2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Driver Rankings: Final Edition
You know who's No. 1 in the final 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup driver rankings. It can be no other than Kevin Harvick, who captured the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in dramatic fashion, securing the title by going to Victory Lane in the final winner-take-all race against three other championship hopefuls at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
It's hard to believe that Harvick did it in his first season at Stewart-Haas Racing, with a new crew chief in Rodney Childers, who had to build the No. 4 SHR race team from scratch just weeks before the start of the season.
"The guys on this race team and what we went through at the beginning of the year to get it going, there's not too many people that would have went through that," Childers told Tom Jensen of FoxSports.com. "And I really expected people to work a couple months and realize how bad it was and turn around and walk out the door."
Instead, they are celebrating winning a title together and having their driver sit at a clear-cut No. 1 in the final Bleacher Report driver rankings of 2014. But the rest of our top 10 is not so easily determined.
It is based on the entire season and not just the final race. It's based on the entire body of work, including number of race victories and top-five and top-10 finishes over the full 36-race season, as well as how many laps a driver led, how he fared in the Chase and whether he exceeded or fell short of the season's general expectations for him.
10. Matt Kenseth
Previous Ranking: 7
Why He's Here: After winning a career-high seven races and finishing second in the points under the old Chase for the Sprint Cup format in 2013, Matt Kenseth was expected to visit Victory Lane multiple times and challenge for the title again in 2014. He did challenge for the title—in a sense—making it to the Eliminator Round, or final eight, before getting eliminated from the Chase. But he didn't win a single race all season for the first time since 2010, which was a major disappointment.
2014 Highlights: He finished second twice (at Atlanta and at Talladega in the Chase) and third four times. But an omen of the type of season he would have actually came in the fourth race of the season, the spring race at Bristol, when Kenseth led 165 laps but faded to 13th by the finish. It was the only race all year where he led more than 62 laps, as he led a total of only 529 overall after leading 1,783 in 2013.
What's Next: It will be interesting to see if Kenseth stays with crew chief Jason Ratcliff, as it appears there will be a major crew chief shakeup at Joe Gibbs Racing. Bottom line, though, is that to lead more laps and start winning races again, it's not so much on Kenseth's driving ability as it is on Toyota Racing Development to close the gap between its engines and the Chevrolet engines being used by Stewart-Haas Racing and Hendrick Motorsports or the Ford engines being fine-tuned by Team Penske.
9. Carl Edwards
Previous Ranking: 8
Why He's Here: Considering that it became apparent very early on in 2014 that this likely would be Edwards' final season in the No. 99 Roush Fenway Ford—and that, later on, not only did the driver confirm it, but his crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, also announced he would be leaving—this team overachieved. It won two races, made the Chase and lasted until the final eight before being eliminated.
2014 Highlights: Edwards won on the short track at Bristol in the spring and then won on the road course at Sonoma in June. Both victories were a testament to his professional, determined approach in a lame-duck season when it would have been far easier for him to mail it in—or at least send out signals that lessened the team's desire to put forth its best effort on his behalf every week. Edwards made sure everyone stayed positive, and Fennig never stopped working as hard as he could to find speed that simply wasn't there most of the time on the bigger tracks for the RFR cars. That was evident by these startling statistics: Edwards' 14 top-10 finishes were the fewest of the top 11 finishers in points, and his season total of 135 laps led ranked 13th.
What's Next: Edwards is moving on to Joe Gibbs Racing, where he will get a fresh start that he apparently could use. Fennig is either retiring or moving off the pit box to a role in the RFR Research and Development arm. This proved to be a resilient team, but Edwards likely will benefit long term from the move, especially if Toyota closes the horsepower gap on its competitors going forward as expected.
8. Jimmie Johnson
Previous Ranking: Not Ranked
Why He's Here: No, Jimmie Johnson didn't make it to even the final eight in the Chase. But he still had a top eight season overall, winning a total of four races and being one of seven drivers who registered at least 20 top-10 finishes. He also ranked third in number of laps led with 1,310, trailing only Harvick and Brad Keselowski. Yet, as the defending champion who was in hot pursuit of history (a seventh overall title would tie him with Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most all time), it still ranked as a disappointing season.
