Monday, November 18, 2013

Chasing the Championship: Recapping the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway

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NASCAR via Getty Images
The checkered flag has been displayed for the final time signaling the end of the 2013 NASCAR season. After a two-year absence Jimmie Johnson is back on top becoming a six-time Sprint Cup Series champion, a feat he’s accomplished over the span of just eight years.

Johnson beat out Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick Sunday en route to the title. Our Stacey Owens, Stephanie Stuart and Rebecca Kivak recap the three drivers at the top of the standings heading into Homestead.

Jimmie Johnson – 2013 Sprint Cup Series Champion
by: Stacey Owens

He didn’t win the Ford EcoBoost 400, but then again, he didn’t have to. He never even led a lap, but then again, he didn’t have to. With a 28-point lead heading into the final race of the 2013 season, Jimmie Johnson merely needed to finish inside the top 23 to claim his sixth championship.

Mission accomplished.

Teams rolled into Homestead-Miami Speedway earlier in the week for press conferences before getting down to the business of racing on Friday. Knowing he’d need to run up front, Johnson qualified in the seventh position — and then watched Matt Kenseth, his closest competitor, secure the pole.

Johnson ran in the 11th and 15th positions in the first two practices but improved to a second place run in the final practice — right behind Kenseth. And for much of the opening laps of the race, that’s exactly how they ran on the track: Kenseth leading, and Johnson following close behind.

The race was not without its tense moments for both contenders when on Lap 194, Johnson was shoved from behind on a restart and moved into the back of Kenseth’s No. 20 car. Neither suffered much damage, but the smoke coming from the left front of Johnson’s No. 48 machine was a concern until the next caution allowed his crew to pull out the fender and change all four tires. During that run, Johnson said he “reminded myself of the big picture” but that trying to catch up with the front of the pack made the “last 50 laps kind of interesting.”

As the laps wound down, Johnson inched his way back into the Top 10, and as Denny Hamlin took the checkered flag, Johnson captured his #6Pack with a ninth-place finish.

Entering elite company alongside Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. as one of three drivers to win at least six titles, Johnson made history as the first of those three drivers to accomplish the feat in only eight years.

How does Johnson feel about comparisons to two of the best ever? He’s “honored” just to be a part of the conversation.

Climbing out of the car after the race, Johnson was quick to give accolades to his team. “I’m at a loss for words, but I’m so proud and so thankful for this opportunity at Hendrick Motorsports. I’m thankful that Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick gave me this opportunity back in 2002. This sport is about people, and our people at Hendrick Motorsports — especially on this 48 car — rose up and got the job done. I’m so thankful to be able to drive for this race team and so honored and so excited to have a ‘six-pack.’ Everybody in this garage works really, really hard, so we put in a lot of hours, but there’s something special about this group we have.”

He then turned his attention and his emotions to his family. “My wife [Chandra] is an amazing woman. I’m a very lucky man and owe a lot of my success to her and her support. She makes me who I am, makes me a better man, does a fantastic job raising these kids … so happy to have her as my wife.” Johnson went on to dedicate his win to his grandmother who passed away several weeks ago: “This one’s for her.”

Brian France in his post-race message to Johnson may have been speaking to every other driver in the garage and those yet to sign a contract. “You’re setting a new standard in this era and maybe any other era. Congratulations on your sixth championship.”

Johnson is back where he’s been the most comfortable in recent years — at the top of his game. He’ll return to the head table at the annual NASCAR banquet in Las Vegas. As the 2014 season begins, his No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet team will once again work from the first garage stall. But for right now, Johnson and those closest to him will savor their hard-earned victory. “We’re gonna have a lot of fun and enjoy this moment.”

Matt Kenseth – Second-place finisher (-19 points)
by: Stephanie Stuart

Matt Kenseth knew it was going to take a valiant effort to win the title on Sunday at Homestead.

And he gave it everything he had.

Kenseth was fastest in both practices, won the pole and came up just short of winning the race, finishing second to teammate Denny Hamlin. The only thing that would have needed to happen for him to win the Cup title would have been for Jimmie Johnson to finish 23rd, if he had won the race.

It almost happened. For a moment Team 20 collectively held its breath.

A bad restart with 74 laps to go bottlenecked the field towards the front, where Kenseth and Johnson restarted next to each other. The bottleneck effect sent the No. 48 careening sideways, and almost into the No. 20. Johnson lost his position and went from sixth back to 21st. He would stay towards the middle of the field for some time before making up ground to finish ninth in the race.

Kenseth battled all the way to the end, not even giving up second place to a hard-fighting Dale Earnhardt Jr., a friend he knows he can trust on the track and who at times had a better looking car. Kenseth knew he needed every point possible, just in case Johnson encountered a parts failure or an accident, and he made sure to stay in front of every car that he could.

