4 Chevy for good friend Tony Stewart, while 2004 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch will be moving from the No. 78 at Furniture Row Racing to the No. 41 at Stewart-Haas.
Meanwhile, with the departure of Jeff Burton from the No. 31 at Richard Childress Racing, former Stewart-Haas driver Ryan Newman will be taking over the No. 31, bringing sponsor Quicken Loans with him. Martin Truex Jr., who was left without a ride for 2014 after his ride at Michael Waltrip Racing was shuttered, found a home at Furniture Row Racing in the No. 78.
Other changes include Nationwide driver Michael Annett, who will be making his Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year bid in the No. 7 Chevy formerly driven by Dave Blaney, while former Phil Parsons Racing Driver Michael McDowell will be heading over to the No. 95 at Leavine Family Racing.
It is safe to say that we are witnessing history being written as Jimmie Johnson continues his reign as NASCAR's newest king. Sunday, we saw him clinch his sixth Sprint Cup championship, bringing him one step closer to tying Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty—and only two away from having the most championships in NASCAR history.
Can he do it? There's no reason to believe he can't.
He's only 38, which is still young by Sprint Cup standards. Petty and Earnhardt both managed to win their sixth and seventh championships when they were well into their 40s. Many detractors speculate that if Johnson can clinch his seventh title that it wouldn't be as meaningful as Earnhardt's and Petty's seventh titles.
However, with the competition level being as it is today, it may be even more meaningful, as Johnson's crew continues to evolve with the changes that keep being thrown its way. The Chad Knaus-led No. 48 has proved to be the most adept when it comes to change, and it seems as if every Chase that comes along, they're usually the biggest threats for the championship.
Can Johnson win the 2014 championship? Count on it.
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