2014 Highlights: The first three of his four victories came over the span of four weeks in May and June, leading most observers to believe he was on the verge of going on the type of run that has become all too familiar over the years. Instead, he faded as the regular season progressed and entered the Chase with almost no momentum. In previous years, that never seemed to matter. This time, though, Johnson couldn't overcome it.
What's Next: Although Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus seemed to bicker throughout much of the season, they already have made it clear that they intend to pursue that seventh championship together for as long as it takes to get it, per Tom Jensen of FoxSports.com. So they'll be back next year, and it will surprise no one if they make a strong run at that seventh title.
7. Ryan Newman
Previous Ranking: 6
Why He's Here: Yes, he finished second in the Championship Round race and will go down as the 2014 runner-up in the standings. But let's be honest: Ryan Newman wasn't the No. 2 driver for the season as a whole, nor was he even that close. He did finish with an incredible run that nearly scored him one of the great upsets of all time, but the bottom line is that he didn't win a race all season, his five top-five finishes were the fewest of the top 12 finishers in points and his 41 total laps led on the season ranked 22nd, behind the likes of rookie Kyle Larson, Marcos Ambrose and Paul Menard.
2014 Highlights: You have to admit he saved his best for last. His second-place finish in the season finale at Homestead was his most impressive effort of the season. Had Harvick encountered a flat tire or some other misfortune in the closing laps, Newman was in position to steal a championship. Say what you will, but no driver, team or crew chief (Newman's crew chief is young up-and-coming star Luke Lambert) worked the new Chase elimination format more to his advantage.
What's Next: Newman's No. 31 Richard Childress Racing team just needs to find more speed so it can start leading laps and winning some races. If it doesn't, it could go the other way in a hurry next season. It will be next to impossible for Newman and Co. to repeat the Chase success they had this season without getting faster overall.
6. Denny Hamlin
Previous Ranking: 5
Why He's Here: Denny Hamlin closed out the season on a hot streak, no doubt. He even looked like the guy to beat at Homestead until two late cautions and a gamble to stay out on old tires did him in over the final 17 laps.
2014 Highlights: He led laps in seven of the 10 Chase races for a total of 200. Considering that he led only 163 laps over the 26 regular-season races, he and crew chief Darian Grubb started hitting their stride at the right time and might have won the title if Grubb hadn't made the no-tire gamble at Homestead. But considering Hamlin's overall lack of speed most of the season, the gamble probably provided him with his only shot at winning the race and the title. His lone win of the season came in the spring at Talladega when a late caution froze the field.
What's Next: It is quite possible that Hamlin and Grubb have worked their last race together. But again, as with all the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota teams, a change in crew chiefs is only going to do so much if Toyota Racing Development doesn't improve on the horsepower and reliability of its engines. Hamlin noted that on several occasions during the season, including once in August when, according to FoxSports.com, he said of his attempt to match speed with the Hendrick Motorsports cars: "We're trying to make the best we can do, down 50 horsepower. We can't just accelerate down the straightaway like them."
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Previous Ranking: Not Ranked
Why He's Here: The only reason Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn't ranked in the previous rankings was because he had just been eliminated from the Contender Round, so he didn't make it to the final eight. But you can't discount the season he had as a whole. Plus, he ended up winning the Chase race at Martinsville after he had been eliminated for his fourth victory of the season.
2014 Highlights: Nothing beats opening the season by winning the Daytona 500, which Earnhardt did last February. It remains NASCAR's biggest race, even though it opens the season instead of closes it. Then Junior swept both Pocono races, before a slight slump heading into the Chase doomed him to elimination when the struggles with consistency continued. Still, his four race wins and 12 top-five finishes made this his most productive season in a decade (since he posted a career-high six wins and 16 top-five finishes in 2004).
What's Next: This was Earnhardt's final season with crew chief and confidante Steve Letarte, and he has admitted that it won't be the same going forward without Letarte on his pit box. But Letarte's replacement, Greg Ives, is coming off a championship-winning season with Chase Elliott in the Nationwide Series and should prove to be more than competent.
4. Jeff Gordon
Previous Ranking: 2
Why He's Here: Jeff Gordon didn't make the Championship Round, which riled both the driver and his fanbase up to no end. Despite that, he posted four wins, led the series in top-10 finishes with 23 and was one of only four drivers to lead more than 1,000 laps.
