2013 Road to the Sprint Cup: Part 2
By: John Singler - @JohnSingler2 on December 20, 2013 | 7:00 A.M. EST
Matt Kenseth won the Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. (Photo: Getty Images)
This is the second of a five-part series recapping the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, in which Jimmie Johnson would claim his sixth championship.
A top-five finish the week before showed that Kyle Busch would be a force to be reckoned with in 2013. Texas Motor Speedway had been one of his best tracks and he used a lightning-fast pit stop late in the race to take the lead from Martin Truex Jr. and sweep the weekend ... winning both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series races.
The victory came in Busch's 300th Cup Series start. Meanwhile, the Penske Racing teams of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano had pre-race technical issues that resulted in substantial fines and penalties that were assessed in the days following. Points leader Jimmie Johnson placed sixth.
Next up on the schedule was another one of those mile-and-a-half intermediate ovals ... Kansas Speedway ... where Matt Kenseth worked lapped traffic masterfully and held Kasey Kahne at bay down the stretch to claim his second victory of the season in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
It marked the third time in as many races this season that the pole sitter had gone on to taste victory. Kenseth was in a league of his own much of the day, leading 163 of the 267 laps including the final 52.
Kahne rallied from his No. 27 starting spot to finish second, .15 seconds behind Kenseth. With a third-place finish, Johnson stretched his lead in the Sprint Cup Series standings to 37 points with Kahne now residing in second place.
Two drivers who had been inside the top five going into the weekend were outside looking in following the eighth race of the season. Busch was sidelined by an accident less than halfway through the STP 400 and finished 38th, sliding from second to seventh in the standings. Carl Edwards, fifth heading into the weekend, led twice for 19 laps but was saddled with a 17th-place finish that nudged him back from fifth to sixth in points.
From the Midwest, it was back to NASCAR short-track racing at Richmond International Raceway ... where Kevin Harvick stormed from seventh place to first following an overtime restart to record his first victory of the season.
With the final caution of the night for Brian Vickers’ crash, Harvick steered his No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet onto pit road for four fresh tires. Race leader Jeff Burton, one of Harvick’s teammates, elected to stay out but was an easy target once the green flag was displayed.
Clint Bowyer finished second with Logano third, Juan Pablo Montoya fourth and Burton holding on for fifth place. Pole sitter Kenseth led a race-high 140 laps and finished seventh. Harvick led just three circuits but came away from the Fairgrounds oval with his first Cup Series victory since November 2012.
Tony Stewart, unhappy with Kurt Busch after being shuffled from fifth to 18th following the final restart, made contact with Busch’s No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet on the cool-down lap. The two had a verbal exchange outside their team haulers moments later, but nothing more came of it.
It would not be the last bit of controversy to come out of a race at Richmond this year, but "Spin-Gate" was still more than four months away. Next up for the Sprint Cup Series was a return to restrictor-plate racing at Talladega Superspeedway ...
... where David Ragan steered his Front Row Motorsports Ford between a pair of Sprint Cup Series champions on the final lap and – with a push from teammate David Gilliland – scored a major upset in the Aaron’s 499.
Ragan thundered right up the middle of the Alabama oval, passing Kenseth on his right with Johnson to his left – and charging to the checkered flag for his second career victory.
Following a rain delay that stretched past three-and-a-half hours, the long day ended with Ragan and his unheralded team shining brightly through the darkness. His only other Cup Series victory came on another restrictor-plate track, in July 2011 at Daytona International Speedway.
Gilliland finished second with Edwards, Michael Waltrip and Johnson completing the top five. The stunning finish ended a day of domination by Kenseth, who was seeking his second straight Talladega victory. At the time the red flag was displayed for rain, two-thirds of the race had been completed with Kenseth leading 101 of the 125 laps.
He quickly moved back to the point once competition resumed and led 41 of the final 67 laps before settling for eighth place. Ragan started 19th and led only four laps.
A green-white-checkered finish came out of the final caution of the race, triggered by contact between Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and J.J. Yeley that resulted in a 12-car crash along the backstretch. With night falling, NASCAR alerted teams that there would be just one attempt at an overtime restart and Ragan made the most of it.
