Typically, the season finale of any sport is a time to celebrate the year that has passed, to remember the excitement and the incredible competition that has led us fans to the final battle.
But when looking back on the 35 races that carried us to this Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead, I’m really struggling to remember much beyond the controversies, frustrations, and even tragedies that have made the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season one of the most difficult I’ve ever watched.
First off, there’s only 43 drivers on the entry list for Homestead, making NASCAR’s brand-new qualifying format utterly useless for the 22nd time this season. In the other 14, no more than 45 cars have attempted to qualify for each race. This includes the Daytona 500, which had its shortest entry list since 2004, and the Brickyard 400, with its shortest ever.
This sounds like a trivial concern until you put it in broader context. Unlike 2004 and again in 2009, when several start-up teams joined the series to compete on qualifying day, the 2013 field stagnated. Part-time teams like Xxxtreme Motorsports (#44) and Humphrey-Smith Motorsports (#19) stopped racing by midseason. Never in the last two decades have so few teams competed for NASCAR’s top championship.
Some of the blame for the short fields may be due to the added cost of the “Gen-6” car, a vehicle whose promise of improved competition has yet to be realized. With a schedule long-overdue for a complete overhaul, an increasing portion of the season has become practically unwatchable. Single-file racing is still the norm at Las Vegas, Kansas, and Chicago, but now also at the once-competitive quad-ovals at Charlotte, Atlanta, and Texas.
What’s most surprising is how awful the restrictor-plate package has become. Daytona SpeedWeeks was one of the least competitive in years while last month’s “Wild Card Weekend” at Talladega ended with a ten-lap parade to the caution flag. The few enjoyable races at the short tracks and road courses are so scattered in the schedule that they are far from the norm, almost certainly alienating casual fans while infuriating the faithful.
Also, many drivers who started the season won’t be competing on Sunday. Tony Stewart started the year with a rash of bad runs, then recovered with an impressive win at Dover only to suffer a broken leg in a dirt track race on August 5 that’s kept him off the track the rest of the season. Stewart’s former teammate, Denny Hamlin, broke his back when he hit an unprotected wall while battling for the win at Fontana, and though he missed just four races, he has struggled ever since. Brian Vickers, who relieved Hamlin during that span, pulled an upset by winning at Loudon in July, finally securing him a full-time ride in the #55 for Michael Waltrip Racing, then was himself sidelined on October 14 with the second blood clot to strike him in the last three seasons. Thankfully, Sunday’s field will still have Trevor Bayne, who despite his diagnosis with multiple sclerosis earlier this week, is extremely eager to compete.
Another driver injured this year was Bobby Labonte, who broke three ribs in a bicycle accident on August 28 that kept him out of the #47 Toyota for three races. This was just the latest in a series of struggles for Labonte, whose consecutive start streak ended when he couldn’t get a ride at Kentucky, a race that came after back-to-back last-place finishes with two different teams at Michigan and Sonoma. This weekend, ten years after his most recent win, Labonte also finds himself without a full-time ride for 2014, joining Jeff Burton, ousted after eight years with Richard Childress Racing to make way for Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon. Next year, Dillon will drive the #3 in a NASCAR far different than when we last saw it in 2001.
While it is yet unclear whether Labonte or Burton will return to Cup competition, it is known that Ken Schrader will be making his final series start at Homestead in the FAS Lane Racing #32, ending a Cup career dating back to 1984. Mark Martin, driving in relief for Tony Stewart this Sunday, has also hinted he will retire after Homestead, but that is anything but certain following his infamous “Salute To You Tour” of 2005. Either way, with Labonte, Burton, Schrader, Martin, and even IndyCar-bound Juan Pablo Montoya leaving the series in 2014, NASCAR’s field could be even more depleted than this year’s as its youngest stars struggle to compete with a handful of remaining champions like Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth.
But what has defined 2013 more than anything have been the tragedies and near-tragedies that have befallen both drivers and fans. In 1964 and 1993, NASCAR endured two devastating seasons where more than one driver was killed, including two past series champions. 2013 saw the passing of two more stars. Nationwide Series regular Jason Leffler lost his life in a dirt track race in New Jersey on June 12, one month after 1989 Cup Series Rookie of the Year and fellow dirt track star Dick Trickle died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound on May 16.
Equally horrifying have been a number of injuries sustained by fans in 2013. This includes not only the well-publicized accidents of a wheel and tire assembly flying into the stands during a Nationwide race at Daytona and the faulty TV cables dangling on the track at Charlotte, but a less-discussed incident in the second Charlotte race where broken glass fell from the window of an unoccupied suite. Thankfully, none of those three events caused any deaths, but such can only be attributed to dumb luck, not adequate preparation.
Then, just when the sport needed it the least, Clint Bowyer slowed down and spun out at Richmond, sparking a controversy unlike any NASCAR has ever seen. Martin Truex, Jr., who that night in Richmond raced his way into the Chase field with a broken wrist, not only lost his Chase berth instead of Bowyer, but also his ride when sponsor NAPA pulled the plug. And, even with imperfect justice given and thirteen drivers in the Chase, the championship is already all but sewn-up for the guy who’s won five of the last seven.
All of this late-season drama was broadcast by ESPN, the network who (along with TNT) tried to get out of their network contract a year early. The same ESPN that, earlier this season, made fun of a tribute to a fallen driver when a longtime car owner said a heartfelt goodbye to the sport.
If you’re thinking I’m sounding too negative here, you need to remind yourself that not only did all these things actually happen in the last nine months, but that every one of them is a lesson NASCAR needs to learn from - and now - in order to survive. This isn’t coincidence, an example of a season merely being snake-bitten. With all these things happening in such a short amount time, I believe it’s something else.
I believe 2013 has brought to the surface glaring flaws in the sport that can no longer be ignored. From the Chase format, to fan safety, to the haphazard use of soft walls, to the declining quality of television broadcasts, to the obstacles preventing small teams from acquiring sponsorship, to the way the sport cares for retired drivers, NASCAR needs to spend this offseason not only looking at itself in the mirror, but telling us what it sees.
Then, just maybe, we can all get back on the right track.