Trackside Duo: Season in Review

Photo- Getty Images
Photo- Getty Images

One of the most anticipated NASCAR season in years didn’t disappoint. Across all three premiere series, the racing was outstanding, the action was intense, and the storylines were bigger than ever. Putting all of that into one season created an incredible year in NASCAR. Reliving all that 2013 had to offer brings back great memories, along with reminders on what kept NASCAR in the national spotlight on many occasions.

Before 2013 ends, the Trackside Duo wanted to revisit all that went down this year one more time as they discuss some of the biggest newsmakers along with some important races. Walk down this 2013 memory lane constructed by the Duo to remember what made this season such a special one.

1. 2013 was a season of surprises — from surprising winners to shocking storylines, the action never let up. What was the most surprising moment in the 2013 NASCAR season to you?

Alanis: Thinking back, what stands out to me has to be Jeff Gordon being added to the Chase field. Maybe it’s because it was a fairly recent occurrence, but that was certainly the one thing that made my jaw drop upon hearing it in the conference at Chicagoland Speedway. That verdict was incredibly out of character to me based on NASCAR’s past decisions, and altering the championship format was a bold move that opened the sport up to the “gimmick” debate in my opinion.

Jason: The entire Richmond scandal came as the biggest shock to me in 2013. Going into the race, a very close battle to make the Chase was underway which drew extra attention to the night. Then, for Michael Waltrip Racing to blatantly cheat in front of millions of fans was a complete shock. The week that followed the incident was also surprising as NASCAR took big steps to correct what had gone wrong. For the credibility of the sport to be on the line, this may be one of the biggest situations in NASCAR history. Going into the race, no one knew what was waiting for them in the aftermath which made for a shocking week of events.

2. Jimmie Johnson’s dominance in route to his sixth championship was evident this season, and through social media, it looked as more fans had appreciation for Johnson’s accomplishment. Did 2013 open your eyes at all to what Johnson and the No. 48 team have been doing for almost a decade now?

Alanis: No one can deny the talent and caliber of Johnson and the No. 48 team — no matter how much Johnson’s wins and championships may seem like a broken record that just keeps repeating, his era is one that will go down in history. Winning a sixth title put Johnson one step closer to the ranks of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. — who are tied for the record of most Sprint Cup championships ever at seven — and I think moving closer to that milestone made an even stronger statement to many fans regarding his accomplishments in the series.

Jason: It seemed as Jimmie Johnson’s dominance was on more of a display in 2013. He didn’t just dominate the Chase like in a few of his title seasons, he was dominant throughout the whole year. Seeing this team be so strong and then turn it up for the final ten races, made me appreciate their feat a little bit more. Six championships is nothing to laugh at. For Johnson to be on the brink of NASCAR history and for all of us to be witnessing it first hand is incredible. I’ve gone from disliking Johnson’s success to cheering him along as he continues writing his name in NASCAR history.

3. Injuries seemed to be more of an occurrence in 2013 than in previous seasons. Though not all of the injuries resulted from a NASCAR event, what do you think this says about the current state of safety in NASCAR?

Alanis: The state of safety in NASCAR is one to be commended. No matter what sport is considered, injuries are always a factor. While there is always room for improvement, SAFER barriers and numerous innovations have greatly enhanced safety in the highest levels of racing; the area of concern, in my opinion, should be on lower divisions and short tracks. Safety improvements, though expensive, need to trickle down from the high ranks so that safety can be bettered where it is more of an immediate issue.

Jason: Another level of separation NASCAR has from others sports is it’s safety. Ever since Dale Earnhardt’s death, NASCAR has put a large emphasis on making sure drivers race safely. As NASCAR continues making strides in safety, the same can’t be said about other sports. Safety is a top priority in the sport and it stayed that way in 2013. The abundance of injuries doesn’t say as much about the sports level of safety as it does about its unpredictability. The injuries we saw were in situations that most likely couldn’t have been prevented beforehand. NASCAR is still very safe and will only become safer in years ahead.

4. NASCAR made national news many times this season — sometimes for good reasons, other times for bad. Do you believe this gave NASCAR more exposure or did it hurt the sport’s image?

