2013 Road to the Sprint Cup: Part 3
By: John Singler - @JohnSingler2 on December 21, 2013 | 7:00 A.M. EST
With the win in the Brickyard 400, Ryan Newman – an Indiana native from South Bend - put the brakes on a 49-race winless skid, extending Chevrolet’s Indy winning streak to 11 dating back to 2003. (Photo: Getty Images)
This is the third of a five-part series recapping the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, in which Jimmie Johnson would claim his sixth championship.
Jimmie Johnson’s hold on the potential No. 1 seed for the 2013 post-season got a little tighter in the second visit of the year to Pocono Raceway. A dominating victory in the Party in the Poconos 400 pushed his lead to 51 points with 12 races left in the regular season.
Johnson led 128 of the 160 laps, including the final 31. He held his position at the front of the field through a pair of late-race restarts over the final 10 laps to post his 63rd career victory and third this season.
The win was Johnson’s third at Pocono but his first there since he swept the track’s two races in 2004. Carl Edwards led the first nine laps before yielding to Johnson, who would then lead all but 23 of the remaining 151 circuits.
Johnson’s margin of victory over runner-up Greg Biffle was 1.2 seconds. Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates, finished third with Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman riding home in fourth and fifth, respectively.
NASCAR teams arrived at Michigan International Speedway for the next race with heavy hearts - mourning the loss of driver Jason Leffler, who was killed in a sprint car accident in New Jersey just days before.
On the track, it was Biffle’s turn to shine. With a victory in the Quicken Loans 400, Biffle not only added to Roush Fenway Racing’s winning legacy at the two-mile Irish Hills oval. He also purchased some insurance for entry into this year’s Chase with a hard-earned regular-season win that put him squarely in the hunt for at least a Wild Card berth.
Biffle held the lead over the final 32 laps and when a fast-closing Johnson cut a right-front tire two laps from the finish, he exhaled and beat runner-up Kevin Harvick to the checkered flag by three seconds.
It was the 13th Cup Series win at MIS for team owner Jack Roush, which tops the track’s all-time list, and the second straight Michigan win for Biffle. The last driver to win two in row there was ... Biffle, victorious in August 2004 and again in June 2005.
This time, he led a race-high 48 laps and climbed from 10th to eighth in the regular-season standings, capturing the 1,000th NASCAR win for Ford Racing.
Johnson finished 28th and saw his points lead trimmed to 31 over Carl Edwards, who started from the pole and placed eighth.
It was a tough day for Hendrick Motorsports. In addition to Johnson’s late-race tire trouble, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon finished 38th and 39th, respectively, following accidents; and Earnhardt lost an engine, placing 37th.
On to the first road-course race of the season – in Sonoma, Calif. ... where Martin Truex Jr. took control in the second half and held it the rest of the way. He cruised to his second career victory, halting a winless streak that stretched back to June 2007.
Truex led a race-high 51 laps in his No. 56 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, including the final 28, beating runner-up Gordon to the finish by more than eight seconds. Truex had last visited Victory Lane at Dover International Speedway six years ago, a winless streak of 218 races.
He started 14th, grabbed his first lead at Lap 41 and gave MWR its second straight win on the Northern California road course. Clint Bowyer was victorious in 2012 and finished fifth this time around. Edwards took third place and Kurt Busch finished fourth.
Juan Pablo Montoya was running second two laps from the finish but ran out of fuel and was forced to settle for 34th place. Regular-season points leader Johnson finished ninth and carried a 25-point advantage over second-place Edwards into the next race at Kentucky Speedway.
The battle in "The Bluegrass State" resulted in Matt Kenseth continuing this season’s mastery of mile-and-a-half ovals. He rolled to his fourth victory of the year at Kentucky Speedway – all coming on those intermediate-sized tracks.
Kenseth’s No. 20 Dollar General crew opted for fuel only on their final pit stop, which came under caution, while race leader Johnson and others took on tires for the stretch run. On the ensuing restart, Johnson was battling for second place in a four-wide scrap with Joey Logano when he lost control and spun – triggering the 10th and final caution of the race, and forcing Johnson to settle for ninth place on a day when he led 182 of the event’s 267 laps.
Johnson asserted on his team radio that as the race leader, Kenseth failed to maintain pace car speed approaching the restart zone. But Kenseth chalked Johnson’s comments up to frustration and instead, applauded crew chief Jason Ratcliff’s decisive call for fuel only less than 30 laps from the checkered flag.
