The Inside Line: Strange but memorable season in Sprint Cup

6:09 PM, Dec 10, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Perhaps the best word to describe the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season is bizarre.

From rookie of the year contenders Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. announcing they're a couple to Jimmie Johnson winning his sixth Sprint Cup championship, this season had many storylines, most notably the cheating scandal involving Michael Waltrip Racing in the Chase cutoff race at Richmond.

So let's take a look back at this NASCAR season, which was certainly unlike any other one in recent memory.

MWR's WRONGDOING AT RICHMOND

One of the biggest scandals to rock NASCAR occurred in the Sept. 7 regular- season-ending race at Richmond when Michael Waltrip Racing manipulated the outcome of the event in an attempt to get Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

MWR driver Clint Bowyer spun out in the closing laps, triggering a whirlwind of controversy that forced NASCAR to thoroughly investigate the finish of the race. Two days after the event, NASCAR found no conclusive evidence that Bowyer's spin was intentional, but the sanctioning body concluded, based on radio communications, that Brian Vickers, who is Bowyer and Truex's teammate, was ordered by his spotter, Ty Norris, to pit just before the restart with three laps to go, in order to give up his running position. It helped Truex get a higher finishing position in the race and therefore earned him a Chase birth at the time.

NASCAR handed down the most severe penalties in the sport's history to MWR for their actions. Michael Waltrip's organization received a record $300,000 fine. Norris was suspended indefinitely, and Bowyer, Truex and Vickers were each docked 50 points. The points loss for Truex bumped him out of the Chase, as Ryan Newman replaced him in the wild card spot.

"It was unfortunate the way everything happened," Truex said. "We never saw it coming. It is one of those things that was definitely unprecedented in the sport that we've never seen before. I hate that I had to be a part of it."

Bowyer made the Chase, but his involvement in the Richmond incident would haunt him for the rest of the season, distracting his efforts to win the championship. He finished the year seventh in points.

"I knew the magnitude of that situation and respected my part of it," Bowyer said. "You got to pay your dues when you have something like that happen. It doesn't matter what it is. If you're tied to anything negative for yourself or your race team or the sport, you got to respect that situation and give it some time."

The fallout of the Richmond scandal led to more hardship for MWR. Longtime sponsor NAPA ended its partnership with MWR at the conclusion of the season, which forced the organization to downsize from three full-time teams to two for next year. Truex and his crew chief, Chad Johnston, have left the team, with Truex joining Furniture Row Racing for the upcoming season and Johnston moving over to Stewart-Haas Racing to serve as Tony Stewart's crew chief.

"I think our organization has learned a great deal about going forward and being a stronger team," Waltrip said. "I look forward to watching us grow from this unfortunate incident."

Vickers missed the last five races of the season due to treatment for a blood clot in his right calf. He will drive for MWR full-time in Sprint Cup next year.

CHASE FIELD OF 13

In wake of the controversial finish at Richmond, Jeff Gordon was added as the 13th driver in the Chase field. The field had included 12 members in the past.

Two days before the Chase-opener at Chicagoland Speedway, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said that including Gordon into the Chase was due to "an unprecedented and extraordinary set of circumstances that unfolded in multiple different ways (at Richmond)." Gordon, a four-time series champion, finished eighth at Richmond but ended the regular season only one point behind Joey Logano for the final top-10 in points spot in the Chase.

NASCAR also investigated alleged wrongdoings by Front Row Motorsports and Penske Racing at Richmond as well. Officials reviewed the radio communications between Logano's Penske team and David Gilliland's Front Row team. NASCAR placed both teams on probation for the remainder of the year.

NASCAR officials held a mandatory meeting with drivers, crew chiefs, owners and other team personnel the day before the first Chase event at Chicagoland to discuss its officiating changes and address the subject of teams artificially altering the outcome of a race.

"I have a lot of confidence that in six days we tackled a lot," France said. "I think we sent an undeniable message that we were not going to tolerate that. In every sport sometime in the cycle, hopefully it's very rare, has a moment where these things happen. They're always different because of every sport, but I like what our group did. In six days, investigate three different situations, rule on them, rewrite entire important rules area."

The 10-race Chase ran without any further controversies.

SIX PACK

Johnson is now one championship away from tying Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most titles in NASCAR's premier series.

After losing the championship to Stewart in 2011 and then Brad Keselowski last year, Johnson returned to the top this season, scoring six wins and a series- leading 24 top-10 finishes. He defeated Matt Kenseth for the title by 19 points.

Johnson kicked off the season by winning the Daytona 500 -- his second victory in NASCAR's most prestigious race. The Hendrick Motorsports driver held a 75- point lead following the Aug. 11 race at Watkins Glen but struggled in the last four races of the regular season, finishing 28th or worse. Johnson started the Chase in the second seed, three points behind top-seed Kenseth.

Kenseth and Johnson were tied for the points lead following Martinsville, but Johnson moved ahead of Kenseth for the top position after winning at Texas and then kept it from there.

"We had a kick butt year, and we got it done," Johnson said.

Johnson's sixth championship came in his 12th season. Petty claimed his seventh title in his 19th year of competition, while No. 7 for Earnhardt came in his 16th season.

Since winning his record fifth consecutive championship in 2010, there has been much debate about Johnson being the greatest race car driver of all time. That argument elevated to a new level this year.

"I've worked so hard and long to get to this point," Johnson said. "I'm finally on top of my game. I've worked a lifetime to get here. There's more motivation staying on top for those reasons than chasing stats and the historical things that are out there in front of me now."