"It was just an unbelievable year for us, really. I mean obviously we wanted to finish off and win the championship as good as we ran all year, but couldn't be more proud of the whole Dollar General/Home Depot team," said Kenseth after the race Sunday as he patted crew members on the back in his post race interview. "They did a spectacular job all season and all day today again... the night overall was really good for us, really dominant when it was sunny out, when it got dark we were off just a little bit and then we had that mishap on that restart that kind of got us behind but overall I don't think you could as for much more."

As the checkered flag falls on 2013, many wonder if Kenseth will look back and wonder if he let the title get away from him, or if he will have a "we let it slip away" moment. He feels confident that he gave it everything he had. "No, I won't have one of those moments," he said Sunday. "In the past I probably did that a lot, probably a little too much. Not really this time. I really will walk away from this year feeling like we gave it all - everything we had to give."

Oddly enough, the 2003 series champion doesn't consider his championship year to be his best season either. "I think when you look at our season overall, when I talk about it being the best season of my career, we didn't come up with the championship, the championship is the ultimate goal, you always want that, but from a competitive standpoint it's been by far the best season of my career," Kenseth stated. "We lead the most laps, we qualified the best, I think probably best average finish, most wins, all that stuff. From a competitive standpoint, it was our best year."

So I ask you this: if a guy who won seven times in a single year says the team can get better, what can we expect next season? 

Until 2014, friends.

Kevin Harvick – Third-place finisher (-34 points)
by: Rebecca Kivak

Kevin Harvick finished out his last race with Richard Childress Racing not as the Sprint Cup champion, but as the hard-charging, never-give-up racer we’ve come to know during his 14 years with the organization.

Harvick battled an ill-handling racecar through Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, making an impressive recovery after falling back during the Ford EcoBoost 400. Though his 10th-place finish wasn’t enough to claim the championship, it allowed Harvick to end his relationship with Richard Childress Racing on a high note before moving on to Stewart-Haas Racing next season.

Coming into Sunday’s race, Harvick knew he was a longshot to win the Sprint Cup, trailing points leader Jimmie Johnson by 34 points and second-place Matt Kenseth by eight points. But Harvick and his No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet team were up for the challenge.

Harvick rolled off the grid sixth Sunday and he worked his way into the top five by Lap 4. On Lap 15 Harvick took the lead for the first of three times, leading a total of eight laps in Sunday’s race.

The No. 29 car spent the majority of the first third of the race in the top five. After the second caution of the day on Lap 89, however, Harvick fell back on the restart to 18th as he struggled mightily with a tight racecar. He dropped as far back as 23rd. With Kenseth leading numerous laps and Johnson running steadily in the top five, any chance Harvick had at the championship continued to fade.

Harvick, however, wasn’t going to give up easily, and methodically he powered his way through the field. By Lap 211 he was back in the race lead. But Harvick’s tires were wearing and he dropped outside the top 10. With 20 laps to go, Harvick steered his way back into the top 10. He crossed the finish line in 10th after the final checkered flag of the season flew.

Harvick finished out the 2013 season third in the standings, with four wins to his credit. Though he didn’t finish the night in victory lane as the race winner or series champion, he was proud of the No. 29 team’s effort in their last race together.

“We were able to salvage something out of the night,” Harvick said. “Obviously it’s not what we wanted, but came back and were way better at the end than what we were in the beginning. It’s what we’ve done all year and I’m just proud of everybody and thank them for everything that they have done.”

During 14 years with Richard Childress Racing, Harvick has collected 23 Sprint Cup wins, including a Daytona 500 victory and a Brickyard 400 win, and two Nationwide championships. With a big smile after Sunday’s race, Harvick lived up to his nickname, “Happy” Harvick, as he looked back at his time with RCR.

“I’m happy, yeah,” Harvick said. “I’m happy with everything that we have been able to accomplish as a group. We had a great year knowing what the circumstances were and we have won a lot of races. A lot of the marquee races. We have won Nationwide championships.

“… There is a lot that has happened with everything and everybody at RCR and (I’m) really proud about my past and everybody who has been involved in it and really excited about my future.”

After closing out 2013 as a title contender, Harvick will embark on a new chapter of his career with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 as he looks to finally capture that elusive Sprint Cup title.

Skirts and Scuffs sends out congratulations to the 2013 Champions.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Driver’s Champion: Jimmie Johnson
Owner’s Champion: Hendrick Motorsports (No. 48)
Rookie of the Year: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Nationwide Series:
Driver’s Champion: Austin Dillon
Owner’s Champion: Penske Racing (No. 22)
Rookie of the Year: Kyle Larson
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
Driver’s Champion: Matt Crafton
Owner’s Champion: Kyle Busch Motorsports (No. 51)
Rookie of the Year: Ryan Blaney

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