After 38 races spanning over 40 weeks, the NASCAR season is complete. This means only one thing: once again, it's time to take out the big red pen and give grades to the sport's top teams.
As was the case last year, it's important to note that grading is done on a curve, based on a combination of talent, preseason expectations and resources at each team's disposal. All teams are graded fairly, but not equally. And only teams finishing in the top 25 in owner points were evaluated.
It's an easy A for the organization which again placed all four of its drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. En route to a sixth championship, Jimmie Johnson racked up six victories and were it not for a few gaffes, could have posted double digits in the win column.
If there is a reason to quibble with Hendrick Motorsports' year, it's that Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon were too inconsistent and Dale Earnhardt Jr. failed to win a race for the fifth time in seven years. That said, Kahne and Gordon each won at least once and were in position to win several more. And although he failed to win himself, Earnhardt had five runner-ups, set a career high for top-10s (22) and finished the year ranked fifth in points.
Joe Gibbs Racing
In his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, Matt Kenseth was sensational, winning a series-best seven races and nearly taking the championship.
And as good as Kenseth was, Kyle Busch nearly matched his teammate's performance. He won four races, was third in laps led -- over 1,100 for the sixth straight year -- and only Johnson equaled his 16 top-five finishes. Most importantly, for the first time ever, Busch produced in the Chase from beginning to end, finishing a career-best fourth overall and looking like he might finally contend seriously next year.
For the majority of the year, the No. 11 team was JGR's outlier, saddled with inconsistency and underperformance. But this also comes with an asterisk, as a back injury knocked Denny Hamlin out for four weeks and even when he returned, he still wasn't 100 percent. Not to mention when it became clear he wasn't going to qualify for the Chase, his team became the de facto guinea pigs, often running experimental engine parts, which contributed to the rash of mechanical failures.
However, a strong push at the end of the season, including a victory at Homestead, salvaged Hamlin's otherwise miserable year and also bumped JGR up a full grade.
Furniture Row Racing
Years in the making, Furniture Row Racing finally burst through, becoming the first single-car team to ever make the Chase. No, Kurt Busch didn't win a race but he came close several times, showcasing his immense ability behind the wheel. The biggest obstacle Furniture Row encountered and never mastered was pit stops, an issue that must be addressed going forward. Regardless, 2013 was a banner year for NASCAR's Cinderella organization, even if it never won a race.
Richard Childress Racing
Much as he has throughout his tenure, Kevin Harvick again carried the flag for Richard Childress Racing with four wins and a third-place finish in points. That he accomplished this despite the fact he was leaving the organization at the end of the year speaks volumes about Harvick and Childress.
As for Harvick's teammates, Paul Menard produced his typical output: a handful of top-10s with a points finish in the high teens. Whereas Jeff Burton wasn't any better, lacking consistency and ultimately showing that at age 46, his best days are well behind him. Still, Harvick's amazing season more than makes up for RCR's shortcomings.
Roush Fenway Racing
2013 was very much a mixed bag for Roush Fenway Racing. Although Carl Edwards won twice and accumulated more points than anyone else during the regular season, he pulled a Houdini in the Chase, finishing last. The same could be said of Greg Biffle, who made the Chase but did nothing of real consequence in the playoffs besides yanking Johnson by the collar.
Rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had the typical freshman campaign, struggling early then coming around as the year progressed. That he only had three top-10s, however, has to be seen as somewhat of a disappointment.
When you're the reigning Cup champion and you fail to even qualify for the Chase, your grade will be only so high. Such was the year for Brad Keselowski, who opened with seven top-10s in the first eight weeks then backslid dramatically. Not helping matters were a pair of point penalties for rule infractions, a two-week suspension for crew chief Paul Wolfe and the transition from Dodge to Ford.
While his teammate yo-yoed, Joey Logano flourished in his first season with Penske Racing. He notched a win at Michigan, posted career highs in top-fives, top-10s, laps led and average finish, and finally lived up to the hype which accompanied his arrival four years ago. Logano should also be recognized for bringing much-needed stability to the No. 22 team after the turbulent exits of his predecessors Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger.
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
A few breaks and Earnhardt Ganassi Racing would have had an outstanding season. Juan Pablo Montoya was leading late at Richmond and Dover only for fate to intervene, while Jamie McMurray visited Talladega's Victory Lane and had several strong runs vanish due to mechanical gremlins.
But in the end, Montoya had another wildly maddening year, cumulating with his contract not being renewed, with McMurray again being his inconsistent self. So in essence, it was business as usual for EGR.
Michael Waltrip Racing
Michael Waltrip Racing had a breakthrough 2012 and expectations were that it would continue its ascent. And through the first 25 races, the three-car team more than answered the bell with Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex being playoff contenders, and Brian Vickers scoring a popular win at New Hampshire.
Then it all unraveled at Richmond, as the team was found to have manipulated the running order.
Consequently, MWR was hit with severe sanctions, which included a NASCAR record $300,000 fine and Truex being excluded from the Chase. The snowball effect saw NAPA withdraw its sponsorship and MWR forced to contract to two full-time cars. Further compounding the team's troubles was the fact Bowyer was shut out of the winner's circle after winning three times the year prior.
In hindsight, forming a third team while also dealing with a brand-new car might have been too much for the still young organization. SHR struggled from the outset and it took until late spring before Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman really got going. Both veterans won races and Newman made the Chase, but neither fulfilled expectations with Stewart's season ending prematurely due to a broken leg.
Entering her rookie season, it was understood by all that Danica Patrick was going to have far more downs than ups, which is how things played out. The highs included winning the pole for the Daytona 500 and a resulting eighth-place finish. Even more noteworthy was how she ran in the spring race at Martinsville, where Patrick fought back from two laps to finish 12th. The lows included 23 finishes of 25th or worse and, more jarring, little to no progress in the second half of the season when she visited tracks for a second time.
Richard Petty Motorsports
Outwardly, Richard Petty Motorsports had the pieces in place to follow up on a respectable 2012 season. That never materialized. Instead, Aric Almirola made just gradual improvement, with Marcos Ambrose failing to finish better than sixth and dropping to 22nd in points. His regression was particularly galling as Ambrose appeared on the cusp of finally winning on an oval, but more often than not, simply wasn't competitive in 2013.
RPM's problems were further compounded when Almirola's crew chief, Todd Parrott, was subsequently dismissed in October for violating NASCAR's substance-abuse policy. What direction the No. 43 team goes in from here is still in doubt.