The Hottest Storylines in NASCAR Coming out of the 2014 Season
It would be difficult to recall and characterize the 2014 NASCAR season without a flood of superlatives coming to mind.
“Remarkable,” “exciting,” “entertaining” and “unbelievable” are just a few that could be used.
At times, it felt like everyone involved with the sport, fans included, was either looking forward to or dreading the postseason run to the title, with a new format having been announced for the Chase.
When the Chase finally arrived it delivered far more than anyone could have imagined, except for the people in NASCAR’s executive offices who convinced chairman Brian France to change the old format for the current one. They got it right. And you can’t fault France for his bold move to change the championship.
Say what you will about NASCAR and its racing, but it remains the country’s second-biggest spectator sport after NFL football. And it generates more than its share of news.
Here’s a look back at some of the year’s more memorable storylines.
Kevin Harvick Wins Sprint Cup Championship
Well, Mr. Harvick. You finally did it.
After 13 years with Richard Childress Racing, including three close-but-no-cigar seasons where he finished third (2010, '11, '13), Harvick delivered on the promise so many had felt was long overdue.
His move to his friend Tony Stewart’s race team for the 2014 season raised a few eyebrows at first, but for Harvick it was the right move at the right time.
An early win at Phoenix International Raceway, the first real true test of the season following the opener at Daytona International Speedway, set the tone for a season with five race wins, eight pole wins, 14 top 5s and 20 top 10s.
Harvick’s No. 4 Chevrolet was consistently the fastest car on any given weekend, and the chemistry between the 38-year-old and his crew chief, Rodney Childers, produced the kind of cohesion in a first-year team that is rarely seen.
Childers was responsible for keeping the often tempestuous Harvick focused and driven. Once the veteran driver could see that this was the right crew chief and the right team to take him to the top, he let his confidence in his own ability take him right there.
Look for a repeat performance in 2015.
New Chase Format Produces Dramatic Finale
Few outside the NASCAR executive offices shared the vision for the new Chase format like chairman Brian France did. And perhaps a few inside had their doubts too.
When France introduced it to the media back in January, there were few takers. Many were still dealing with the old-time fans who left the sport a decade ago when the original Chase format was first introduced. A new format was only bound to complicate an already beleaguered Chase which one team had dominated for almost a decade.
Once the 10-race run for the championship began, things that were fuzzy about the new format suddenly became crystal-clear. This was going to make the competition closer and hotter. And sometimes that heat pushed emotions past their boiling point, and there were a few fists being thrown.
Although NASCAR executives will never admit it, they were likely smiling and high-fiving each other after Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski had their brief kerfuffle at Texas. It was putting NASCAR back in the sports headlines, and interest in the sport, which had been lagging over the past decade by current and former fans, was being flamed by the controversy.
Maybe Brian France learned just a little something while growing up and sitting first at his grandfather’s and then later his father’s side as Bill Sr. and Bill Jr. grew the sport that he now controls and whose destiny rides upon his leadership.
6-Time Champion Jimmie Johnson Eliminated Early from Championship
When the new Chase format was introduced, more than one NASCAR writer opined that it was done to stop Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus from winning another championship.
After all, the No. 48 team was making the rest of the field look silly with its mastery of the final 10-race tracks that made up the Chase.
But, the technical rules were changed this year, and it essentially leveled the playing field as suddenly crew chief Knaus and the engineering staff at Hendrick Motorsports were having to learn a whole new way to set up their race cars.
Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the field found themselves having to get adjusted to the feel of the new setup that essentially flattened out the car’s suspension and made the feel of the car more like a go-kart than a stock car. For some, it made the experience of taking a 3,000-pound-plus stock car into a corner at more than 200 miles per hour a little more comfortable. For others, it completely changed everything.
Even a driver as good as Jimmie Johnson has a comfort level that needs to be met by having a good setup underneath him that not only allows him the speed necessary to win, but also the comfort with which to do so.
The No. 48 team struggled much of the season with finding that sweet spot. And when it came time for its members to normally shine—the Chase—they fell short, and the Lowe’s Chevrolet became just another car running in seventh or eighth place.
Winless Driver Ryan Newman Nearly Wins Championship
Early in his NASCAR career Ryan Newman earned the nickname “Rocket Man” due to his propensity for winning pole position. In 2002 it was six. The following year it was an astounding 11, and the next year (2004) it was down to a mere nine.
You get the picture.