Alanis: Headlines about NASCAR, good and bad, attracted a lot of attention to the sport this season. The Michael Waltrip Racing controversy was a huge hit to the sport’s image, but people forgive and forget. Bitterness may still be lingering among NASCAR fans, but in my opinion, that controversy has passed for the most part. What really stood out to me this year wasn’t a product of negative happenings in NASCAR, but of a FOX Sports 1 talk show: Donovan McNabb’s comments. The opinion he publicly shared — that Jimmie Johnson is not an athlete — opened up a widespread debate on the subject. Having a figurehead in sports comment so negatively on the athleticism of drivers can easily lead to a bad perception among non-NASCAR fans, and McNabb refueled a subject that will stick around for the long run.

Jason: If people are talking about the sport, whether it be good or bad, attention is drawn to it. Any attention means people are aware of the sport and bringing it more exposure. Of course, an event like the Nationwide Series wreck at Daytona wasn’t a good headline. Through the attention drawn to the ordeal, stories of heroism emerged as fans helped each other out in a time of crisis. Bringing some good out of an awful situation. One all-good national headline was Danica Patrick’s Daytona 500 pole. It may not have appealed to NASCAR’s avid followers, but it did to others. New fans may have been developed through people impressed by Patrick’s feat. Increasing the fan base is never a bad thing and that is what the headlines mainly did in 2013.

5. Some of the drivers who were considered favorites at the beginning of the season didn’t stay in that category throughout the year, and others surprised everyone by having a better season than predicted. Which driver among the preseason favorites disappointed you the most, and which driver not in that category surprised you by being successful?

Alanis: Among preseason favorites, the obvious disappointment would have to be Brad Keselowski. Not due to driving performance, but due to the fact that unfortunate race outcomes leading up to the beginning of the Chase virtually took him out of a position to make the playoffs. I would have liked to see the 2012 champion defend his title, but that just wasn’t in the cards this year. My biggest surprise of this season, though he’s always a contender, would have to be Matt Kenseth. Kenseth had a phenomenal season, especially taking into account how nervous he was about living up to the expectations of his new team at the beginning of the year. His first year with Joe Gibbs Racing resulted in a very competitive run for the title, and I definitely think that he lived up to the expectations.

Jason: Brad Keselowski is by far the biggest disappointment of 2013. He had lots of confidence coming off of his first Sprint Cup Series championship. That confidence may have been premature as Keselowski realized he doesn’t know everything there is to know about driving a race car. He still needed to learn some and he did just that in 2013. Kevin Harvick surprised me the most in a good way this season. With his career taking a turn to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, I expected Harvick to be out of championship contention in 2013. He proved me wrong by having one of his strongest seasons yet. Coming off of a great season, Harvick now has lots of confidence heading into the next step in his career.

6. The Nationwide Series saw an overwhelming amount of dominance from Sprint Cup drivers this season. Solutions have been proposed — not allowing Cup drivers to race for their Cup team’s Nationwide program, starting Cup drivers at the back of the field, and so on — what is your take on the situation and how would you propose to solve it for future seasons?

Alanis: The one thing that I’ve noticed is lacking in major Nationwide Series teams is the presence of their development programs. Teams like Penske Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing, fighting for the owner’s championship, fielded Cup drivers week in and week out, and the development programs were neglected as a result. Look at a young driver like Ryan Blaney: three Nationwide starts with Penske in 2013, and one win in those three starts. Too often are the seats at JGR and Penske filled with Cup regulars in an attempt to win races and the owner’s title, and too seldom are they filled with development drivers who need experience in order to advance in their careers. That, in essence, is the biggest problem currently in the Nationwide Series.

Jason: It is difficult to tell a racer not to race. That is why it would be extremely hard to tell Sprint Cup drivers that they are not welcomed to race in the Nationwide Series. Most of the young Nationwide Series drivers who have to compete with the Sprint Cup drivers share a common thought. By racing with the Cup drivers, they learn. They learn how to race among the best in the business. They also gain valuable knowledge about racing. Looking at the situation through the driver’s perspective, it is one that doesn’t need to be fixed. Some Nationwide Series drivers enjoy having the added competition, so I don’t see this “problem” being solved any time soon.

7. The most infamous occurrence to come from the 2013 season was the Michael Waltrip Racing controversy from Richmond. Do you believe NASCAR handled the situation correctly by changing the original Chase field and then adding a driver?

Alanis: I can’t say I think that the situation was handled in the best way possible. Martin Truex Jr. suffered the consequences from his team’s actions — a situation that was out of his control and not of his discretion. On top of that, adding a driver to the Chase and altering the championship format as a result of the event called major attention to the consistency of NASCAR’s governing body — not just among the racing community, but among the general public. The issue resulted in confusion as to what can be altered in the future and clearly stated that the competition format in NASCAR is one that can be tampered with whenever it is deemed necessary, and that is not a good thing.

