Final 2013 Report Cards for NASCAR's Top Stars
Hard as it may seem to believe, given there are 43-car fields in each race, only 28 drivers competed in every Sprint Cup event this season.
On one hand, that's sad for the series, but at the same time, it makes it a bit easier for us to issue grades—and not necessarily have to assess the performance of every driver who sat in a Cup car this season.
As a result, we'll be grading 20 drivers—not necessarily the top 20, either—in this exercise.
Full-time series drivers we've chosen not to grade, mainly due to their lack of competitiveness or failure to finish higher in the overall standings, are Paul Menard, Aric Almirola, Jeff Burton, Juan Pablo Montoya (particularly since he has left NASCAR and will return to IndyCar racing in 2014), Marcos Ambrose, Casey Mears, David Gilliland, David Ragan, Travis Kvapil, J.J. Yeley and David Reutimann.
And we'll also be counting down from worst to best, as well.
So strap in your favorite chair, and let's see if you agree with our final grades of 2013.
Frankly, we're a bit disappointed in Danica Patrick's rookie season in the Sprint Cup series.
She started out great in the season-opening Daytona 500, showed incremental bits of progress during the first half of the season, but then seemingly hit a wall that she couldn't get through the rest of the season.
Given all the time she had behind the wheel, particularly with return visits to tracks for a second time in the second half of the season, Patrick should have finished much closer to the top 20 than closer to the top 30 (she finished 27th, to be precise).
If she doesn't pick things up next year, we have to wonder if she'll be around in 2015. Might she follow Juan Pablo Montoya back to IndyCar if she doesn't get this whole NASCAR thing figured out?
Granted, Denny Hamlin played hurt much of the season and missed several races due to an early-season wreck at California.
Even though Hamlin continued to insist he was fine, just looking at the pain that was oftentimes etched on his face made it crystal clear he was nowhere near 100 percent when he returned back behind the wheel.
If anything, Hamlin, who ultimately finished 23rd by season's end, should have taken much of the second half of the season off to get therapy and treatment on his back—including surgery, if needed—and come back stronger than ever in 2014.
He did no one—not his team, his fans nor himself—any favors by trying to compete at perhaps 75 percent, at best.
Tony Stewart became the poster boy for not doing anything that affects your day job. When he was seriously hurt in a sprint car race in midsummer, his Sprint Cup season ended abruptly.
It was the first time in Stewart's lengthy career that he not only sustained such debilitating injuries, but also that he was forced to miss so much time away from the Sprint Cup series.
On the one hand, Stewart was having a decent season up until his sprint car wreck. Who knows how far he could have gone in the Chase for the Sprint Cup?
Instead, he finished 29th, competing in just 21 races.
But now we have to wonder how completely recovered he'll be when he returns to the Cup series at Daytona in February.
Hopefully, he'll be the old Tony, rather than a newer, more cautious Tony.
Grade: Incomplete (Although we'd likely give him a B for what he did in the 21 races prior to his sprint car wreck.)
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., otherwise known at times as Danica Patrick's boyfriend, had a decent rookie season on the Sprint Cup series.
But given that he won the previous two Nationwide Series championships, honestly, we expected him to have a better campaign in his first full Cup season—at least top 15.
Instead, Stenhouse finished 19th, but he did have some consolation by winning Rookie of the Year honors.
He showed some good things at times, but also made typical rookie mistakes. Look for a stronger sophomore season in 2014.
Martin Truex Jr.
We can't help but feel sorry for and wonder what kind of season Martin Truex Jr. would really have had if it had not been for the cheating scandal his team was accused of at Richmond in early September.
Trying to manipulate the system to assure Truex was in the Chase cost Michael Waltrip Racing a hefty $300,000 fine and the suspension of team vice president Ty Norris.
But that was nothing compared to the ultimate loss that MWR suffered: Longtime sponsor NAPA pulled its support permanently, Truex was disqualified from the Chase and then as if to add insult to injury, with NAPA gone, MWR had no money to bring Truex back in 2014.
Instead, he'll wind up replacing Kurt Busch at Furniture Row Racing next season. In a way, that will be a good thing for Truex, as he'll have a fresh start and hopefully won't be dogged by the cheating scandal, particularly since it wasn't his fault.
Grade: B (Based upon if he had made the Chase.)
It was yet another average season for Jamie McMurray, who finished 15th in the final standings.
He won a race, had a disappointingly small four top-five and nine top-10 finishes and ultimately missed the Chase.
While McMurray seemed to work well with teammate Juan Pablo Montoya the last several years, neither driver really stood out performance-wise.