Unfortunately, Newman was never able to completely translate that qualifying speed into a winning race car. In 2003, he won eight races, his best year ever. However, he fell flat during later part of the season and ended up sixth.
For much of the past decade, Newman was seen as a journeyman driver who would qualify well, be competitive but not close the deal with a win. From 2004 to 2013 he won eight races at a pace of one race a year.
In 2008, his one win came early—at the Daytona 500. He then became “Daytona 500 winner” Ryan Newman. In the middle of the 2013 season, Newman was publicly released from Newman-Haas Racing to make room for the incoming Kevin Harvick. Newman responded by winning the Brickyard 400 for his soon-to-be ex-boss, Tony Stewart.
Not much was thought when Newman signed with Richard Childress other than when the music stopped in the Sprint Cup game of driver musical chairs, Newman was sitting on the RCR chair.
The 2014 season began slowly for the Newman-Luke Lambert driver-and-crew chief combination. But around midseason, things began to click, and Newman started showing up more often in the top 10.
When the smoke cleared at Richmond International Raceway in September, the No. 31 team found itself in the 2014 Chase by way of points. It was an opportunity that was not to be wasted. Team owner Childress pulled out all the stops, and Newman and Lambert gave 150 percent.
Sure, Newman was winless going into the final race. But he also knew that to win the title it was probably going to take a race win, so the winless stuff would end up going away.
He almost pulled it off. His Caterpillar Chevrolet was the only real threat to race winner and eventual champion Kevin Harvick in the closing laps.
Who knows? If there had just been one more restart or maybe another handful of laps…
Jeff Gordon Fails in Bid for 5th Title
Perhaps no story captured the fans' imaginations more this season than the resurgence of 43-year-old Jeff Gordon.
The veteran driver is seen as one of the few remaining ties between NASCAR’s current generation of drivers and its past. After all, he had raced against Dale Earnhardt Sr. That afforded him the kind of respect that also earned him the allegiance of many of the sport’s older fans, fans that maybe at one time hated him because he would beat Earnhardt.
For several years we’ve heard the “Drive for Five” mantra coming from Gordon’s camp, although recently that had been toned down quite a bit following several bad years, including the embarrassments of 2008 and 2010 when the four-time champion went winless.
He was paired with crew chief Alan Gustafson, who cut his teeth as a crew chief for Kyle Busch when the latter was racing for Rick Hendrick. Gustafson knew how to make a race car go fast. He needed a driver who liked to go fast. He had it in Busch. He found it again in an aging Gordon, who, to his surprise, liked the feel of car with the new rules.
As a result, the combination produced magic in the former of an elixir for youth for Gordon, who often pronounced that he’d felt like a driver half his age. The real secret was that Gordon had a race car, a crew chief and a team that raised his level of confidence every time he sat behind the wheel.
2014 was his best season in nearly a decade with four wins, three poles, 14 top-fives and an amazing 23 top-10 finishes. There was rarely a race from midseason onward when Gordon wasn’t in contention for the win in the closing laps.
His passion for racing, once thought diminished by the fans, turned him into a brawler, as witnessed after the Chase race at Texas when he and Brad Keselowski came to blows.
Unfortunately the promise of a dream season and a fifth championship came to a sudden halt when Ryan Newman sent Kyle Larson into the Turn 4 wall on the final lap in Phoenix. It allowed Newman to finish one position ahead of Larson and thus secured the final spot in the Chase for Newman.
Gordon's had back issues that plagued him during 2014, and he’s hinted about retirement. The true test of his mettle will be if he can come back in 2015 with essentially the same setup and do it again.
His legion of fans all hope that he’ll do the later.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Has Landmark Season with Daytona 500 Victory
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the season’s opening race, the Daytona 500, Junior Nation let out a resounding cheer of “this is our year.”
It nearly was.
Earnhardt Jr. and his crew chief, Steve Letarte, delivered one of the best seasons of the 40-year-old, third-generation driver’s 16-year Sprint Cup career with four wins, 12 top 5s and 20 top 10s.
On more than one occasion, Earnhardt thanked Letarte for making him not just a better driver, but a better person. His renewed success on the track is directly comparable to his success off the track. Earnhardt Jr. was well-known for spending his time out of the race car while at the track, locked away in his luxurious coach, playing video games and watching television.