Jason: Given the extraordinary situation, I believe NASCAR handled the ordeal in the correct manner. The decisions didn’t benefit everyone, but there were some circumstances in which NASCAR couldn’t have done anything because of other’s actions. MWR really hurt themselves by making the calls they did, so the consequences and aftermath they endured were their own fault. NASCAR had to basically make up rules in order to address the situation in order to maintain the sport’s credibility. I see that as a necessary measure because a statement needed to be sent that told teams and drivers that this behavior will not be tolerated. We cannot judge NASCAR’s decisions based on anything else since it was a first time situation. Could they have done some things differently? Sure, but overall, I say they handled the situation just about perfectly based on the circumstances.

8. NASCAR branched out in 2013 — at least in the Camping World Truck Series. The midweek dirt-track show at Eldora Speedway was a huge hit, and the series will be returning for the second running of the Mudsummer Classic in 2014. Do you think that the experimentation in the NCWTS could eventually lead to more variety in the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series, and would you personally like to see that happen?

Alanis: The NCWTS at Eldora was a huge success, and it opened the door for NASCAR to branch out in future seasons. In the NCWTS, old venues are being revisited, various types of tracks are being raced, and perhaps that will spread into NASCAR’s other top series in the years to come. While I don’t think we’ll see the Cup cars on dirt anytime soon, the NCWTS’ return to dirt was a shock to me, and maybe someday we’ll receive that same kind of shock from Cup.

Jason: Seeing the Mudsummer Classic be so successful was great for NASCAR. Dirt track racing is something fans love, so bringing it to the national level gave it much more attention and exposure. Some fans may now venture out to their local dirt track and support grassroots racing. Eldora Speedway does provide variety in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series schedule, but taking advantage of the Mudsummer Classic’s uniqueness could hurt the good NASCAR has going. Sure, the dirt race was widely popular. Would fans love to see more? Most certainly. NASCAR has it’s roots on the dirt, but the sport has evolved. The sport is no longer a dirt track circuit. Having this one annual and special event would provide variety, along with giving fans a taste of the dirt. Overdoing a good thing NASCAR has found would deplete the uniqueness of the event and send mixed messages about the sport’s goal. One dirt race a year is good enough and I would like to see it kept that way. I am for variety, but lets keep it with short tracks and road courses.

9. The NASCAR silly season in 2013 was certainly a shocking one. Out of all the shifting and switching of teams, what was the most startling piece of news to you?

Alanis: Stewart-Haas Racing’s 2014 lineup was not one that I anticipated. I was surprised enough at the news of Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart competing on the same team, but the hiring of Kurt Busch by Gene Haas was a huge bombshell. Harvick, Stewart, and Busch — three of the biggest personalities in NASCAR — all under the same roof next year? Sounds like the basis for a reality show to me.

Jason: Seeing Kyle Larson moved up to the Sprint Cup Series, after just one full season in one of NASCAR’s top three series, came to me as a shock. Larson is very talented, but taking advantage of that talent and moving him up the ranks too quickly could come with consequences down the road. He doesn’t have that much NASCAR experience, so seeing him struggle in the Cup Series wouldn’t surprise me. Chip Ganassi has a great talent in Larson, but I believe another year or two in the Nationwide Series would allow Larson to become the best race car driver possible.

10. The 2013 season is over and Jimmie Johnson has yet another championship title — sounds like the same old story, doesn’t it? But that certainly wasn’t the case. Before we look ahead to 2014, what would you say was your favorite moment this season?

Alanis: My favorite moment was the Camping World Truck Series visiting Eldora Speedway. The Mudsummer Classic not only delivered on the entertainment side, but it opened the door for NASCAR to venture into different types of tracks and therefore a variety of challenges for drivers. We won’t see the Sprint Cup Series on dirt immediately, but the return of the NCWTS to the dirt ranks gives hope for the future of the schedules in not only that series, but in Nationwide and Cup as well.

Jason: The feel good story of the year has to be my favorite moment from 2013. Talladega always has the chance at producing an underdog winner and in May, exactly that happened with David Ragan. What I believed to be the best finish of the season involved two teammates from a smaller organization helping each other out to score a victory. Seeing David Gilliland giving David Ragan a push to the front had me along with others cheering for the underdogs. It was a truly special finish that came after one of the best races of 2013.

Follow Alanis on twitter @alanisnking and follow Jason @NASCARJasontrackside duo2

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