With Sprint Cup rookie Kyle Larson replacing Montoya and pairing up with McMurray in 2014, something tells us it will help reinvigorate Jamie Mac.
Grade: C-plus (But only because of the win; otherwise, he would have been lucky to get a C.)
It's always sad to see a driver win the championship one season and then miss the Chase the next season.
Tony Stewart won in 2005, only to miss the Chase in 2006. Carl Edwards tied for the championship in 2011 (lost on a tiebreaker), only to miss the Chase in 2012.
Brad Keselowski added himself to that list in 2013. He won the championship in 2013, but late struggles leading up to the Chase forced him to miss the playoffs, certainly not the kind of way he wanted to defend his championship.
Keselowski, who finished 14th this season, should rebound nicely in 2014. After winning five races last season, he managed just one victory—and it was late in the season, on top of it—in 2013. He's better than that.
The good news is Carl Edwards bounced back to make the Chase after failing to do so in 2012—and that was after he almost won the championship in 2011, losing in a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart.
Edwards won two races this past season but had a terrible Chase, ultimately winding up last—13th—in the expanded driver field.
Veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig will return next season; let's hope the Edwards we saw in 2011 also returns.
Grade: C-minus (Mainly for finishing last in the Chase.)
To us, Kasey Kahne was the biggest disappointment of the season.
After having a strong run in 2012 and finishing a career-best fourth in the standings, Kahne appeared completely lost in this year's Chase, ultimately ending up 12th.
From the opening race of the Chase in Chicago, Kahne fell far and fast, to the point where he was off the Chase map and radar by midway through the 10-race playoff.
Hopes were so high coming into the year that he would be able to build upon what he did in 2012 and potentially earn his first Cup crown in 2013.
Instead, he went in the exact opposite direction.
Grade: D-plus (for failure to live up to expectations and particularly for the horrible Chase he had)
When you're told four months early (in mid-July) that you're losing your job at season's end, supposedly due to lack of sponsorship, you can be excused if the rest of your season is less than stellar and your confidence slips.
But that wasn't the case with Ryan Newman. He kept swinging and competing, even though he knew he would be leaving Stewart-Haas Racing—and not of his own accord—at season's end.
In an ironic twist, Newman became SHR's only hope in the Chase when team co-owner Tony Stewart was seriously hurt in a sprint car race, being forced to miss the last 15 races of the season and leaving Newman as SHR's lone Chase representative.
Yes, he finished 11th at season's end, but Newman has nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. He fought a good fight, was pushed aside for another driver (Kurt Busch) and will start a new chapter in 2014 with Richard Childress Racing.
Grade: B-minus (because he was SHR's only Chase hope, he took his ultimate release with grace and professionalism and never gave up when he could very easily have done so)
As the only driver in a one-car team for Furniture Row Racing, Kurt Busch did a tremendous job in 2013. He became the first driver in Chase history to qualify for the playoffs—and solidly, I might add—from a one-car team.
Busch was very racy and competitive through the first half of the Chase, but bad luck eventually caused him to drop in the standings, eventually finishing 10th (in a season he probably would have finished closer to the top five had things gone better in the last five races).
Busch's tenure with Furniture Row Racing is over; he moves to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
Busch has nothing to be ashamed of in the way he finished in 2013. He did a great job with limited resources, no teammates to lean upon and a great pit crew that didn't get nearly the amount of credit or respect it deserves.
Grade: B (He definitely earned it.)
We're a bit disappointed with Greg Biffle.
We thought for sure he would have finished higher in the Chase than where he ultimately wound up: ninth place.
Had he not struggled in the middle part of the Chase, Biffle would likely have finished closer to the top five than the top 10.
Here's hoping he bounces back in 2014. We're still waiting for him to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win championships in all three major series. He already has crowns in the Trucks and Nationwide Series. All that's left is the one that's been the hardest for him to get: the Cup championship.
Grade: B-minus (would have been higher had he finished higher in the final standings)
Joey Logano enjoyed his best season to date in the Sprint Cup series.
Even though he ultimately finished eighth in the Chase and the final season standings, Logano was impressive at times, which bodes well for the future.
He started the Chase off fairly well but dropped like a rock afterward and was really pretty much off the radar by the time the final four races rolled around. Still, to finish near the middle of the Chase pack is pretty darned good.
Given that he never made the Chase in his previous four seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing, the move to Penske Racing in 2013 certainly seems to have been good for Logano—and promises even better things to come in upcoming seasons.
This was one of the worst seasons ever for Clint Bowyer both on and off the race track.
Although never convicted, so to speak, for his alleged involvement in the Michael Waltrip Racing race-finish manipulation scandal at Richmond in early September, Bowyer's goose was essentially cooked from that point on.