It was Letarte who brought him out of the coach and told him he needed to spend more time with his teammates. Earnhardt did just that, and his crew responded. As a result, as a team, they collectively won a few races, nearly won more and unfortunately fell victim to circumstances out of their control and dropped out of contention in the Chase earlier than they had hoped.
Sadly, this was Letarte’s last season as a crew chief. He announced early in the season that it was his swan song and that he would be headed to the television broadcast booth as an analyst for NBC Sports beginning in 2015.
There would be no change in his plans, whether Earnhardt Jr. won the championship or not.
Earnhardt moves forward in 2015 with Greg Ives on the pit box. Who knows? It may get even better.
Team Penske Emerges as Powerhouse, Falls Short in Championship
Prior to the start of the 2014 Sprint Cup season there had been some speculation that the NASCAR side of the Team Penske building in Mooresville, North Carolina, was about to start winning races and championships like the Indy Car side had been doing for more than two decades.
Roger Penske had always been considered semi-successful in his NASCAR exploits, having won the Daytona 500 (in 2008 with Ryan Newman) and several major events but never a Cup title under 2012.
It was assumed that Penske brought Brad Keselowski into the fold because of their common Michigan racing roots. As is often the case, it paid off with several wins by Keselowski.
But when Penske went after and then signed Joey Logano—who came into the Cup series after being hyped as “the next best thing to sliced bread” but ended up frustrated and somewhat lost at Joe Gibbs Racing—many scratched their heads.
Instead of seeing a failed young driver, Penske saw potential in Logano that few other than Logano himself knew still existed. As a result, the young man from Connecticut excelled under the Penske umbrella. His pairing with crew chief Todd Gordon was a stroke of genius, and the two immediately hit it off.
The final connection was when Logano and Keselowski became good friends. They both knew that the success of one was very dependent upon the success of the other.
Together they climbed the ladder of success in 2014. Keselowski had six wins, five poles, 17 top fives and 20 top 10s. Logano was equally as impressive with five wins, one pole, 16 top fives and 22 top 10s.
When they both made the Chase field—Keselowski at the last minute just for some dramatic effect—they were considered favorites immediately. Keselowski was for his wreckers-or-checkers mentality and Logano for his get-out-of-the-way, I’m-going-to-the-front driving style.
Keselowski’s Chase bid fell short early, but Logano made it to the final round only to have his maturity questioned again when he pushed the envelope a little too early in the race, brushed the wall and his race car was never the same.
Team Penske will be essentially the same in 2015, and maybe then the captain, Roger Penske, will get his Sprint Cup title.
Emergence of Rookie of the Year Kyle Larson as Future Star of Sport
Team owner Chip Ganassi has always been one to take chances.
He took a huge one when he signed unknown (to most of the Cup garage) open-wheel driver Kyle Larson from California to replace Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42 Target Chevrolet.
When asked about his reasoning for putting an unknown driver in such a high-profile seat in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Ganassi would only respond with a Cheshire Cat-like grin.
He knew something.
Now, we all know how good a driver Kyle Larson is. The 2014 Sunoco Rookie of the Year in the Cup Series made the competition for the rookie title little more than an afterthought.
He consistently outperformed his closest rival for the title, Austin Dillon, and on more than one occasion, he nearly won the race. Larson finished second three times—Fontana, Loudon and Kansas. He had eight top fives, 17 top 10s and one pole.
His battle in the closing laps against Darrell Wallace Jr. in the Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway was the kind of stuff that legends are made of. Larson bounced off the wall so many times in an attempt to win that he finally had to come into the pits for a flat tire.
Larson repeated the same scenario somewhat, without the bouncing-off-the-wall part, in several of his Cup races, challenging the race leader in the closing laps. He never did get his win.
That first win will come, and more will follow.
Legal Issue Overshadows Tony Stewart's Return to Racing
Three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and team owner Tony Stewart made it abundantly clear at the start of the 2014 season that this would be a year of recovery. Stewart was involved in a violent sprint car accident in the summer of 2013 that shattered the driver’s leg and required several surgeries to repair.
What followed was many months of physical therapy and a slow return to racing. Stewart did surprisingly well in the early part of the season, with a few top 10s at Bristol, Fontana and Darlington. This was due in part to his perseverance and to his new crew chief, Chad Johnston. The chemistry between the two helped Stewart regain his confidence.
Then came the fateful August night in upstate New York at a small dirt track, the kind of track Stewart would often race on, even on Cup weekends. The Cup series was racing in nearby Watkins Glen, and Stewart was the star attraction at the small track where young drivers like Kevin Ward Jr. were learning their craft.
