The Top Feel-Good Storylines of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season
Just past the halfway point of the 2014 NASCAR schedule, and it’s time for the teams of the Sprint Cup series to take a well-deserved final weekend off before the start of the grueling 17-race stretch that will take them to the end of the season and the championship race in Homestead, Florida.
While they enjoy this break, we’ll take a look back at some of the stories from the past six months that caught our attention and may have put a smile on our face.
We start off with a very well-known name winning at an equally well-known place...
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wins His Second Daytona 500
Any look back begins with the most obvious—Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win at the Daytona 500. It was the second time (2004) that the sport’s most popular driver took home the trophy for winning the sport’s biggest race, a race that was rain-delayed for nearly six hours and ended near midnight.
Earnhardt Jr.’s season-opening win ended a 55-race winless drought, and it kicked off what many are calling the best season of his career. He has since won a second time (Pocono) and has nine top-five and 13 top-10 finishes to his credit.
“Having two wins is going to make it even easier, a lot less stress, a lot less stress on the team, and I think that could be a good thing going into the Chase,” said Earnhardt after his second win at Pocono. “I mean, not only are we able to relax right now, but what does that do for—that’s got to be positive for our composure and psyche going into the Chase, not having to stress all the way through into Richmond, you know?”
A 10-place finish this past weekend at New Hampshire and his two wins have firmly secured Earnhardt’s spot in the Chase.
Earnhardt’s win wasn’t the only feel-good story at Daytona this year.
Almirola Returns No. 43 to Victory Lane at Daytona
Aric Almirola returned team owner Richard Petty’s iconic No. 43 to Victory Lane for the first time in 15 years, winning the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400.
It was the first Sprint Cup win for the 30-year-old Almirola and will likely earn him a spot in the 2014 Chase.
“The 43 car is without a doubt the most famous car in our sport’s history,” Almirola told The Associated Press following the race (via The Washington Post). “And to have that opportunity to drive that race car has been really special from the day that I stepped foot in it. All I wanted to do from the very first time I drove it was get it to Victory Lane. It took two and a half years I guess, but I finally did it.”
The Cuban-American driver was one of the first participants in NASCAR’s “Drive for Diversity” program in 2004.
Ironically, Almirola’s win came on the same weekend that his team owner, Petty, celebrated the 30th anniversary of his 200th and final career win.
The "Outlaw" Attempts "The Double"
When he announced that he was considering an attempt to race in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca Cola 600 on the same day, it was initially met with some skepticism, since Kurt Busch had only a few dozen laps in an Indy car under his belt.
But the 2004 NASCAR champion made the month of May at Indy look easy. He quickly got up to speed and qualified 12th for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
When the first part of his Memorial Day weekend odyssey was over, the Las Vegas native not only finished in the top 10 at Indy (sixth), but also was later crowned the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year.
His attempt to complete all 1,100 miles in one day ended when his Sprint Cup car blew an engine some 400 miles into the 600-mile NASCAR event at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Busch joined a very elite group of drivers who have attempted what is referred to as “The Double.” John Andretti (1999) was the first. He was followed first by Busch’s NASCAR team owner, Tony Stewart, and former NASCAR and IndyCar star Robby Gordon (2004). Stewart was the only one to successfully complete the 1,100 miles, finishing sixth at Indy and third at Charlotte in 2001.
For more on Busch’s amazing month of May you can visit the Kurt Busch & The Double website.
Kyle Larson: A Star Is Born
Many considered team owner Chip Ganassi foolish when he announced that he would put the young Japanese-American driver Kyle Larson in the seat of the No. 42 Chevrolet being vacated by Juan Pablo Montoya.
Ganassi, whose race teams have won numerous championships in other series, has a track record for taking young and unknown drivers and giving them their shot at stardom.
And this decision has been well-rewarded.
The 21-year-old has had a remarkable rookie season so far in the Sprint Cup Series. His chemistry with crew chief Chris Heroy has paid off with four top-five and eight top-10 finishes to his credit.
Although he’s yet to win a race (that’s coming), he won his first pole at Richmond. And Larson has even taken on one of the sport’s biggest stars when he blocked Tony Stewart at Michigan in June, causing a bitter reaction by the three-time Cup champion.
“Maybe he’s just trying to intimidate me or treat me (like the new kid.) I get that. I understand that,” Larson told NASCAR.com.
Welcome to the big leagues, kid!
New Knockout Qualifying Format
“We believe the timing is right for a new qualifying format across our three national series,” NASCAR Vice President for Competition Robin Pemberton said. “This style of group qualifying has all the makings of being highly competitive and more engaging to our fans in the stands and those watching on television and online.
