DAVIDSON – The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season will go down as one of the most interesting in the past decade.
Here are six compelling storylines from this year:
• Paging the defending champ …
Reigning champion Brad Keselowski was nowhere to be found when NASCAR’s top drivers gathered for the beginning of the Chase for the Sprint Cup in September.
He didn’t win a race until the Oct. 12 Bank of America 500 and wound up finishing 14th in points, the lowest-ranked title defense a driver has had in the Chase era.
It’ll be up to Keselowski and his Penske Racing team to turn it around in 2014.
• Crashes breed injuries, tragedy
Brian Vickers had to sub for Denny Hamlin for a spell early in the season, after Hamlin broke his back in a last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway. In a cruel twist of irony, Vickers wound up missing the end of the season due to a blood clot in his calf. Three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart broke his leg in a sprint-car accident and missed the last 15 races of the year.
Injuries also spread to the Nationwide Series, where fans were hurt at Daytona in February when part of Kyle Larson’s car went into the catchfence. 2014 Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year candidate Michael Annett broke his sternum at Daytona and spent months recuperating.
What was most tragic of all, however, was Jason Leffler’s fatal sprint-car accident in June, just days after he competed in what was his last Sprint Cup event at Pocono Raceway.
• Who’s in, and who’s out?
Allegations of cheating by Michael Waltrip Racing in September made figuring out the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup field more difficult. Martin Truex Jr., an MWR driver who wound up losing his sponsor and ride, made the Chase.
The now-Furniture Row Racing driver was taken out however, when NASCAR found teammate Clint Bowyer manipulated the finish by spinning intentionally to help Truex. So, the sport replaced Truex with Ryan Newman in the Chase.
Jeff Gordon also benefited from the sanctions. He earned an unprecedented 13th seed in the Chase and wound up sixth in points.
• Dale Jr.: Mr. Consistency?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 2013 season was his best in years.
Earnhardt won two poles, posted a career-high 22 top-10 finishes and finished fifth in series standings, his best result since 2006.
The veteran Hendrick Motorsports driver didn’t win a race, though, so there’s something else to shoot for in 2014.
Earnhardt’s solid week-to-week results – he scored more points than any driver the last eight races – showed he’s become a steady driver as any on the circuit.
• Gen-6 offers mixed results
NASCAR’s newest car, the Generation 6, offered fans more speed in 2013.
Nineteen track qualifying records fell by the wayside with the new car’s fast chassis, but some called it a bore in addition to a blur. There was a 35.9-percent decrease in lead changes compared to 2012, according to NASCAR.
The sanctioning body is considering some adjustments to the Gen-6 car to boost lead changes.
• Jimmie's back
Jimmie Johnson’s brief two-year respite from the sport’s limelight came to an end in November.
Johnson won six races and captured his sixth Sprint Cup championship in 12 seasons, putting him just one behind the sport’s all-time leaders, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.