Second-place finisher Jamie McMurray was closing fast down the stretch but fell .7 seconds short. Pole sitter Earnhardt placed 12th.
The following week marked the annual summertime return to "The World Center of Racing," where Johnson ended his night the same way his 2013 season had begun in February: standing in Gatorade Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway.
Johnson kept all challengers behind him through three late-race restarts, winning for the fourth time this year and becoming the first driver to sweep both Cup Series races at Daytona since Hall of Famer Bobby Allison in 1982.
Johnson, who started eighth, led a race-high 94 laps including the final 31. His margin of victory over runner-up Stewart was a little more than a tenth of a second. Harvick, Bowyer and Michael Waltrip completed the top five. It was a dominant performance for Johnson, whose only misstep all night came less than five laps from the finish.
He moved inside to block the advance of Marcos Ambrose and the crash saddled Kahne with a 32nd-place finish. Ambrose remained in the race but placed only 26th.
There were six cautions, three of which came in the final 35 laps including a spin by Denny Hamlin as he approached the frontstretch tri-oval. That triggered a six-car wreck that knocked Hamlin, Gordon and AJ Allmendinger out of the race; and ended Kenseth’s hopes for victory.
Pole sitter Kyle Busch led 29 of the first 32 laps but sustained body damage to the front of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in a four-car accident early in the second half of the race and was no threat to Johnson the rest of the night.
The second half of the 2013 Sprint Cup Series began in New Hampshire, where the first half of the race was a "family feud" of sorts with brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch combining to lead 111 laps.
Pole sitter Brad Keselowski was also in the mix early, hoping to protect his spot in the top 10 with just eight races remaining in the regular season. And Kenseth spent time at the front of the field from his No. 12 starting spot.
But with less than 100 laps to go, and for the first time all day, a driver without the letter "K" in his name took over the race lead. Stewart led a total of 84 laps. He was out front and conserving fuel when contact between Gordon and Paul Menard brought out the 11th caution of the day. This left Stewart and Kyle Busch side-by-side on the ensuing restart.
Stewart held the top spot for the next 24 laps, but then here came Brian Vickers ... showing his muscle late. He passed Busch for second and then powered past Stewart along the frontstretch of "The Magic Mile" four laps later.
From there, Vickers cruised to his first victory in four years – surviving one more restart that sent the race one lap past its scheduled distance. Stewart was second to Vickers as the field lined up for that final restart but ran out of fuel and was relegated to 26th in the final running order.
For Vickers, the win snapped a 75-race winless streak dating back to August 2009. He had sat out much of the 2010 season after being diagnosed with blood clots that required heart surgery to correct. Vickers ran a part-time Cup schedule in 2012 and did so again this season, sharing time with Mark Martin in the "55."
And at 71 years of age, Morgan Shepherd became the oldest driver to compete in a Cup Series race. He started 41st and that’s where he finished, completing just 92 laps before parking his Bob Keselowski-owned Toyota.
July would end with NASCAR’s annual trek to Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Newman and Johnson qualified on the front row at "The Brickyard" and from the outset of the Crown Royal 400, they were the class of the field.
Newman, who started from the pole, and Johnson combined to lead 118 of the race’s 160 laps. It seemed inevitable that they would settle the issue between them. The race would eventually turn in Newman’s favor, not on the famed 2.5-mile oval but on pit road.
A decisive two-tire call by Matt Borland, Newman’s crew chief, swung things in favor of the No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing team during the final round of pit stops. Johnson, who seemed to be well on his way to a fifth Indy victory in eight years, took on four tires and then also took on the task of chasing Newman in the closing laps – without success.
Johnson spent just over 17 seconds in his pit stall getting four tires while Newman's two-tire stop lasted less than 12 seconds. Johnson was 2.5 seconds behind at the checkered flag.
With the win, Newman – an Indiana native from South Bend - put the brakes on a 49-race winless skid, extending Chevrolet’s Indy winning streak to 11 dating back to 2003. Kahne and Stewart finished third and fourth, respectively - giving Chevy a sweep of the top four spots.
Despite falling short in his bid to win, Johnson opened up a 75-point lead over Bowyer with just six weeks left in the regular season. All 43 cars that started the race were running at the finish.