“For the drivers and teams, we believe this new qualifying will fuel even greater competition leading into the events. Additionally, it provides our tracks, broadcasters and other key partners with a greater opportunity to develop more entertaining content for our race weekends.”
With that announcement on January 22, NASCAR entered a new era where single-car qualifying at all Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races would end (except for the Daytona 500, which retains its unique format), and “knockout qualifying” would be the rule of the land.
So far, the new qualifying format has produced entertaining results, with three rounds of qualifying being done at most tracks and two rounds at tracks smaller than 1.5 miles.
NASCAR has taken the worst show in racing and made it one of the best.
Trevor Bayne Gets Cup Ride for 2015
Fan favorite and 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne patiently waited his turn for his shot at full-time Sprint Cup. He’ll have that opportunity in 2015 when he’ll drive the resurrected No. 6 for Roush Fenway Racing, according to team owner Jack Roush. Sponsorship will be by Bayne’s current NASCAR Nationwide Series sponsor AdvoCare.
Bayne announced late last year that he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He is currently taking no medication for the disease, and he has no symptoms. According to team sources, his health is not an issue.
The 23-year-old has 53 starts in the Cup Series, all of them in the iconic No. 21 for the legendary Woods Brothers. His Daytona 500 win is his only win in the Cup Series, but team owner Jack Roush saw something in the young man that made him want to give the Tennessean a full-time ride.
Stellar 2015 Class Elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame
In May, NASCAR announced the inductees who will comprise the 2015 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It is a five-person group—the sixth in NASCAR Hall of Fame history. Bill Elliott, Fred Lorenzen, Wendell Scott, Joe Weatherly and Rex White make up the class that will be inducted into the NASCAR HoF on January 30, 2015.
In addition, NASCAR announced that Anne B. France, wife of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., won the inaugural Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR. She died in 1992. Her contributions to the financial well-being of NASCAR during its formative era are immeasurable.
“Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” Elliott won a record 16 Most Popular Driver Awards during his active driving career.
Fred Lorenzen was a charismatic driver who never raced full time in NASCAR. Despite his not running a full season, he won both the Daytona 500 and the World (now Coca Cola) 600 in 1965.
Wendell Scott was the first African-American to race full time and win in NASCAR’s top series. His legacy continues in the Drive for Diversity program that produced current drivers Aric Almirola and Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Joe Weatherly won the NASCAR championship twice, in 1962 and ’63. His death at Riverside International Raceway led to several safety innovations that are still in use on today’s Sprint Cup cars.
Rex White was a short-track specialist who won the championship in 1960 on the strength of six wins and 35 top-10 finishes in 40 starts.
Unique Sponsorship Puts Cup Driver Wise on Track
Not many NASCAR fans knew about the virtual currency called bitcoins prior to the Talladega Cup race in May.
But once driver Josh Wise and team owner Phil Parsons announced that Wise’s No. 98 Toyota would be sponsored through the use of the virtual currency Dogecoin, NASCAR fans went rushing to their computers to Google the term.
Each Dogecoin is worth less than a cent. But a dedicated group of supporters using the online site Reddit raised the equivalent of the $55,000 needed to put Wise on the track in Talladega.
Wise started 36th and finished 20th. The Dogecoin sponsorship reappeared for the Sonoma road-course race where Wise started 33rd and finished 40th.
Wise currently has no top-five or top-10 finishes. But one could assume that nearly every NASCAR fan knows who he is.
Broadcaster Byrnes Returns to Work After Battle with Cancer
He is a familiar face to NASCAR fans across the country as host of the television show NASCAR Race Hub on Fox Sports 1.
In mid-2013, veteran broadcaster Steve Byrnes was diagnosed with throat cancer that had involved his lymph nodes. He underwent months of treatment, using social media to keep NASCAR fans updated on his treatments and how he was feeling.
Byrnes told his story to ESPN’s Marty Smith.
Byrnes returned to his regular beat for the annual NASCAR media day at Daytona International Speedway in February and is back on the set of Race Hub.
2nd-Generation Driver in Training, or Bring Me My Good-Luck Charm
It’s easy to draw comparisons to the present-day photos of Kevin Harvick and son Keelan with the many photos we’ve seen of the late Dale Earnhardt and his young son at the race track taken decades ago.
At one point last season, Harvick joked to NASCAR.com that he was putting Keelan in the seat of the No. 29 Chevrolet before every Daytona 500 as a good luck charm.
Dad has two wins and sits 13th in points this year driving the No. 4 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing. Just a few more top-five finishes and he’ll have a surefire lock on his spot in the Chase.
I’m not sure dad will need much of a good-luck charm to make that happen.
*All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Follow me on Twitter: @BobMargolis.