COMMENTARY | Perseverance, exuberance, dominance - three words to describe this year's three NASCAR champions. Each driver took a different road to the top: one took a while to reach his peak, one moved quickly up the ladder of success and one returned to dominance after taking a short break from the top.
Perseverance: Matt Crafton, Camping World Truck Series champ - Second-generation NASCAR driver Crafton made his Truck Series debut in 2000 at the season finale at Auto Club Speedway with an impressive ninth-place finish, the same year he won the NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Series title. In 13 full-time Truck Series season, he's never finished outside the top 15 in points, but until this year, his best finish was second in 2009, a season where he earned 21 top 10 finishes in 25 races. This year, Crafton put together a season that included one win and 19 top 10 finishes in 22 races, including 16 straight top 10s to start the season. 2013 also marked Crafton's first venture into the Nationwide Series, earning three top 10 finishes in three races for Richard Childress Racing, including two third-place finishes at Kentucky.
Exuberance: Austin Dillon, Nationwide Series champ - Overflowing with talent and enthusiasm, and having a helping hand (which never hurt anyone in their career of choice), Dillon made his NASCAR top-tier debut in 2008 in the Nationwide Series, racing twice for granddad Richard Childress' team and finishing fourth at Memphis Motorsports Park. Two years later, Dillon ran full-time in the Camping World Truck Series for RCR, winning Rookie of the Year; in 2011, he won the Truck Series title. His trip up the ladder continued, moving to the Nationwide Series full-time in 2012 and winning its Rookie of the Year award; he once again followed that up in 2013 with a title. The next move, to the Sprint Cup Series, is likely to be revealed in the next few weeks; Dillon already has 13 Cup Series races under his belt, but has yet to earn a top 10 finish. Another feather in Dillon's cap for 2013: he won the inaugural Mudsummer Classic Camping World Truck Series race at famed Ohio dirt track Eldora Speedway.
Dominance: Jimmie Johnson, Sprint Cup Series champ - Six titles in eight seasons have made Jimmie Johnson both beloved and despised by NASCAR fans, but you can't deny how dominant the combination of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have become. With some past champions, it difficult to remember who their crew chief was when they won; with Johnson, there's no question. Save Johnson's first three Cup Series starts in 2001, the Johnson-Knaus tandem has been inseparable, from Johnson's Daytona 500 pole as a rookie in 2002 to championship No. 6 in 2013. The duo claimed six victories, 24 top 10 finishes and three poles in 2013, with Johnson's best average finish since 2008: 10.7. In 12 full-time seasons in the Cup Series, Johnson has never finished worst than sixth in points, and has amassed 66 wins in 435 starts - some of which, admittedly, did not come with Knaus at the helm. Johnson also made an extremely rare Nationwide Series start in 2013, finishing 12th at Phoenix in March for teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s JR Motorsports.
Paula is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in motorsports. She also covers NASCAR at Examiner.com and Skirts & Scuffs.
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