Ranking the Top 10 Moments from the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase
Before the start of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, the new Chase format, with its elimination rounds, looked pretty good on paper.
It turned out to be better than anyone could have imagined. It turned each race into an all-out battle. And while there were still points to take into consideration, it became more about winning, because winning was the only sure way to keep moving into the next round.
Newly crowned Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick did it the hard way. He won both of the last two races. It was his only route to the championship.
Harvick’s battle to keep Ryan Newman behind him in the closing laps of the Ford EcoBoost 400 was a fitting coda to one of the more exciting NASCAR championships in recent history.
Here’s a look back at 10 of the most memorable moments of the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
10. Rookie Kyle Larson Keeps Chase Field Honest for All 10 Races
Rookie of the Year Kyle Larson wasn’t part of the Chase, but he made it entertaining.
Driven by the desire to score his first Sprint Cup win in his rookie season, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver put on a performance in his No. 42 Chevrolet SS at every opportunity.
His average finish in the first five Chase races was a remarkable 3.8. The highlights—and there were many of them—were probably best characterized by his runner-up finishes at both Loudon and Kansas. Loudon was a race to the checkers against Joey Logano. At Kansas, he gave veteran driver Jeff Gordon some additional grey hairs en route to the finish line.
His impressive performance at Kansas was a sign of things to come. Larson has shown that he’s comfortable racing on fast tracks. On the five 1.5-mile tracks in the Chase (Chicagoland, Kansas, Charlotte, Texas and Homestead), he scored a very impressive average finish of 6.2.
Throughout the entire 10-race postseason, Larson made his presence felt at nearly every turn, forcing the drivers in the Chase field to earn everything they won.
Here’s an early prediction: Larson will make the 2015 Chase field. It will come with a win or three.
9. Brad Keselowski Wins the Chase Opener at Chicagoland
Brad Keselowski fired the first shot in the 2014 Chase by winning the opener at Chicagoland Speedway, setting the stage for a series of standout performances by both Team Penske drivers over the next nine races.
Team Penske’s 1.5-mile track setup had been race proven early in the regular season when Keselowski won at Las Vegas. He won again midway through at Kentucky—another 1.5-mile track similar to Chicagoland.
Keselowski drove a patient opening race of the Chase, taking the lead three times for a total of 62 laps. The winning move came following a restart with 19 laps remaining when he took advantage of the battle for the lead between Harvick and Larson. With 15 laps to go, Keselowski knifed his Ford Fusion in between the two Chevrolets to take over the lead, a lead he never relinquished.
Keselowski tried a similar move seven races later at Texas between Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. It was not as successful and led to the infamous brawl on pit road.
8. Joey Logano Wins at New Hampshire in Race No. 2 of Chase
Logano’s convincing win at his home track of New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon gave Team Penske a distinct advantage early in the Chase.
It’s not that Logano and Keselowski’s Ford Fusions were especially dominant at each race they won. It was that during their respective winning performances, each driver’s team executed without error—at both Chicagoland and Loudon.
The race on the flat one-mile oval was an uncharacteristic wreckfest that featured an unusually high 15 cautions, several due to failed tires that were being pushed beyond their limits.
Logano had his hands full while leading the final 30 laps, as Larson kept him honest while pushing the race-winner to make a mistake. He did not.
7. Keselowski Wins to Move into Eliminator Round; Hendrick Loses Three
At Charlotte, Keselowski showed a side of himself to the Chase field (and the entire Cup field, for that matter) that it hadn't seen much of this past season. He wanted everyone to know that he was in it to win it.
The next weekend, the Chase came to Talladega, and there was intense pressure on Keselowski. He had to win the restrictor plate race or find himself eliminated from the Chase. This new format played no favorites, proving that even a driver who had won five races in a single season could be in danger of not moving on to the final Chase round.
To claim his second Chase victory, Keselowski used a push from Logano, his Team Penske teammate, on the final restart and then a push to the finish line from Matt Kenseth—who, the week before at Charlotte, was more interested in landing punches on Keselowski’s face than in helping him win anything.
When the weekend ended, Team Penske had placed both of its drivers into the Eliminator Round. The much-anticipated battle in the Chase between Penske Racing and Hendrick Motorsports came to an abrupt ending, however, as Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were eliminated.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Has Tire Issues That Result in Poor Finish at Kansas
The new Chase format rewarded two things: winning and being consistent.
Two drivers, Harvick and Logano, used the win-a-race-to-move-forward route. Others, like Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman, used consistency to get them into the final round.
The consistency route to the Chase finale, which had been working for Junior to that point, came to a crashing end at Kansas when his right-front tire went flat on Lap 122 while the Hendrick Motorsports driver was leading the race. The failed tire and the contact with the outside wall caused serious damage to Earnhardt Jr.’s Chevrolet, and he was required to make multiple green-flag stops on pit road.
