2013 Road to the Sprint Cup: Part 1
By: John Singler - @JohnSingler2 on December 19, 2013 | 7:00 A.M. EST
Jimmie Johnson won the season-opening Daytona 500 in his 400th career Cup Series start. (Photo: Getty Images)
This is the first of a five-part series recapping the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, in which Jimmie Johnson would claim his sixth championship.
The 2013 Sprint Cup Series season started with a new racecar. The Gen-6 rolled into Daytona International Speedway after months of work from manufacturers and teams.
Several tests had given competitors a good base line to work with, but no one had actually raced it when Budweiser Speedweeks began. Most drivers were happy to have a new platform that not only looked more like street cars but had more downforce and would - presumably - put more control back in the steering wheel and gas pedal.
Even though teams were still racing to rebuild their fleets, everyone was eager for on-track action at Daytona ... especially since the new cars were expected to virtually eliminate two-car tandem drafting.
Despite some spins and crashes in practice, the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race offered pole winners from the previous season the chance to get a leg up on everyone else with extra track time. Fan voting set the starting lineup as well as strategy elements for the non-points special event.
Kevin Harvick went into the season hearing calls of "Lame Duck" after he had announced he was leaving Richard Childress Racing at season's end and going to Stewart-Haas Racing. He showed that his No. 29 RCR team would do more than simply go through the motions by winning the race for the third time.
The Budweiser Duels provided a last-chance opportunity for teams trying to make the Daytona 500 as well as a chance to gather even more data on the new car. Harvick won the first half of the doubleheader and Kyle Busch, who had crashed out of the Sprint Unlimited, claimed victory in the second race.
As NASCAR’s 65th season officially opened, it was Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski swapping the lead five times over the final 15 laps at "The World Center of Racing" before the five-time champion prevailed … leading the final 10 circuits to claim his second victory in "The Great American Race."
It came in Johnson’s 400th career start. He led a total of 17 laps, giving team owner Rick Hendrick his 11th victory at DIS which tied Richard Petty for second place on the track’s all-time list. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second, giving Hendrick Motorsports a one-two sweep.
Keselowski opened defense of his 2012 title with a fourth-place finish. Pole sitter Danica Patrick led five laps, ran in the top 10 most of the day and finished eighth.
A nine-car accident in the first 100 miles of the race sidelined Harvick, who was bidding to become the first driver in Daytona history to win the Sprint Unlimited, a qualifying race and the "500" in the same season. He finished 42nd.
Matt Kenseth led a race-high 86 laps in his official debut with Joe Gibbs Racing but retired with engine failure three-quarters of the way through the race, finishing 37th. Busch, one of Kenseth's JGR teammates, suffered the same fate and placed 34th.
For nearly two years, Carl Edwards had been hungry for another Sprint Cup Series win and his appetite for victory was finally satisfied in the Desert Southwest. Edwards drove his Subway-sponsored Roush Fenway Racing Ford to the win at Phoenix International Raceway.
He led a race-high 122 laps, including the final 78, in posting his 20th career victory but first since March 6, 2011, in Las Vegas – a "diet" of 70 straight races without winning.
A late caution for Ken Schrader’s crash sent the race four laps past its scheduled distance. Edwards got a big push from Keselowski on the final restart and beat Daytona 500 winner Johnson to the checkered flag by more than a full second.
Denny Hamlin finished third in his bid to win the race for the second year in a row. Keselowski placed fourth and Earnhardt completed the top five.
An extra day of testing with the new Gen-6 racecar kicked off the weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, along with a $25,000 fine for Hamlin after he was critical of the new car following the Phoenix race.
Kenseth and new crew chief Jason Ratcliff would hit it off early. Ratcliff gambled with a fuel-only pit stop late that allowed Kenseth to get out front and hold off Kasey Kahne, who led a race-high 114 laps.
Kenseth went to Victory Lane on his 41st birthday, the third time a driver had accomplished that feat. Johnson finished sixth and left Las Vegas with a five-point lead over Keselowski.
After finishing second in Vegas, Kahne was determined to show his team's strength at Bristol. He waged a furious battle with Keselowski in the closing laps before claiming his first victory in "Thunder Valley."
Busch came home second and Keselowski finished third to take over the points lead. Post-race activity was spiced up by a confrontation between Hamlin and Joey Logano after the two tangled on the track. It would not be their last dust-up of the season.
The following week, the tour headed back out west to Fontana, Calif. And after winning in the Nationwide Series, Busch completed the weekend sweep at Auto Club Speedway – benefitting from contact between Hamlin and Logano as they raced each other side-by-side for the win on the final lap.
With Hamlin and Logano sliding out of contention, Busch swept past on the high side and drove on to take the checkered flag for his 25th career Cup Series win.
Earnhardt finished second and bumped Keselowski from the top spot in the Sprint Cup Series point standings, carrying a 12-point lead over the defending champion into the annual break for the Easter holiday.
Logano wound up third. After the race, Hamlin was transported to a local hospital for what turned out to be a back injury that would sideline him for four races.
There was a post-race confrontation between Logano and Tony Stewart, who threw a punch at the Penske Racing driver before crew members stepped in to separate them. The three-time champion was upset with Logano’s blocking maneuver on a late-race restart and was forced to eventually settle for a 22nd-place finish.
Busch started fourth, took his first lead just 11 laps into the event and led a race-high 125 circuits – climbing from 10th to sixth in the standings, a single point outside the top five and thirty-six behind Earnhardt.
Busch’s win was the first Cup Series victory for Toyota on the two-mile Southern California oval and snapped Chevrolet’s five-race Fontana winning streak.
On to Martinsville Speedway, where Johnson dominated the first half of the race and then closed the deal in the second half, rolling to his eighth victory on the Virginia half-mile.
Johnson started from the pole, led 207 of the first 221 laps and then showed the way for the final 138 circuits – beating second-place Clint Bowyer to the checkered flag by .6 seconds. Jeff Gordon and Kahne finished third and fourth, respectively, joining teammate Johnson in giving Hendrick Motorsports three of the four top finishing positions.
Johnson became the first two-time winner of 2013 and the first repeat winner in the last 10 Sprint Cup Series short-track races dating back to September 2011. His total of eight Martinsville wins left him No. 1 among active drivers and third all-time, behind NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip. The victory also lifted Johnson back into first place in the Sprint Cup Series standings, where he would stay for most of the regular season.
Earnhardt entered the weekend as the points leader but slipped to third with a 24th-place finish. Late-race contact with Patrick sent "Junior" spinning off the pace and he finished two laps down to Johnson. Mark Martin rallied from his No. 35 starting position to finish 10th as a substitute driver for Hamlin, now recovering from that back injury suffered at Auto Club Speedway.