This weekend in Las Vegas, Jimmie Johnson will be recognized for his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in eight seasons. Additionally, two-time Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will also be for his first season at the top level, where he won the Sonoco Rookie of the Year Award.
Here at the Granite Stripe, we're not in Las Vegas. We're in cold New Hampshire waiting for the snow to fall, so I'm going to give out our own awards. There's no real rhyme or reason to them; these are just fun gag prizes. In some instances, they're negative awards and there's no malice directed toward any of those drivers, it's just an honest assessment of a disappointing season.
"The Little Engine That Could"
Most Unexpected Performance
Busch deserves whatever accolades and/or title you want to throw at him: "most improved," "most heart," "most unexpected." He drove a No. 78 car at Furniture Row Racing that had never so much as sniffed the possibility of a Chase berth, and he took it to automatic qualifying position for NASCAR's postseason.
He might not have managed to find victory lane, but he certainly wasn't a disappointment. A year removed from a complete meltdown and with his career on the rocks, Busch resurrected his image and reaffirmed his driving ability. He'll have the opportunity to back that up next year with a stronger financial backing at Stewart-Haas Racing.
"The Titanic Sinking"
Most Unexpected Struggle
The 2012 champion appeared to be a mainstay atop the NASCAR world entering this season. He showed the heart and the consistency of a winner during the 2012 Chase, and he started off 2013 in the same fashion with four top-fives in the first four races and seven top-10s in the first eight. That was the high point.
His crew chief, Paul Wolfe, was suspended for two races shortly thereafter, and the No. 2 never seemed the same. Keselowski didn't string more than two consecutive top-10s together the rest of the way and didn't get an elusive win until Charlotte in October after he had already missed the Chase. All in all, it was an underwhelming Cup defense for the reigning champion.
"Point In The Right Direction"
Best Points Racer
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Junior finished tied for second with 22 top-10s and made his third consecutive Chase. His fifth place finish is the highest he's been since that same spot in 2006, and he's clearly removed from whatever slump he was in during the 2009 and '10 seasons.
The problem is that he never finds victory lane (one win since 2008) and was one of five Chase drivers to have converted less than half of his top-10s (22) into top-fives (10). Dale Jr.'s constancy will put him in the Chase every year, but without the ability turn good days into great days, he might never win a championship.
"If You Have To Point A Finger"
Worst Points Racer
I give this award with all due respect, as Kahne was my preseason pick for the NASCAR championship. Unfortunately, it wasn't his season. Kahne did win two races, but he also finished second on six occasions. In a if-you're-not-first,-you're-last world, that's a lot of times to finish as a Bridesmaid.
What's worse is that despite those high finishes, Kahne only finished 13th in points during the regular season and 12th in the Chase, when he managed just three top-10s over the last 10 races. He had far too many bad weeks to contend for the title this season, and that's disappointing when you consider how many good days went to waste.
"Come On Baby Light My Fire"
Likely Near-Future Champion
He might be the most polarizing driver in the sport, but the younger Busch brother appears on his way to a title. His 22 top-10s were tied for second to only the champion, Johnson, and his 16 top-fives tied for first with the No. 48.
Midway through the Chase, he finished in 34th at Kansas after a crash, and that cost him. Finishing 55 points back at the season's end, it's unfair to say that was the only difference maker, but it certainly was the knock out punch. He recorded seven top-10s (and five top-fives) during the Chase and seems very close to figuring it all out.
Unlikely Near-Future Contender
Expectations were never higher for Patrick than when she qualified on the pole to start the season in the Daytona 500. She went on to finish eighth, but that would be her only top-10 of the season. She only earned three other finishes inside the top-15, and, after the hype wore off, she became an afterthought by the end of the season.
When it comes to excuse making, Patrick has a solid team at Stewart-Haas Racing and a good crew chief in Tony Gibson, so the performance comes down to her inexperience. She's a rookie, and there's time for her to improve, but she would have been better served with another year or two in the Nationwide Series to better learn stock car racing.
Of note: in 115 races in the IndyCar Series, she won only once and her highest points finish in seven seasons was fifth. It's unlikely (and maybe even unfair) to expect her to be a contender in the Sprint Cup Series now or in the near future.
That's it for the 2013 NSCS Granite Stripe Awards Ceremony! Congratulations again to Johnson on his championship. I shared my thoughts on his dominance in late October when he appeared on his way to the six-pack, and he truly has been an impressive force to watch over the past decade.