Dec 24, 2013, 12:25 PM EDT
On one hand, the NASCAR Nationwide Series served its purpose with young drivers like 2013 champion Austin Dillon and 21-year-old Kyle Larson doing well this past year and now preparing to move up to Sprint Cup in 2014.
But on the other hand, Sprint Cup regulars continued to dominate, with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch and Penske Racing’s Brad Keselowski alone winning a combined 19 of 33 races as part of their teams’ battle for the owner’s championship. And one could argue that duel took some heat from Dillon’s tight race for the driver’s title with fellow NNS regular Sam Hornish Jr.
As a result, the season had a bit of the “same ol’, same ol’” feel even though the aforementioned Dillon, Larson and Hornish, along with others such as Regan Smith, A.J. Allmendinger and Ryan Blaney, did their best to keep things interesting.
Dillon’s championship came despite him not being able to win, making him the first NASCAR national series champion to earn a title without a victory. Nonetheless, he was able to make dogged consistency (13 Top-5s, 22 Top-10s, and just one DNF) work for him. Some can argue that it was unspectacular, but no one can say it wasn’t effective.
As for Hornish, he came up just three points shy of what would have been a breakthrough championship for him. The former IndyCar champion has impressed many people in his bid to maintain a place in stock car racing, and it’s been reported that he has options for next season. But a title could’ve made his off-season job hunting much easier.
Both drivers, however, found themselves at times having to conduct their championship runs almost in secret. That was because JGR’s No. 54 Toyota and Penske’s No. 22 Ford – the two teams involved in the aforementioned race for the owner’s title – were the class of the field in 2013.
The contrast was noticeable between the two sides. Busch won all 12 of the No. 54 team’s victories in 2013, while the No. 22 had four different drivers take it to Victory Lane: Keselowski (six wins), Joey Logano (three), Allmendinger (two), and Blaney (one).
In the end, the team effort won out. A sixth-place finish from Logano in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway was enough for the Penske No. 22 to win the owner’s battle by a single point over the JGR No. 54 and Busch, which finished third that day.
Meanwhile, Kyle Larson completed a solid first year of Nationwide racing to claim Rookie of the Year honors. Larson went winless, but notched 9 Top-5s and 17 Top-10s.
His ROTY award also marked a milestone for NASCAR’s sometimes-maligned “Drive for Diversity” program as Larson became the first of the program’s graduates to earn ROTY honors in a national series.
It was as good an ending to the year as Larson could’ve hoped for after how ugly it started for him – and many others.
In one of the most violent accidents in NNS history, last-lap contact between Smith and Keselowski coming to the checkered flag at Daytona triggered a horrendous crash that had Larson get airborne and then slam into the catch fence – the impact launching chunks of debris into the frontstretch grandstands.
More than 30 fans were injured, with many of them requiring hospitalization. Thankfully, all involved survived a situation that could’ve ended up much worse.
Other memorable moments included:
- Allmendinger’s revival: Roger Penske gave him another chance and the ‘Dinger did well with it, earning two wins on the road courses at Road America and Mid-Ohio. Not long after, the former Champ Car star had his ticket back to Cup in hand with a full-time drive at JTG Daugherty.
- BK1000: Winning a series’ 1,000th race is obviously a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing, so Keselowski should have fond memories whenever he sees his trophy from Richmond this past fall. Not that it didn’t come without controversy; runner-up Brian Scott maintained that Keselowski jumped the final restart with six laps to go. Replays appeared to back Scott’s argument, but NASCAR didn’t make a call on Keselowski.
- Blaney’s upset: 19-year-old Ryan Blaney couldn’t have a celebratory shot of Kentucky bourbon following his first career NNS win in September at Kentucky Speedway. But we figure he didn’t mind that much. A string of late accidents kept setting up Blaney to lose the race on restarts, but the son of NASCAR/sprint car veteran Dave Blaney maintained his poise and was able to outlast Dillon in the final laps.
- Could we speed this up?: A multi-car crash with 17 laps to go in the Homestead finale somehow led to a 12-lap caution period that saw numerous restarts called off as workers tried to clean up the mess. NASCAR’s refusal to throw the red flag was a surprise, and it didn’t help Hornish, who had only five laps to work with when the green flag did come out. Hornish finished eighth, four spots ahead of Dillon, but he was still three points shy of the NNS crown.