2014 Highlights: Each of his four wins was memorable no doubt, but the one that sticks in the mind the most was his Chase race win at Dover, when he knew he needed at least a good run to ensure advancement into the next round. It was a clutch performance. Gordon also won one of NASCAR's most prestigious races at Indianapolis for a record fifth time in late July. Furthermore, folks tend to forget that Gordon made his strong run at what would have been a fifth championship despite battling a bad back that made him hint at retirement following an incident in Charlotte in May.
What's Next: Gordon's chemistry and communication with crew chief Alan Gustafson was at an all-time high this season. But he turned 43 in August and pored so much into this season, both physically and mentally, that it's only natural to wonder if he'll be able to duplicate it again next season—or any season beyond that. This might have been his last and best shot at that fifth title after winning No. 4 way back in 2001.
3. Joey Logano
Previous Ranking: 1
Why He's Here: A pit-road mistake that had nothing to do with Joey Logano's driving doomed his chances at the race win and his first championship in the late stages of the season finale at Homestead. Yet, at age 24, this finally represented the type of breakout season that had long been expected of Logano. He totaled five wins, 16 top-five finishes (second only to the 17 recorded by Penske teammate Keselowski) and 22 top-10 finishes that tied him with Kenseth and ranked second only to Gordon.
2014 Highlights: Logano won twice in the Chase, first at New Hampshire and then two races later at Kansas. He also won earlier in the season at 1.5-mile Texas and on a pair of short tracks at Richmond and Bristol. So he proved he could win on any type of track, and until the final race, no one was more consistent in the Chase. Under the old Chase format, he would have won the title going away.
What's Next: Logano appears to have the type of relationship with crew chief Todd Gordon that has been lacking in his career. With the confidence gained from this season and with the likelihood that their chemistry will only continue getting better, the two could be the next power couple in the Sprint Cup garage, contending for titles for years to come.
2. Brad Keselowski
Previous Ranking: 4
Why He's Here: Nope, Brad Keselowski wasn't one of the final four drivers battling for a title at Homestead. And yes, he angered lots of other drivers along the way in the Chase. But you can't ignore his impressive numbers for the season, including a series-high six victories, five poles, a series-high 17 top-five finishes and a total of 1,540 laps led, second only to Harvick.
2014 Highlights: There is no question that his top highlight was the win at Talladega in the final race of the Contender Round. Keselowski knew he had to win to get in, and that's exactly what he did. So he angered veterans Kenseth, Hamlin, Harvick and Tony Stewart at Charlotte in the Chase. Then he added Gordon to the list of Bad Brad detractors two weeks later in Texas. So what? He kept on pushing hard until he finally was eliminated from the Chase, and then he still drove to a third-place finish in the final race at Homestead.
What's Next: If Logano and Todd Gordon are one relatively new power couple in the Sprint Cup garage, then Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe represent another. Putting all that chemistry and brain power together under one Team Penske roof assures that Keselowski and his No. 2 Miller Lite Ford team will have plenty of reasons to hoist beers in toasts over many future seasons.
1. Kevin Harvick
Previous Ranking: 1
Why He's Here: No surprise here. Harvick not only won the championship by winning the final race of the season in dramatic fashion, but he also totaled five wins, a series-high six poles and 2,137 laps led on the season. That was just shy of 600 more laps led than any other driver in the series.
2014 Highlights: Winning at Darlington earlier in the year for the first time in his career was special no doubt, but nothing tops the Homestead effort. Knowing he needed to finish ahead of the other three Championship Round drivers to earn his first championship, Harvick drove like a madman to get to the front toward the end and stay there. Had it not been for repeated pit-road troubles earlier in the season, he easily could have won four or five more races. As it was, he finished second a series-high six times.
What's Next: Harvick, 38, and crew chief Childers aren't going anywhere after their first season together at Stewart-Haas Racing. Childers has long been considered a star in the making in crew chief circles, and Harvick now knows the pure joy that accompanies winning a championship. All of this will have them hungry for more by the time the 2015 Daytona 500 rolls around next February.
Unless otherwise noted, all information was obtained firsthand.
Joe Menzer has written six books, including two about NASCAR, and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report as well as covering NASCAR for FoxSports.com as a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.