Kenseth, in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, led the series with seven wins this year. His first victory came at Las Vegas, in just his third start with JGR.

"It was important to get that first win under our belt, and that happened really early, which was great," Kenseth said. "Then to get into the Chase, we did that. Of course, your goal is to win a championship every year. We ran better and won more races than anybody could've expected."

Kenseth began the Chase by winning at Chicagoland and New Hampshire. He led in points for the first five races in the playoffs before his 20th-place finish at Talladega put him behind Johnson. Kenseth trailed by 28 points after his 23rd-place run in the penultimate race at Phoenix.

"When you're running that good and lead the Chase for the first five weeks but you don't win a championship you're a little disappointed," he said.

HAMLIN, STEWART SIDELINED

Denny Hamlin and Stewart are glad that the 2013 season is behind them after both drivers sustained injuries in crashes, spoiling their chances of making the Chase.

Hamlin missed four races early in the season when he suffered a compression fracture in his lower back during an accident on the final lap of the March 24 event in Fontana, Calif. He was battling his rival and former JGR teammate, Joey Logano, for the lead and the win at the time of the crash.

After his return, Hamlin struggled for the remainder of the season, posting just six top-10 finishes before his victory in last month's season-finale at Homestead.

It was the first time in Hamlin's eight-year Cup career that he missed the Chase. His streak of winning at least one race during the season remained intact. Hamlin finished his year 23rd in points.

"Now things have really taken a turn and every day continues to get better," Hamlin said after his win at Homestead. "Looking forward to this offseason, staying hard at it, coming back strong."

Stewart, a three-time series champion, sat out the last 15 races of the season after suffering a broken right leg in a wreck during a sprint car race in early August in Oskaloosa, Iowa. He underwent multiple surgeries to repair his fractured tibia and fibula. A metal rod was inserted inside his tibia. Stewart is on the mend and is expected to be back for Speedweeks activities at Daytona in February.

"It was a huge change in my lifestyle," Stewart said. "I went from being in a race car three days a week, on the weekends and two nights, maybe three or four nights during the week, to immediately just being in a bed and not being able to move...There's light at the end of the tunnel. It's not that far away."

One week prior to his accident in Iowa, Stewart avoided injury when he flipped several times during a wreck in a sprint car race at Ohsweken Speedway in Ontario, Canada.

Safety in sprint car racing became a major issue this year, particularly after Jason Leffler, a former Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series driver, was killed in an accident at a New Jersey racetrack in June.

Stewart's injury also brought into question whether drivers should partake in racing that doesn't fall within the scope of their regular curriculum.

LOGANO TANGLES WITH HAMLIN, STEWART

Logano's maiden season with Penske had its highs and lows. He made the Chase for the first time, finishing eighth in points.

But Logano was not exactly a popular driver in the garage early in the season, especially with Hamlin and Stewart.

Hamlin hit the back of Logano and spun him out in the closing stages of the March 17 race at Bristol. The two had heated words with each other in the garage area after the event, followed by a shoving match between both of their teams. Hamlin and Logano later traded jabs on Twitter.

One week later at Fontana, Stewart got into a physical altercation with Logano on pit road. Stewart was furious with Logano for blocking him multiple times during the final restart.

In their post-race confrontation, Stewart pushed Logano around, while Logano threw a water bottle at him before crew members from both teams intervened. Stewart later said that he's "going to bust (Logano's rear)."

"It was maybe a little more interesting at times than I thought it was going to be," Logano said of his 2013 season. "Once we got all of that stuff behind us then we did a great job as a team, fighting forward through all of the adversity that we fought. I came out of here with my best finishing position in points and making my first Chase."

Logano won the August race at Michigan, which helped him earn a spot in the Chase.

SURPRISE SEASON FOR KURT BUSCH, FURNITURE ROW

Kurt Busch and Furniture Row Racing making the Chase was the feel-good story of the season.

Furniture Row became the first single-car team to qualify for the playoffs. Busch sat no better than 23rd in points during the 2012 season, driving for Phoenix Racing in 29 races and then Furniture Row for the last six events of the year. He did not win a race this season but scored 16 top-10s en route to a 10th-place finish in points.

"The way we raced through the summer months on that Furniture Row team we achieved our goal," Busch said. "My goal was to go from 25th to 15th in points. Once we got to the summer months, the Chase was right there. We knocked the door down and got in. It was an amazing season."

Busch will drive for Stewart-Haas Racing's new fourth team next season. Kevin Harvick is moving over to SHR as well after spending the past 13 seasons with Richard Childress Racing. Harvick ended his year third in points. He won four races, including two in the Chase.

DANICA AND RICKY

Prior to the start of the season, rookie drivers Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. revealed they are an item.

When announcing their romantic relationship, Patrick posted on her Twitter account, "Thanks everyone for all of your nice messages, and the bump drafting jokes are cracking me up! Let the fun begin."

Patrick won the battle between she and Stenhouse in the Daytona 500. She created a lot of hype by becoming the first female to win the pole for that race. She also became the first woman to lead laps in the event. Patrick finished eighth in the Daytona 500, but that would be her only top-10 finish for the season.

Stenhouse won the war by capturing the rookie-of-the-year title in Sprint Cup. He had three top-10s for the season, with his best finish of third coming in the fall race at Talladega. Stenhouse concluded his year 19th in points, while Patrick ended her season in 27th.

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