2013 Road to the Sprint Cup: Part 4
By: John Singler - @JohnSingler2 on December 22, 2013 | 8:30 A.M. EST
Joey Logano went to Victory Lane at Michigan in August. (Photo: Getty Images)
This is the fourth of a five-part series recapping the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, in which Jimmie Johnson would claim his sixth championship.
As August opened, it was on to Pocono where it looked like Jimmie Johnson would pick up where he left off in June, when he dominated the race to claim victory.
After starting from the pole, Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet led the first 33 laps and was back out front again on Lap 76 when misfortune struck. He blew a right-front tire and slammed the outside wall near the exit of the "Tunnel Turn," which is the second corner on "The Tricky Triangle." It knocked Johnson out of contention for the win.
Kasey Kahne, one of Johnson’s teammates, emerged as a strong contender as the second half of the race unfolded. He took control after a Lap 108 restart and opened a lead that grew to more than seven seconds over Jeff Gordon. The advantage was erased, however, when the eighth caution of the day for debris pulled Gordon back into the hunt.
The four-time champion capitalized on the opportunity, surging ahead after the restart. But another caution, this one at Lap 156 for Matt Kenseth’s spin, bunched the field again and gave Kahne another chance at the checkered flag.
He stormed past Gordon with a bold outside move through the track’s challenging Corner-2 "Tunnel Turn" ... where Johnson had his problems earlier ... and drove away for his 16th career win.
It was the third straight Hendrick Motorsports victory at Pocono and the organization’s 15th overall, a track record that’s six wins better than its nearest challenger. Gordon was 1.4 seconds behind Kahne at the checkered flag. Kurt Busch placed third, celebrating his 35th birthday.
Johnson salvaged a 13th-place finish and extended his points lead to 77 over Clint Bowyer with just five races remaining in the regular season.
After his ninth-place finish at Pocono, Tony Stewart headed to Iowa - where he was scheduled to compete in a sprint car race the following night. The evening of Monday, Aug. 5, turned out to be a defining date in Stewart’s 2013 season - and not in a good way.
The three-time Sprint Cup Series champion suffered a broken right leg in an accident at Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa. It would sideline Stewart for the remainder of the season.
For the Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International, road racer Max Papis was named to drive Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet. But it was another road-course ace who stole the show in the early going at The Glen.
Marcos Ambrose seemingly had the race in hand, leading 51 of the first 61 laps in his Richard Petty Motorsports Ford. But an inopportune caution in the middle of a pit stop cycle, ironically brought about by teammate Aric Almirola, dropped Ambrose back to 12th for a restart on Lap 64 of 90.
Kyle Busch grabbed the lead when Ambrose went to pit road under yellow and showed the way the rest of the day. To make matters worse, a wreck on Lap 85 finally ended Ambrose’s bid for a third straight win on the legendary New York State road course.
Busch had to survive a succession of restarts over the final 15 laps and also had to contend with a hungry Brad Keselowski over the final trip around the 2.5-mile circuit. The defending Sprint Cup Series champ remained winless, however, falling a half-second short of victory this time around.
For Busch, it was his third win of the season.
And not that there was any suspense surrounding Johnson’s quest to make the post-season Chase for the 10th straight season, but the series leader clinched at least a Wild Card spot with his eighth-place finish. Papis finished 15th subbing for the injured Stewart.
With his post-season berth locked up, Johnson headed to the Midwest on the return trip to Michigan International Speedway, a track that’s proven to be his nemesis over the years.
And the Irish Hills oval dealt him some more bad luck this time around, too. Johnson wrecked in practice Saturday of race weekend, forcing him to start a back-up car at the rear of the field for the Pure Michigan 400. But just as Johnson has done countless times before, he overcame adversity and had the Lowe’s Chevrolet in the lead during a round of green-flag pit stops in the first quarter of the race.
But shortly after that, Johnson was sidelined by engine failure and saddled with a 40th-place finish.
Pole sitter Joey Logano, who had led briefly in the early going, worked his way back into contention during the second half of the race but would have to contend down the stretch with veteran Mark Martin ... who knew he would be cutting it close on fuel.
Martin took off after a restart on Lap 178 as Logano, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick battled for second place. With Logano closing as the laps wound down, Martin finally slowed just three laps from the finish. His tank was dry.
Logano shot into the lead but still had Harvick in close pursuit. The Penske Racing driver held his ground to the finish, beating Harvick to the checkered flag by a little more than a full second and parking the No. 22 Ford squarely in the middle of the race for a Chase Wild Card berth with just three races left in the regular season.
Bowyer finished fifth and left MIS trailing Johnson by 41 points. Austin Dillon came from a lap down to finish 14th in his substitute role for the injured Stewart, who would later name Martin as his primary replacement for the balance of the season.
