The Biggest Surprises from the 2014 NASCAR Season

Bob Margolis@BobMargolisContributor IINovember 27, 2014

The Biggest Surprises from the 2014 NASCAR Season

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    Sprint Cup action at Texas Motor Speedway
    Sprint Cup action at Texas Motor SpeedwayRalph Lauer/Associated Press

    Every NASCAR season has its share of change and surprises. This year was no exception.

    New competition rules, a new Chase format, a new driver and a hot August night were just a few of the unexpected twists and turns that made the 2014 NASCAR season one to remember. 

    First up is the biggest surprise of all, the new Chase format, that just may be the best thing to happen to NASCAR since the double-file restart.

New Chase Format Delivers Beyond Expectations

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    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    The new Chase format was designed primarily to reward winning and make racing in the regular season more exciting. A victory in the regular season and a driver was assured a spot in the Chase. 

    That made for many close and competitive regular-season races and removed the phrase “we had a good points day” from the lexicon of just about every Cup driver.

    A good points day was almost meaningless during the regular season, unless it was in the final 10 races of the season and a driver found himself or herself within earshot of the top 16 in points.

    What few could have predicted was how the elimination of drivers in the first three rounds of the Chase—Challenger, Contender and Eliminator—would force some drivers to make moves on the track that were at best questionable. 

    Brad Keselowski’s skillful move to take the lead against Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson in the closing laps at the opening round of the Chase at Chicagoland comes to mind, as does Keselowski's similar maneuver at Texas.

    That Texas move was a bit more questionable. It didn't get the Team Penske driver the lead, and it bumped Jeff Gordon into a 29th-place finish. And eventually Gordon’s Chase came to an end. And then there was the infamous "Brawl."

    Despite what you might think about this new format, it provided one of the best championship runs in memory. There are still a few tweaks that could make it better. One comes to mind almost immediately. The rules must be changed so that a winless driver can not be allowed to make it all the way to the finale and have a chance at winning the championship.

    A champion who doesn’t win a race all season would diminish the value of both the Chase and the championship itself.

Jimmie Johnson Drops out of Chase Early

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    Jimmie Johnson (left) and crew chief Chad Knaus
    Jimmie Johnson (left) and crew chief Chad KnausJerry Markland/Getty Images

    Jimmie Johnson was expected to be a strong contender for the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup title. It would have been his seventh championship in 14 seasons in the Cup series.

    It was not to be.

    The No. 48 team struggled with of all things inconsistency. And then there was the mid-summer mini-slump that began after the team’s win at Michigan on Father’s Day.

    Johnson scored only eight top 10s during the 19-race stretch that began after Michigan and finally ended when he won at Texas—ironically a track that in the past hasn’t been very kind to him.

    The expected postseason performance by the Chad Knaus-led squad never materialized, and Johnson looked vulnerable heading into the Chase in spite of his three wins that got him there (Charlotte, Dover, Michigan).

    His wreck with Greg Biffle at Kansas during the Chase (finished 40th) and subsequent below-average results at Charlotte (17th) and Talladega (24th) sealed Johnson’s fate, and he fell out of the Chase after only two rounds. 

    It was strange not to have Johnson be in contention for the championship in the final race.

    Very strange indeed.

Carl Edwards Makes Chase Field but Roush Fenway Disappoints

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    Team owner Jack Roush
    Team owner Jack RoushUSA TODAY Sports

    In a private conversation with me at Pocono in June, team owner Jack Roush admitted that his race teams were not prepared to be successful on the 1.5-mile tracks in 2014.

    He said that too much attention had been given to developing successful setups on the short tracks and the restrictor plate tracks and that the simulation software needed to equip his engineers with the proper information for the 1.5-mile tracks was inadequate. 

    It showed. His organization’s two wins came on a short track (Bristol) and the road course at Sonoma. Both were by Carl Edwards, who was leaving Roush at the end of the season. 

