Another NASCAR Sprint Cup season came to a close Sunday in Miami. Entering the race just two drivers had a realistic chance of claiming the championship, but the trophy was Jimmie Johnson's to lose.
While the race didn't give Johnson an easy ride to his sixth title, the team did exactly what it needed to claim the sport's top prize. Johnson was his usual clinical self, and did everything he needed to do to make sure he left no doubt that he would hoist the Sprint Cup at the end of the day.
Overshadowed a bit by Johnson's sixth title was Denny Hamlin's return to the top. The 2013 season was nothing short of a struggle for the No. 11, and fans and the team alike wondered just when Hamlin would find his way back to the front. He won Sunday's finale, and signaled that he is fully back on the horse, and ready to makeup for a dismal 2013 next season.
As we head into the short offseason, here is a look at who made the grade in 2013, who can be considered to take a step forward in 2014, and who fantasy owners should question before the drivers and teams unload in Daytona next February.
Jimmie Johnson - Every generation has a dominant performer that defines success on the circuit. This generation's version is Johnson. Landing his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship was almost expected from this team, and it may take some major change in the team to stop the streak this group is on. When all was said and done he collected six wins, 16 top-5s and 24 top-10s this season and was insurmountable in the points standings. Johnson and the team were cool and calculated all season, and methodically went about doing what they do best, consistently scoring top finishes. This combination of team and driver look ready to reset the record books and overtake Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt by scoring at least two more championships together.
Denny Hamlin - The past season was nothing short of disaster for the No. 11. What started with the expectation of challenging for his first championship ended with a major injury and an inability to return to form. Hamlin is no stranger to adversity, what was different in 2013 was the duration of that slump. From finishing eighth in June's Party in the Poconos 400 it took Hamlin until mid-October to crack the top-10 again in October's Bank of America 500. His season beginning feud with Joey Logano ultimately ended Hamlin's charge forward, and it took too long to bounce back. Next season is expected to be a rebound, and he showed that by winning the final race of this season.
Kevin Harvick - Harvick spent his last season with Richard Childress Racing working to deliver success in their final races together. Arguably, he did just that by keeping his championship hopes alive until the final race of the season. Harvick looks to new pastures with Stewart-HAAS Racing in 2014. He ended the year a distant third in points, but retained his reputation as a closer, winning four races and claiming nine top-5s and 22 top-10s. The driver is one of the best at working on a car's handling throughout a race distance and suddenly appearing at the front as the laps wind down. Harvick and Stewart-HAAS Racing may be a match made in heaven, and fantasy owners should be able to rely on him from the start next year in February.
Joey Logano - The year didn't start off too great for Logano. It was a new season, his first without the backing of Joe Gibbs Racing, but Logano rose to the occasion. Logano's results were inconsistent until May, when he started scoring regular top-5 and top-10 finishes. He made the Chase and had 18 top-10 finishes to his credit heading into the final race in Miami. This chance with Penske Racing was Logano's career-defining moment, and it seems as though he is going to swim at the deep end. Next season promises more as the young driver matures in his new surroundings. If the team can continue to improve they may be even more dangerous contenders next season.
Kasey Kahne - Kahne is another driver that made 2013 a breakthrough season. Two wins, 11 top-5s and 14 top-10s pushed him to 12th in the Chase standings at the end of the year. While it wasn't a championship contending performance, Kahne was able to show what he might be able to achieve as he continues to settle into Hendrick Motorsports. This is a driver who knows how to win and score consistent results. By doing just that he was able to claim a spot in the Chase, and show his speed at many points throughout the season. With some luck and consistency, with Hendrick machinery and support he could advance his game even further and appears to have plenty of runway as he works to land his first championship in the series.
Jeff Burton - The last few seasons haven't been the best for Burton. This season was marginally better than being virtually locked out of top-10 finishes in prior years, but it wasn't enough to keep Burton moving forward. After 1,001 Sprint Cup starts, Burton will move to part-time status next season. A veteran of his caliber should be able to challenge for victories, but Burton has been more of a feedback resource than a true challenger of late. With just six top-10s in 2013, Burton looks to become a driver that fantasy owners should consider when he competes, but only as a third or fourth driver in certain formats. He may never be a top choice for rosters as he slowly backs away from the circuit.
Marcos Ambrose - Once a very successful driver in the Australian Supercar series, Ambrose made the switch to NASCAR hoping to build a career in the United States. While he has seen success on road courses, Ambrose is another road racer who hasn't found consistent competitiveness through an entire schedule. The Tasmanian didn't score a single top-5 this season but was able to tally six top-10s. With Juan Pablo Montoya moving back to IndyCar after a largely unsuccessful foray into stock cars, one wonders just how long Ambrose will be able to hold his seat. Next season will require a step up in performance from this driver, and while he has the talent to do it, one wonders if it can happen.
Ryan Newman - Another story of transition in 2014 will be Newman. He is taking one of the most desirable seats in the series by doing so, but was released from Stewart-HAAS without much fanfare. Burton wasn't able to make much ground with the ride that Newman will take over, so one wonders exactly how much Newman might be able to accomplish. He hasn't shown himself as the driver who can drive a team forward, but he can achieve success from time to time. Fantasy owners can expect better results from this team with Newman versus Burton, but whether the team will have the consistency to find a spot in the Chase and score multiple wins remains to be seen.
Martin Truex Jr. - Truex lost his ride with Michael Waltrip Racing after a few strong seasons with the team. Truex left the team after being removed from the Chase after teammate Clint Bowyer was adjudged to have spun to create a situation that enabled Truex to claim the second wild card spot in the running. Instead, Truex missed the Chase, finished 16th in points, and will drive Furniture Row Racing's No. 78 car in 2014. Kurt Busch proved that success can be had with Furniture Row, but it isn't the marquee team that Truex is used to driving with. The workload will likely be higher to achieve similar results, and how Truex will respond is a question mark.
Danica Patrick - After a rookie season that started with such high hopes, Patrick has just one weekend to look back on with pride, and that was February's Daytona 500. She took pole for that race and scored her only top-10 finish in this rookie year. With the equipment that won Tony Stewart a championship, it was anticipated that Patrick could at least fight at some tracks, but she failed to do so all season. Her average finish before the finale in Miami was 26.3 with an average start of 30.2. The time has come for the results to live up to the hype. If Patrick suffers another season like this, she may be looking for a new team with which to race.