Frankly, we're a bit surprised he finished as high as he did in the Chase standings (seventh) with all the pressure and suspicion that revolved around him.
It will be a long time before Bowyer is able to live down all that happened at Richmond and the resulting fallout. But the best way to do that is to win more races and hope that they soon forget about what happened in 2013.
Grade: C-minus (due to the scandal; otherwise, he would have likely earned a B-minus if everything had been fair and square)
If there was one to hand out, Jeff Gordon deserves the hardest luck of the Chase award.
He was cruising back up the standings and was only 27 points out of first place heading into Texas—the third from the last race of the Chase—only to suffer one of the worst finishes in Chase history.
Gordon plummeted 42 points in the standings, from 27 to 69 back, and his Chase goose was ultimately cooked from that point on.
It's sad because we really thought Gordon finally had a legitimate chance to contend for his fifth Cup championship, and the first since his last crown in 2001.
Instead, teammate Jimmie Johnson won the championship and Gordon had to settle for sixth, a finish he did not deserve given all the hard work he and his team did both heading into and then during the Chase.
Sure, he was a last-minute addition to the Chase in response to the Michael Waltrip Racing scandal, but Gordon showed he definitely belonged in the Chase. If he could only have taken back his performance at Texas, we potentially could have been talking about a whole different champion right now.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the Chase for the third consecutive year, the first time he's ever done that in his Sprint Cup career.
And while he failed to win a race, extending a winless streak that now dates back to June 2012, Earnhardt should be proud of his fifth-place finish in 2013.
He showed great consistency, patience and continued increased maturity, a trait that he has shown for much of the last three seasons.
There even was a point in the Chase early on that Junior even appeared to be a potential championship contender. And while he eventually faded, this was by far one of the best years he's ever had in his Cup career.
It bodes will for hopes of an even better finish in 2014.
Kyle Busch continued to display the talent of a champion, but once again still wound up falling short in his bid to earn his first Sprint Cup title.
At the same time, Busch was nothing but all-business in 2013. He didn't let distractions affect him, nor did he cause distractions of his own fault as in past seasons.
He did yeoman's work behind the wheel and had several races where he could have settled for a more mediocre finish but kept battling and digging at the end to wind up with a significantly (at times) much better finish.
Like Busch, we're eager to see that season when he finally is able to put it all together and claim his first Sprint Cup championship.
There's an old saying that the first championship is always the hardest. In Busch's case, if and when he wins No. 1, we have a hunch he'll win a lot more going forward from that point.
In his swan-song season with Richard Childress Racing, Harvick gave it all he had. He never quit, never stopped, never felt sorry for himself and never gave up hope that he might still be able to steal the championship away from Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson.
Harvick moves on to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, teaming up with Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick.
We're not sure if that will help or hurt his career, as he had spent much of his time at RCR as its No. 1 driver; how he'll fit in with the other three at SHR now is debatable.
Will he be No. 2 behind Stewart? Or will ranking within the team structure even matter as long as he produces?
Harvick was in the championship battle all the way until the final laps at Homestead, and for that he's to be commended. While many fans and media focused almost exclusively on Kenseth and Johnson in the closing races of the Chase, they did a disservice for all the effort and hard work Harvick put in for his eventual third-place finish.
What more can be said about Matt Kenseth's first season at Joe Gibbs Racing that hasn't already been said?
He had the greatest season of his career, bar none, even better than when he won the last Winston Cup crown in 2003.
Moving to JGR after more than a decade at Roush Fenway Racing proved to be the right tonic to help reinvigorate and jump-start Kenseth's Cup career.
And with the way he stayed with Johnson in the Chase, it's sad that his poor showing at Phoenix ultimately cost him the crown.
Will 2013 be a one-time wonder for Kenseth? We don't think so. Having come so close and finishing so close as well, we expect him to be even more dominant in 2014 and ultimately finish up the job he came so close to doing in 2013: that of champion.
While Jimmie Johnson is no stranger to championships, having won a record five-straight from 2006 through 2010, what he did in 2013 could very well have been his most commanding performance to date.
Johnson won his sixth championship in eight seasons this year and did it with aplomb, leading the points standings for more than two-thirds of the season.
In addition, he maintained incredible consistency throughout the Chase that led to him now being just one championship short of tying NASCAR legends Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for most career championships by a driver: seven titles each.
In a sense, Johnson made a very hard task look almost easy and relatively effortless this season. Starting with his win in the season-opening Daytona 500, he showed yet again why he and crew chief Chad Knaus are unquestionably the best in the business.
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