Here’s our take on the best and biggest moments in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series in 2013:
Driver of the year
Jimmie Johnson led the standings after all but three of the first 26 races, then won twice during the Chase for the Sprint Cup and bested Matt Kenseth by 19 points to win his sixth series championship. He is the only driver to qualify for all 10 Chases.
Runner-up driver of the year
Kenseth came up short in the title hunt, but his move to Joe Gibbs Racing was a resounding success. He won a career-best seven races, including the first two of the Chase.
Team of the year
Hendrick Motorsports again qualified all four of its drivers – Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne – for the Chase. Johnson produced the organization’s 11th Cup title and won six races. Kahne won twice. Gordon remained the series’ active win leader with his 88th victory Oct. 27 at Martinsville, Va.
Race of the year
Kyle Busch was the benefactor of an all-or-nothing beating and banging on the final lap between Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin for the March 24 win at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. As Logano and Hamlin traded paint for the win – a battle that caused both to wreck – Busch came on the outside to steal the victory. Hamlin ended up with a broken vertebra in his back and was forced to sit out four races.
Worst race of the year
The Sept. 7 race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway actually was very entertaining, with several twists and turns that left the Chase lineup uncertain until the checkered flag. Its aftermath, however, which included the discovery of an attempt by Michael Waltrip Racing to manipulate the outcome of the race, left a black flag over the sport that might take some time to overcome.
Quote of the year
“Jeff Gordon got robbed.” – Team owner Rick Hendrick’s reaction to the cheating scandal which surrounded the final race to qualify for the Chase. Gordon ended up being added as 13th member of the Chase by NASCAR chairman Brian France.
“Cardio day in the game today … Felt like @donovanjmcnabb in the 4th quarter … #sluggish” – From driver Kevin Harvick, one of many tweets in response to former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb’s contention on “Fox Sports Live” that NASCAR drivers are not athletes.
Biggest OMG moment
Immediately after the Sept. 7 race at Richmond that set the Chase, ESPN quickly got in-car camera footage from Clint Bowyer, whose spin brought out the final caution. ESPN showed Bowyer the video, then reporter Jamie Little interviewed him as discussion raged over whether the spin was deliberate. The “gotcha” look on Bowyer’s face as he watched the video and did the interview was striking.
Most improved driver
In his first season with Penske Racing, Joey Logano qualified for his first Chase. He earned his third Cup win Aug. 18 at Michigan and posted season bests in points finish (eighth), top-fives (11), top-10s (19) and laps led (323).
With all of the preseason hype, it was nearly impossible for Danica Patrick not to win this award. But after starting her first full Cup season with an eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500, she never earned another top-10 and finished on lead lap in just 12 of 36 races.
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.