His night ended in 39th position, his worst finish of the Chase and a fatal blow to the strategy of moving forward in the Chase on points. He would have to rely on others or win to move forward, all the way to Homestead.
5. Jimmie Johnson Wrecks at Kansas, Ends Run for 7th Title
Kansas Speedway was also the scene of Chase disaster for Johnson.
The six-time champion was the victim of a collision with Greg Biffle early in the race (Lap 85). It took many laps in the garage and feverish work by the No. 48 team to make the necessary repairs that would put Johnson back out on the track, many laps down to the race leader.
Johnson finished the race in 40th place, his worst Chase finish.
The following week at Charlotte, he bounced back with a 17th-place finish, but it became very apparent that his Chase had come down to his having to win to stay in.
The six-time champion eventually saw his 2014 championship hopes evaporate at Talladega two weeks later.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wins at Martinsville
For Earnhardt Jr., a win at Martinsville, his first in his Sprint Cup career, was a day late and a dollar short, so the saying goes.
It was a bittersweet win on the half-mile paperclip-shaped oval for the 40-year-old driver. The win came a week after he had been eliminated from the 2014 Chase, and it served as a reminder to Chase competitors and fans alike how difficult it was going to be to win the championship under the new format.
After the race, the Hendrick Motorsports driver appeared to be more excited just to be able to finally take home his own winner’s trophy from Martinsville, an iconic grandfather’s clock.
3. Kenseth, Hamlin and Stewart Have Beef with Keselowski at Charlotte
Harvick used a great restart with two laps remaining to beat Gordon in the Bank of America 500. Jamie McMurray, Logano and Kyle Busch rounded out the top five.
Few will remember who won the race, though, and even fewer will remember who finished in the top five.
Instead, everyone will all remember Brad Keselowski’s extracurricular activities following the checkered flag.
The Team Penske driver first hit Hamlin on the cool-down lap and then drove into Hamlin’s teammate, Kenseth, after he had already taken off his helmet and loosened his belts. That collision bounced Keselowski’s Ford off of Kenseth’s car and into Tony Stewart’s Chevrolet. Stewart was an innocent bystander to all this but responded by ramming his car backward into Keselowski’s.
When the brief kerfuffle ended, it was another episode of “Boys Have At It”—except it had been done after the race, and Keselowski's actions presented a dangerous situation, especially when you’ve got drivers using their race cars as battering rams.
Minutes later, a normally docile Kenseth attacked Keselowski as the Penske driver was walking next to his team’s hauler in the garage. It all made for great theater and was seen live on national television. Keselowski and Stewart ended up being fined and put on probation by NASCAR officials.
This was just a taste of things to come.
2. Harvick, Newman Earn Berths in Chase's Final Round
It was a race that Harvick had to win, plain and simple. He had won the past two Cup races at Phoenix, including the one earlier in the year on the second weekend of the season.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver rose to the occasion and dominated the race, leading 264 of 312 laps and scoring a convincing victory that made him the odds-on favorite to capture the title the following weekend at Homestead.
Meanwhile, Newman sent Larson into the wall on the final turn of the final lap of the race to gain a berth in the finale the following weekend at Homestead.
The stage had been set for a monumental finale.
1. Fight Erupts on Pit Road After Keselowski Ends Gordon's Chase Run
While the championship finale was an exciting, edge-of-your seat kind of affair, the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup will likely be most remembered for the brawl on pit road at Texas Motor Speedway following the conclusion of the race—a race Johnson won.
At Texas, the stakes were higher. It was in the Eliminator Round, and several drivers could only advance with a win, including Keselowski.
In the final laps of the race, the Team Penske driver attempted another wedge move between two cars battling for the lead, similar to what he had done successfully in the first Chase race at Chicagoland. This time, it was Johnson and Gordon, both former champions, racing for the lead. There was no rookie involved like before.
Keselowski put his Ford in a spot that wasn’t quite big enough, and he bumped into Gordon’s race-leading Chevrolet, sending the four-time champion into the wall and his championship hopes up in flames.
After the race, Gordon stopped his car on pit road, climbed out and confronted Keselowski. With tempers boiling over and crew members from each driver’s respective team (and others, including NASCAR officials) all standing in close quarters, words were exchanged. It took a shove from a bystander—Harvick, who may have thought it was a UFC event that was taking place—to get things going. Punches were thrown, mostly by crew members. But when the dust settled, both Keselowski and Gordon were bloodied.
Both drivers faced official sanctions, while NASCAR officials faced conflicting emotions. The fighting had not been too violent, but it was violent enough to attract a lot of attention to a sport where the battles are usually waged between metal monsters at 200 mph.
Even so, the publicity for NASCAR leading up to the Chase finale two weeks later was, in a word, priceless.
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