From Talladega, it was back under the lights at Darlington Raceway, where Kenseth finished what teammate Kyle Busch started, driving to victory in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 and giving Joe Gibbs Racing a weekend sweep of the doubleheader on NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway.
Busch, who had won the Nationwide Series race 24 hours earlier, seemed to be well on his way to another victory. He led 265 of Saturday's first 354 laps. But it was Kenseth who staged a late push to the front and passed Busch with less than 13 laps remaining, driving away to a three-second margin of victory over runner-up Denny Hamlin … another one of his JGR teammates.
Busch was slowed by a deflating right-rear tire in the closing laps and had to hold on for sixth place. The win was Kenseth’s third this season and the 27th of his career. It lifted him from fourth to third in the standings, 59 points behind leader Johnson heading into the annual break for All-Star Week activities at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Jeff Gordon finished third in his 700th career start. It was the 300th top-five finish of Gordon’s career. He’s just the fourth driver in the 65-year history of the sport to reach that milestone. The three others are Hall of Famers: Bobby Allison, David Pearson and Richard Petty.
NASCAR SPRINT ALL-STAR RACE
On to All-Star Week - where Johnson saved his best for last at Charlotte Motor Speedway, charging past teammate Kahne early in the final segment of the race and making it look easy from there – claiming a record fourth All-Star Race win.
While brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch each won two of the first four segments, Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports crew got him out of the pits second – behind Kahne – on the last round of stops, which gave the five-time champion a front-row starting spot for the final 10-lap dash to the finish.
Waiting at the end of that 15-mile chase was a check for $1 million and another entry in the NASCAR record book for Johnson, whose four All-Star wins snap a three-way tie for the old mark he had shared with Gordon and Dale Earnhardt.
The next weekend, it was back to business in the points race ... and in NASCAR’s longest event – the Coca Cola 600 ... where "The Closer," Kevin Harvick, lived up to his nickname. He traded track position for two fresh tires during the night’s final caution while race leader Kahne remained on the speedway. On the ensuing restart, Harvick quickly pulled away at the drop of the green flag and drove off to his second victory of the season, leading the final 11 laps.
Kahne, who was strong throughout NASCAR’s longest event, led a race-high 161 laps but had only a second-place finish to show for the effort, falling 1.5 seconds short of Harvick at the checkered flag. Kurt Busch placed third with pole sitter Hamlin and Logano completing the top five.
It was Harvick’s second "600" victory in three years. The race was red-flagged nearly one-third of the way into its 400-lap distance after a drive rope snapped off from the apparatus supporting FOX-TV’s aerial camera traveling on cables high above the speedway – injuring a number of fans, but none seriously.
The cars of Hamlin, Marcos Ambrose, race leader Kyle Busch and Mark Martin sustained varying degrees of damage as a result of impact with the nylon rope that had broken loose. Teams are not normally allowed to work on their cars during red-flag periods, but NASCAR gave crews 15 minutes to repair relevant damage as a result of the mishap.
Busch later retired from the race with engine failure and wound up 38th in the 43-car field. Edwards finished 11th and pulled to within 32 points of series leader Johnson, who finished 22nd.
Next up: the year’s first visit to "The Monster Mile" in Dover, where Johnson had a piece of history within reach, but it was Tony Stewart who seized the moment – passing race leader Juan Pablo Montoya less than three laps from the finish and driving away to his 48th career win.
Johnson seemed well-positioned for an eighth Cup Series victory at Dover International Speedway, which would have put him atop the track’s all-time win list. But while running second to Montoya, the five-time champion jumped the final restart of the race. After Johnson pulled away from the field, he was penalized by NASCAR and forced to make a pass through the pits.
And Montoya was no match for a fast-closing Stewart, whose margin of victory was less than a second with Gordon finishing third, giving Chevrolet a one-two-three sweep.
Johnson, who finished 17th, still carried a commanding lead of 30 points with the regular season now at the halfway mark.