The 2013 season of NASCAR will be remembered as one of the most tumultuous in recent memory. The year would not be complete without a few snapshots to commemorate the highs and lows.
Favorite Couple: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte
The partnership between the most popular driver and his Hendrick Motorsports crew chief continues to improve with each passing year. In 2013 the pair had their best season together earning fifth place in the Chase point standings.
Dale Jr. had an impressive run during the final 10 races of the Chase with five top-5s that included three runner-up finishes and 8 top-10 finishes. His most disappointing result was due to a blown engine at Chicagoland Speedway.
“I don’t know what would have happened if we could have done Chicago over but we ran so good in the other nine races, we’ve just got to be real proud of ourselves,” Earnhardt said.
“We’ve got nothing to be disappointed about. We’ve gotten better each year, and that’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Worst Breakup: Kevin Harvick and Richard Childress Racing
Few in NASCAR will ever forget how Harvick took over the vacant seat at RCR after Dale Earnhardt’s tragic death in 2001. They were shoes that could never be filled but Harvick handled the challenge with humility and respect.
When Kevin Harvick first announced that he was leaving Richard Childress Racing after the end of the 2013 season, many were surprised. However Harvick emphasized that he and the team were committed to finishing the year on a positive note by contending for the championship. From the outside, it appeared to be an amicable split.
But appearances can be deceiving.
During a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville Speedway, tempers flared between Harvick and Ty Dillon as they were competing for second place during the final laps of the race and got together. The two drivers spun out and continued to show their displeasure with each other on the track. Things disintegrated further when Dillon’s crew members got involved by going after Harvick on pit road.
It was Harvick’s comments after the race that sealed the end of this partnership.
“The 3 just dumped me,” he said. “Exactly the reason why I’m leaving RCR because you’ve got those kids coming up that got no respect for what they do in this sport and they’ve had everything fed to them with a spoon.”
Although Harvick later apologized, it was obvious that the relationship had actually ended long before the season came to a close.
Most Popular Race: Eldora Speedway – The Mudsummer Classic Camping World Truck Series race
The race at Eldora Speedway was one of the most highly anticipated events of the 2013 NASCAR season and it lived up to expectations. It wasn’t the biggest or the fastest but it showcased the best short track competition that NASCAR has to offer.
Austin Dillon won the inaugural event becoming the first driver to win a Camping World Truck Series race on dirt.
The event marked NASCAR’s first national series dirt race since 1970. It was filled with side-by-side racing action, exciting passes and enough beating and banging to keep the sold out crowd on their feet. This back to basics, stripped down version of racing is the heart and soul of a sport that many feel has lost its way.
Biggest Controversy: The September 7th race at Richmond International Raceway
The final race of NASCAR’s 2013 regular season will be remembered as a turning point in the sport’s history. A suspicious spin by Clint Bowyer led to an investigation and NASCAR determined that Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) manipulated the race results at Richmond. Penalties were issued, points were deducted and as a result MWR teammate Martin Truex Jr. lost his spot in the Chase to Ryan Newman.
But that was only the beginning. Further allegations of cheating by two other teams led to more investigation by NASCAR and an unprecedented decision to add a 13th driver, Jeff Gordon, to the Chase for the Championship.
Brian France explained, “We believe that there were too many things that altered the event that gave an unfair disadvantage to Jeff and his team, who would have qualified. It’s just the right thing to do. I have the authority to do that, and we are going to do that.”
Many fans applauded NASCAR for doing the “right thing” but just as many were appalled at what they saw as NASCAR “fixing” the Chase to include one of its most influential drivers. The fact that Gordon drives for Hendrick Motorsports, arguably the most powerful team in NASCAR, only added fuel to the fire.
Has the integrity of NASCAR been irreparably damaged by this incident? Only time will tell.
Most Likely to Continue to Succeed: Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson’s sixth championship title has catapulted him into an elite group of NASCAR champions. Only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt have more with seven each. Johnson already has the record for most consecutive championships with five titles between the years 2006-2010. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that he will not only equal but surpass the record set by Petty and Earnhardt.
There is no doubt that Johnson has earned his place as one of the best drivers in the history of NASCAR and he’s not done yet. The more intriguing question is this. Does success equal greatness?
Best Move: Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth’s move from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing has provided what Kenseth called an “unbelievable” year.
“Obviously it’s been a great year, best year I’ve ever had,” said Kenseth. “I think when you look at our season overall, when I talk about it being the best season of my career, we didn’t come up with the championship, the championship is the ultimate goal, you always want that, but from a competitive standpoint it’s been by far the best season of my career.
“We lead the most laps, qualified the best, most wins, all that stuff. From a competitive standpoint, it was our best year.”
Kenseth scored a career best seven Sprint Cup wins in one season, a career best of 1,783 laps led and captured three poles along the way.
Most Significant Victory: Darrell Wallace Jr.
When Darrell Wallace Jr. won the Kroger 200 Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville Speedway in October, he became the first African-American driver to win a NASCAR national series race since Wendell Scott’s win on December 1, 1963.
After the race, Wallace spoke passionately about the impact of this win.
“It means everything,” Wallace said. “This is an emotional one for me, especially to do it in Wendell Scott’s backyard. I love coming here to Martinsville. It’s always good to me, and it finally paid off.”
He also hopes that it will help propel his career forward.
“Winning, there’s nothing better than winning,” he said. “And I think that’ll help kind of pave its own way there, and hopefully get my name out there even more. Winning this big race can always do that, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do all year is to get my name out there, to keep pushing, to strive for kids younger than me to get in the sport and be here sitting here talking to you guys one day.”
Best Comeback: Shane Hmiel
Shane Hmiel’s story is one of triumph over adversity. As he made his way through the ranks of the Busch Series (now Nationwide Series), his career was put on hold when he failed a drug test in 2003 and was suspended indefinitely. He was reinstated in 2004 but over the next couple of years failed two more drug tests and in 2006 was banned from NASCAR for life.
Hmiel fought his way back to sobriety and began competing in the touring divisions of the United States Auto Club (USAC) Series. Then, in 2010 he faced the biggest challenge of his life.
While attempting to qualify for a USAC Silver Crown race, his car hit the outside wall and rolled several times. The roll cage was damaged and Hmiel suffered head and spinal injuries that left him paralyzed. He wasn’t expected to live but once more, Hmiel defied the odds.
In January 2013 his recovery took another leap forward when he was given the chance to get behind the wheel of a racecar one more time at Rockingham Speedway.
Accessible Racing co-founder and president, Brian Hanaford, Hmiel’s mother, Lisa, and Andy Hillenburg, president of Rockingham Speedway, were instrumental in giving Shane this unique opportunity. Randy LaJoie whose company ‘Joie of Seating’ makes custom seats for race cars, provided the specialized seats.
Hmiel drove 10 laps around the track and as he headed into the pits, the huge grin on his face spoke volumes.
“I don’t want to get out, let’s go again,” he exclaimed!”
Shane Hmiel’s tenacity is a testament to the strength of the human spirit.
“It felt so great to be back,” he said. “The conceited side of me loves this. It proves to people, do not quit. You can always do more. Believe in that. It’ll get you so far.”
These are only a few of the most memorable NASCAR moments in 2013. Records were broken, champions were crowned and controversy abounded. The new season begins in less than three months. Will you be watching?