The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season began with a boring, single-file parade in the Daytona 500 and ended with the numbing repetition of Jimmie Johnson's sixth series championship. In between, however, there was actually quite a bit of excitement. The competition was strong enough that 16 different drivers won a race. The action on the track improved somewhat as the season progressed and the drivers became more accustomed to the new Gen-6 car. Things also remained active off the track, as several high-profile drivers announced they were changing teams, two Chase regulars (Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin) dealt with serious injuries, and Danica-mania swept over NASCAR. And, of course, Clint Bowyer and Michael Waltrip Racing sent the entire sport into a spin with their pre-Chase antics at Richmond.
Here is a sampling of the best and the worst, the highs and the lows of the past nine months:
Best victory: Brian Vickers. Three years after missing most of the 2010 season while recovering from blood clots and heart surgery, Vickers snapped a 75-race winless streak with a surprise victory at New Hampshire in July. In addition to overcoming his health issues, Vickers won while competing as a part-time driver for Michael Waltrip Racing. At the time of his victory, he had started only 15 of the previous 53 Cup races. "All of that just makes this one of the most special events of my life," Vickers said. And one of the best moments of the 2013 season.
Biggest loss: Tony Stewart. After his traditional slow start to the season, Stewart heated up right along with the summer weather. Beginning with the Memorial Day weekend race at Charlotte, he had seven top-10 finishes,including a victory, in a 10-race span, and improved from 21st to 11th in the points standings. Then he broke his leg while racing a sprint car on an Iowa short track, ending his season with 15 races remaining. It was not only a big loss for Stewart and his team, but also for NASCAR fans in general. They were deprived of the sport's most colorful character for the final three months of the season.
Biggest surprise: Joey Logano. Matt Kenseth certainly caught people off guard by picking up a career-best seven victories this season and nearly winning the championship in his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing. But Kenseth entered the season with 24 wins and a Cup title to his credit, so it is hard to be overly shocked at his success. Logano, on the other hand, had only two career victories in four seasons and had never even made the Chase when he was jettisoned by JGR in favor of Kenseth. Logano was forced to start over at Penske Racing and promptly made the Chase, picking up a win and 19 top-10s along the way. And he is still only 23 years old.
Biggest disappointment: Danica Patrick. Nobody thought Patrick would be dominant in her first full season in Sprint Cup, but she was expected to at least crack the top-10 on occasion, especially after opening the season with an eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500. Not only did that turn out to be her lone top-10 of the season, she managed to finish better than 20th just four more times the rest of the year. The end result was a 27th-place showing in the standings. Patrick remains a popular driver, but that will start to fade if her on-track performance doesn't improve in the next few years. (Honorable mention to Brad Keselowski, who went from being the 2012 Cup champion to missing the Chase entirely in 2013).
Most overlooked disappointment: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Patrick's boyfriend didn't exactly tear up the track during his rookie Cup season, either. Though he arrived on the Cup circuit with great fanfare after winning back-to-back Nationwide championships, Stenhouse managed only three top-10s this season and finished 19th in the standings. Yet his struggles have largely been ignored, as much of the attention went toward Patrick. This year, at least, that was probably a good thing for Stenhouse.
The Head-scratcher Award: Dale Earnhardt Jr. In what bizarro NASCAR world does Earnhardt drive for powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, yet still win fewer races than David Ragan did with Front Row Motorsports? That is exactly what happened this year, as Earnhardt had his fourth winless season in the past five years. Ragan, meanwhile, won at Talladega for his second victory in the past three seasons. Earnhardt posted 22 top-10 finishes (only Johnson had more) and closed the season with three consecutive top-fives, but he once again was unable to make it to Victory Lane. Earnhardt's inability to win with any consistency since his six-victory season of 2004 remains one of the biggest mysteries of the sport.
Best lame duck: Kevin Harvick. Surprisingly, there were three candidates for this honor, as a trio of drivers made the Chase with teams they were leaving at season's end. Ryan Newman, who is moving from Stewart-Haas Racing to Richard Childress Motorsports, had an uneventful Chase (best finish: eighth) after ripping his crew for a slow pit stop that cost him the victory at Richmond and, briefly, a spot in the Chase. Kurt Busch performed wonders with Furniture Row Racing, getting the team in the Chase for the first time, but he faded down the stretch once it became known that he was departing for Stewart-Haas. Harvick, meanwhile, has been on a full season farewell tour with Richard Childress Motorsports, and it never fazed him. He finished third in the points and picked up four victories, including one just a few weeks after he publicly insulted the team owner's grandsons.
The Groundhog Day Award: Kyle Busch. He wins multiple Cup races, dominates the Nationwide Series, takes home several trophies from the Truck Series, and then can't find Victory Lane once the Chase begins. This has been a consistent pattern through his career, and Busch simply must figure out a way to be stronger down the stretch if he ever wants to be a legitimate championship contender.
Most undeserved villains: Clint Bowyer and Michael Waltrip. The driver and owner somehow became the face of all that is evil when their team tried to manipulate the points system at Richmond in an attempt to help Martin Truex Jr. make the Chase. Suspend them, fine them, dock points, whatever. But please don't act like their actions in that race were something new and unheard of in NASCAR. Like it or not, cheating has been a part of this sport since it began, and previous cheaters were never ostracized by fans and sponsors the way Waltrip and Bowyer were after that night in Richmond. They cheated, they were punished. Let it go.
Best driver ... of all time?: That is the question they are asking about Jimmie Johnson, who is now only one championship behind the record of seven titles accumulated by both Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. It is always difficult to compare accomplishments from different eras, but there seems to be no doubt that Johnson is at least in the top five all-time (along with David Pearson and Jeff Gordon). Give Johnson 10 to 15 more wins (he currently has 66 in his career) and one more title, and he very well might become known as the greatest driver in NASCAR history.