The following week, it was back to short-track racing at Bristol Motor Speedway - where a familiar scenario played out: Kenseth holding off Kahne in the closing laps of a Sprint Cup Series race.
It happened at Las Vegas in March ... it happened at Kansas Speedway in April ... and it happened again under the lights in "Thunder Valley."
Kenseth started fifth in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and was steady throughout, fending off challenges from a number of competitors including Carl Edwards, Paul Menard and Kurt Busch.
With less than 100 laps remaining, Kenseth had opened a lead over Gordon. But that evaporated when contact between Brian Vickers and Denny Hamlin ignited a massive wreck in Turns 3 and 4 that dealt serious blows to the Chase hopes of Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. - who would finish 30th and 35th, respectively.
It took nearly five minutes to clean up the track and when action resumed, Juan Pablo Montoya surged from fourth to second and took off in pursuit of Kenseth. But with a full load of fuel and fresher tires, Kahne slipped past Montoya for second, caught Kenseth and battled valiantly over the closing laps before falling short by less than .2 seconds.
The victory was Kenseth’s fifth of the year and it guaranteed him at least a Wild Card spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. With a 14th-place finish, Bowyer also clinched his spot in the Chase. He remained second in the Cup standings, narrowing Johnson’s lead to 18 points after Johnson broke the radiator on his No. 48 Chevrolet and placed 36th.
As the month of August ended and September began, the Chase field was starting to take shape with teams heading to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the AdvoCare 500 on Labor Day Weekend.
Logano charged from his sixth-row starting spot into the lead in the first 25 laps of the race. But issues on pit road buried the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford deep in the pack. Three loose lug nuts on one stop forced Logano to return to the pit lane.
By mid-race, Bowyer had put his No. 15 Toyota at the front of the field. But he lost an engine a short time later and with Logano rallying from his first-half woes, the lead went back to the "22."
Fast work on pit road by Kyle Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing crew got the No. 18 Toyota back on the track first during the final round of stops and Busch kept it there the rest of the night. He jumped away from the field on a late restart and led the final 36 laps, clinching a spot in the post-season Chase with his fourth victory of the year. Those 36 laps were the only ones Busch led all night in posting his 28th career victory.
He finished .7 seconds ahead of runner-up Logano, who led a race-high 78 laps and advanced from 10th to eighth in the point standings with just one week left in the regular season.
For Keselowski, whose back was against the wall in his battle for a post-season berth, the Penske Racing team got the final regular-season weekend off to a good start at Richmond International Raceway by qualifying third in the "Blue Deuce."
Keselowski led 91 laps in the first half of the race and was strong during portions of the second half, as well, before fading to a 17th-place finish that would leave him 31 points short of making the post-season Chase.
As Keselowski was losing momentum, Bowyer was on the march - putting his Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota at the front of the field for a 72-lap stretch that left him well-positioned for a run at his first win of the season. But after Bowyer surrendered the lead to Kurt Busch, here came Edwards charging from his No. 26 starting spot into the lead with the laps winding down. Then, it was Ryan Newman’s turn to shine as he moved into the lead.
With less than 10 laps left in the race, here came the defining moment of the night - and the season - for a number of drivers. With Bowyer’s dubious spin coming off Turn 4, the fortunes of many took a dramatic turn. Newman stopped for four tires, came off pit road in fifth place and could only gain two positions in the final three-lap dash to the checkered flag.
Edwards won the race, streaking away after that late restart and beating Busch to the finish by a little more than a half-second. As for the final spots in the Chase, it looked at the time like Truex ... a teammate of Bowyer's ... was in - with Newman and Gordon out.
Bowyer’s mystifying spin at a pivotal point in the race left some to speculate as to whether he did it on purpose to aid Truex’s post-season chances, though Bowyer denied any such strategy after the race. But two days later, NASCAR dropped the hammer on Michael Waltrip Racing.
The sanctioning body dismissed Truex from the 12-man Chase field and replaced him with Newman. But it wasn’t just Bowyer’s spin that caught NASCAR’s eye. A suspiciously-timed pit stop by Vickers, Bowyer’s other MWR teammate, enabled Logano to improve his position on the track, further bolstering Truex’s Chase bid.
All three drivers - Bowyer, Truex and Vickers - were penalized with the loss of 50 regular-season points and their teams were docked the same amount in the car owner standings. The organization was fined $300,000 and Executive Vice President-General Manager Ty Norris was suspended indefinitely.
Four days later, with the post-season ready to launch at Chicagoland Speedway, NASCAR added a 13th driver to the Chase - putting Gordon into the 10-race title series that left an unprecedented 13 competitors vying for the 2013 Sprint Cup Series championship.