    RFR engineers managed to build a decent setup for the 1.5-mile tracks by the start of the Chase, but it was too little, too late. Edwards, who arguably had the best crew chief in the house in Jimmy Fennig, was regularly the fastest of the RFR trio of drivers which included himself, Greg Biffle and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

    Biffle was never really a factor for much of the season. He went winless for the first time since 2011 and finished in the top five only three times. He made the Chase field on points. But his average finish of 20th over the first three races of the Chase doomed his chances, and he fell out after just the first round.

    Stenhouse Jr. had a forgettable season with an average finish of 22.4, a tremendous disappointment from a driver who was a former Xfinity series champion.

    It’s difficult to compare an organization’s overall performance year-to-year because driver and crew chief changes can make a big impact. However, no matter how you look at it or compare it to the past, 2014 is truly one of the more disappointing seasons in RFR’s history.

New Rules Create Headaches for Drivers and Crew Chiefs

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    Brad Keselowski's Ford Fusion goes through inspection.
    Brad Keselowski's Ford Fusion goes through inspection.Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    Changes to the rules regarding suspension setups, downforce and horsepower made driving a Gen 6 Sprint Cup car in 2014 an animal of a different color.

    Elimination of the ride-height rule made the cars feel like they had no front suspension, stiff and unpredictable.

    Increased aerodynamic downforce meant that the cars could go through the corners at a higher speed. But it also meant more stress on the tires, which essentially haven’t changed in size for nearly 30 years.

    Lowering the range with which the Cup engines would run lowered horsepower somewhat. But qualifying records at most tracks were either reset or downright shattered this season.

    A combination of one or more of these rules changes resulted in major headaches for even the best of race engineers and crew chiefs as they struggled to make their races cars both fast and comfortable to drive. It was a very small sweet spot that they were aiming for. Few found it. Many more missed by a mile. 

    As a result, many familiar names had a not-so-familiar kind of season in 2014.

Jeff Gordon Finds Fountain of Youth and Has Best Season in Nearly a Decade

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    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    In more than two decades as a Sprint Cup driver, Jeff Gordon has pretty much seen it all. He’s had some extremely rich years, especially when he first came into the series back in the mid-1990s. 

    And he’s had some lean and very forgettable years like 2013, when he had only one win and led only 434 laps, the least amount of laps led since 2000 (425). 

    When he looks back on 2014, he will see a renaissance in his career. Never mind the three pole wins, four race wins and 14 top-five finishes Gordon added to his already remarkable Sprint Cup resume—2014 will be remembered for a rekindling of a competitive spirit that saw Gordon climb out of his car and high-five his team after a solid qualifying effort. 

    That wasn’t all. There were numerous references in the press about Gordon finding a fountain of youth that made his racing in his 40s as some of the best since his days as a brash young 20-something just starting in NASCAR.

    Even his team owner, Rick Hendrick, remarked on how reinvigorated Gordon’s career appeared to be, per NASCAR.com. And he was right. Gordon was driving with the confidence of a man who knew he had the right equipment and the right team around him for success. He just had to make sure he didn’t screw it up himself.

    In the end, it was a bump by Brad Keselowski as he attempted to take the race lead and the resulting post-race fight at Texas that will be the first things to be shown on any Jeff Gordon 2014 highlight reel.

    Gordon left Texas Motor Speedway, race number eight, with his worst finish in the Chase. Then, the following week, Ryan Newman put Kyle Larson into the wall on the last lap of the penultimate race of the Chase, putting himself ahead of Gordon in the points. Through no fault of his own, Gordon was out. He would have to watch as four other drivers, one of them winless, would race for the championship in 2014.

    Hopefully, the youthful zest that flowed so freely during the 2014 season will still be alive when the cars roll out onto the track in February 2015. And maybe this time around, Gordon will manage to win more and build that points lead so that no matter what happens to the others, he remains in control of his own destiny.

Chip Ganassi Gamble on Kyle Larson Pays Big Dividends

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Team owner Chip Ganassi raised many eyebrows when he signed young Kyle Larson to replace Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42 Target Chevrolet.

