Spencer: JJ’s sixth title tops biggest NASCAR stories of 2013

Not even the best fortune teller could have predicted the twists and turns of the 2013 NASCAR season.

Imagine a Chase for the Sprint Cup sans Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin or Brad Keselowski.

Imagine 13 drivers in the Chase.

Imagine Jimmie Johnson winning his sixth Cup title . . . well, OK, the Six Pack was a decent bet. But seriously, after a lackluster Nationwide Series effort with just one win and four top-fives in his first 72 races, who could have predicted the tremendous success Johnson has enjoyed in the past dozen years?

In 435 Cup starts, Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team have posted 66 wins, 182 top-fives and 272 top-10 finishes.

Welcome to “the Jimmie Johnson era,” according to Denny Hamlin.

Johnson’s teammate Jeff Gordon understands the strength of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports crew. After Gordon won his fourth Cup title, in 2001, he said he wouldn’t be racing long enough to reach and break the seven-championship record set by Richard Petty and matched by Dale Earnhardt.

Perhaps Gordon already realized J.J.’s potential. While Gordon has won 30 races since the No. 48 team’s debut and remains a Chase contender, he hasn’t come close to matching Johnson’s numbers.

“You know they are unbelievable, and they proved it again this year just how good they are as a group, as a team, Jimmie as a driver, Chad (Knaus) as a crew chief,” Gordon said. “They just have a chemistry and a way to make incredible things happen especially at the right times. That is unbelievable, six championships.”

Of course, Tony Stewart has given "Four-Time" fits as well, earning 36 wins and three titles since Gordon’s last championship. Stewart also was the first of two drivers (Brad Keselowski being the second) to interrupt Johnson’s run of six titles. But it’s win or nothing for Stewart when it comes to championships.

In 15 Cup seasons, when Stewart hasn’t topped the standings, he has finished in the top five in points only twice — his rookie year (1999), when he was fourth, and in 2001 after the No. 20 team was runner-up to Gordon.

In 14 seasons with Roush Fenway Racing, Matt Kenseth built a stable foundation to be a championship contender. However, with the exception of his 2003 title run, Kenseth lacked a consistent competitive platform to continue that success.

The popular veteran’s quest was rekindled this year at Joe Gibbs Racing — Toyota’s flagship operation since 2008. Kenseth won seven races and led the point standings through most of the Chase but fell to second with three races remaining and never recovered.

Only Kyle Busch (2008) and Hamlin (2010) posted better numbers in 22 seasons of competition at JGR.

Hamlin couldn’t stop the Johnson express, either. In the final two races, Johnson scored 79 points on the No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota. If anyone can sympathize with Johnson’s latest victim, it would be Kenseth’s teammate. But as Hamlin knows, the No. 48 team “don’t make any mistakes.”

“You have to beat him on performance,” Hamlin said. “To do that, that’s really hard. He’s won more than anyone. Unfortunately, we’re racing during the Jimmie Johnson era. We’re just unlucky in that sense.

“I think being out there and racing with him, I can say that I think he’s the best that there ever was. He’s racing against competition that is tougher than this sport’s ever seen. The guy’s just good. So you just need some bad luck here and there. The championships that he didn’t win is because he had some bad luck here and there, or maybe they beat themselves, something like that. Here lately, it just hasn’t happened that way.”

Many organizations have attempted to duplicate Knaus’ strategy of using the first 26 races to prepare for the playoffs, but few have equaled Johnson’s consistency throughout the Chase. That’s why Johnson’s success will continue to be one of the top stories in 2013 and for many years to come.

Here are five other top stories from this season:

1. Up in Smoke

We’ll all remember where we were when the news broke of Tony Stewart’s horrific accident at Southern Iowa Speedway on Aug. 5. Sure, Stewart had endured a few wrecks leading up to the OSKY disaster, but he always walked away. No one could have anticipated that the three-time Sprint Cup champion would be sidelined for a third of the season with a broken tibia and fibula.

Whether the chain of events that occurred afterward was related, it seemed that Stewart-Haas Racing has remained in the headlines throughout the driver’s three subsequent surgeries on his right leg, the selection of his replacement drivers, and his co-owner Gene Haas’ decision to take the initiative and hire Kurt Busch to the complete realignment of the competition department, which included three new crew chiefs, including one for Stewart.

In the next two months, we’ll continue to monitor Stewart’s progress until the real test comes during Speedweeks in Daytona. But there’s no doubt that NASCAR wasn’t the same without Smoke in the field.

2. Spingate

Richmond International Raceway was the event that kept on giving. Michael Waltrip Racing’s decision to manipulate the outcome of the race by choreographing a strategically timed spin by Clint Bowyer along with the command for Brian Vickers to pit initially provided Martin Truex Jr. with a Chase berth — but cost MWR dearly in the end.

Not only did NASCAR levy a record $300,000 fine on MWR and deduct enough points from Truex to knock him out of the Chase in favor of Ryan Newman, in an unprecedented move it added a 13th contestant, Gordon.

The company lost longtime sponsor NAPA along with the driver and crew chief Chad Johnston. When both the Nos. 15 and 56 teams made the Chase in 2012, pundits elevated MWR’s stock considerably. The organization’s ability to repair its reputation will depend on performance. Winning fixes just about everything.

3. Champ, we hardly knew you

After Keselowski finished on top last year, it’s hard to believe he wasn’t able to defend his title in 2013. Keselowski was the first champ since Stewart in 2006 to miss the Chase. Certainly, the No. 2 Penske Racing team took a major hit when illegal rear-suspension parts were discovered on Keselowski’s Ford at Texas Motor Speedway in April.

The loss of 25 points and the suspension of the crew chief, car chief and team engineer was a blow. But the champ didn’t fall out of the Chase Zone until July. While he recovered to eighth in the points standings in August, a wreck at Bristol and an engine failure at Atlanta sealed Keselowski’s fate. Although Keselowski secured a Chase win at Charlotte, finishing 14th in points certainly wasn’t the season he expected.

4. Out with the old, in with the new

A Sprint Cup field without Martin, Bobby Labonte, Ken Schrader or Jeff Burton? Get used to it. And for now, there will be no Dave Blaney or Juan Pablo Montoya, either. Yes, the sport goes in cycles, but this exodus of veterans is unparalleled. The good news is there’s plenty of talent on the horizon for Cup, Nationwide and truck series. And for the first time in several years there will actually be a legitimate battle for rookie of the year among Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, Parker Kligerman and Michael Annett.

5. Hamlin’s harrowing season

Along with Stewart and Keselowski, Denny Hamlin was missed in this year’s Chase. Hamlin couldn’t recover in the points standings after missing four races once he broke a vertebra in a crash at Auto Club Speedway in March. Hamlin described his season as “a horrible year.”

Still, Hamlin earned a record five poles in 2013. Although he missed his eighth consecutive Chase, Hamlin kept his eight-year winning streak alive with his victory in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Hamlin tested at the track and said the team hit on something with the new Generation 6 car over the last couple of months. While NASCAR is expected to make major changes to the car for 2014, at least the team ended the season on a high note.