The details are well-known. In an instant, a young man is dead. The aftermath continues.
Stewart withdrew from the public for several weeks then made a very public re-entry. While those in the racing world were quick to understand what had happened, the deadly accident became fodder for the tabloids both online and on television.
It unfortunately painted racing and especially NASCAR with a broad brush, much of it unwarranted.
Stewart continues his recovery—physically, mentally and emotionally. He may never be the same again.
Or he may just surprise us all next year and be the same old Smoke we’ve come to know.
Disappointing Season for Roush Fenway; Edwards Leaves for Joe Gibbs in 2015
When Matt Kenseth announced his departure from Roush Fenway Racing in 2012, it sent a shockwave through NASCAR. Kenseth was considered a “lifer” with team owner Jack Roush.
But many remembered a similar situation when Mark Martin left Roush. He too had been considered a “lifer.” Martin’s motivation when he left was purely financial.
Kenseth’s was different. He wanted to win races and another championship (2003). He felt that a move to Joe Gibbs Racing would bring the opportunity for that to occur.
In 2013 Kenseth won a series-high seven races and finished as runner-up to champion Jimmie Johnson.
In 2014, RFR missed the mark with its 1.5-mile setups, as owner Roush told this author when we spoke at the Pocono race in June. That meant it would be a difficult year for all three of RFR’s teams.
Edwards managed a win at Bristol and a real surprise win (even for him) at Sonoma Raceway. Biffle was never a contender, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. rode around in the back of the field. His best finish was runner-up to Edwards at Bristol.
Kenseth's and now Carl Edwards' leaving RFR for Joe Gibbs Racing doesn’t bode well for the organization. RFR is left with veteran driver Greg Biffle, who has never won a Cup championship in his 13 years with Roush, along with Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne in 2015.
It doesn’t really move the excitement meter, does it?
Hendrick Alliance with Stewart-Haas Pays Huge Dividends; Signals New Direction
In 2009 NASCAR mandated that no single organization could field more than four cars.
That rule has been flexed and bent many different ways ever since. Alliances between two or more organizations became the norm. When you leased one of your engines to another team, you also became privy to its technical information and feedback.
One of the more successful of these alliances is the one between Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing.
Space here prevents a complete detailed explanation of the relationship between these two organizations, but it is correct to refer to SHR as a satellite of Hendrick Motorsports.
The two share technical information on several levels, especially with engines, which SHR gets from Hendrick. The two organizations also share information between their drivers. Cup champion Kevin Harvick made several references to Jimmie Johnson helping him to get through the finals weekend at Homestead.
A similar alliance exists between Richard Childress Racing and Furniture Row. And to some extent there is one between Roush Fenway Racing and Team Penske, although there seems to be little sharing of information between these two given the wide disparity between their respective organization’s performances this season.
Dustin Long of MRN.com says that Kyle Busch told the media that the lack of an alliance may have hurt the performance at Joe Gibbs Racing this season, despite placing all three cars in the Chase and Denny Hamlin making it to the final round.
Expect to see more of these alliances going forward, and then expect NASCAR to attempt to control them.
18-Year-Old Champion Chase Elliott Proves That It's in the Genes
When 18-year-old Chase Elliott was crowned champion of the NASCAR Nationwide Series, he made history as the youngest champion of any major NASCAR national touring series.
The second-generation driver, son of the legendary NASCAR champion Bill Elliott, was nothing short of spectacular in his rookie year in NASCAR’s AAA series. Did I mention he also won that series’ Rookie of the Year honors?
His statistics are remarkable: three wins, 16 top fives and an astounding 26 top 10s. His average start was 8.3 and his finish 8.0.
He’s signed to Hendrick Motorsports while he drives for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series.
Elliott arguably could move into the Cup Series with ease, but right now there are no rides available to him at HMS. He’ll spend another year in the newly renamed Xfinity Series, probably winning another championship.
Which car will he eventually move into at Hendrick Motorsports? That’s an interesting question and sure to be the topic of discussion over the next year.
Elliott is part of a new generation of NASCAR drivers, along with Kyle Larson, the Dillon brothers, the Buescher brothers, Alex Bowman, Darrell Wallace and others, that holds a promise of great racing in the sport for the next decade.
All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
On Twitter: @BobMargolis