    At the time, there were two camps of thought: Either Ganassi was making a huge mistake or he knew something the rest of us didn’t. 

    The truth lies somewhere in between. Ganassi obviously had recognized that sprint car ace Larson had plenty of driving talent. But the gamble was whether or not Larson could translate those abilities over to stock cars. And whether Ganassi could give him the best support team so that he could succeed would also figure in on Larson’s success.

    It didn’t take very long for those questions to be answered. In fact, it only took until the fifth race of the season for all the questions to be answered.

    Larson’s runner-up finish at Fontana was cause for celebration in the Ganassi camp. It was a good enough display of Larson’s talent to answer any questions about whether he could drive a stock car. 

    Two weeks later, Larson’s fifth-place finish had even the toughest cynics believing in this young man from California. As the season progressed so did his talents behind the wheel. And by midseason words like “phenom” were being attached to his name nearly every weekend.

    Fans and competitors were being shown a glimpse of things to come. Larson represented the future of the sport, and for many, it reminded them of when another young driver from California showed up more than two decades ago and sparked a new era of popularity for NASCAR.

    I don’t expect that anyone is thinking of making a sequel to Days of Thunder starring a young Asian-American driver, but if someone did, it just might spark the imagination of the millennials who would find a hero in a young man whose driving skills can make him a star in NASCAR for the next decade and beyond.

Hero to Zero: Matt Kenseth Goes Winless

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    Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images

    I imagine that it was about halfway through the season when Matt Kenseth simply got tired of answering the same old questions about how a NASCAR Sprint Cup team could go from winning the most races in a season (seven in 2013) to being winless the next. 

    Kenseth never did give an exact reason why. He danced around the issue for much of the season while his Jason Ratcliff team struggled with finding that ever elusive sweet spot for the No. 20 Toyota Camry.

    Kenseth was one of many Cup drivers who had to deal with a race car that didn’t do what he wanted it to when he wanted it to. And he also dealt with the Toyota horsepower issue, which plagued Toyota’s teams until late summer, when there appeared to be an extra bit of horsepower for the three Toyota teams (Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch) that were in the Chase.

    It was enough extra power to help Kenseth make it to the Eliminator Round, where his Chase ended.

    Still, he remained winless throughout 2014 in the Cup Series. One consolation was that he won the final Xfinity Series race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Tony Stewart's Legal Issues Overshadow Return to Racing

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The events that took place on the night of August 9 that took the life of young Kevin Ward Jr. were sad and unfortunate. In an instant, it changed the lives of dozens of people as it took the life of one—Ward.

    In 2014 driver and team owner Tony Stewart was supposed to return to racing after a serious racing accident in 2013. He had low expectations on how his performance in a sprint cup car would be. And when his season started off slowly, he reminded his fans that it was a long road back. 

    As part of that recovery, Stewart returned to the seat of an open-wheeled sprint car, the high-powered race car that he loved to drive. It was in one of those sprint cars that Stewart was involved in a very serious wreck the previous summer and caused the debilitating injuries that he was recovering from. It was also the kind of vehicle he was racing in when he struck and killed Ward Jr. in August.

    The accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr. sparked many debates across the country, and Stewart, auto racing and NASCAR by association were subjects of countless hours of media coverage on television, on the Internet and in print. It was a difficult time. But Stewart and racing managed to move on. So did NASCAR, which changed its rules regarding a driver’s conduct following an on-track wreck as a result.

    Although Stewart was exonerated by a grand jury, auto racing was not. It is a dangerous sport, and because so many advances in safety have been made over the past decade-and-a-half since Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s death in 2001, people have forgotten just how dangerous and deadly it can be.

    Stewart’s physical scars may have healed well, as shown by his competitive performances in the final dozen or so races of the 2014 season. He even scored a fourth-place finish at Martinsville, a tough and physical race track. 

    There are still emotional scars. They will take longer to heal for both Stewart and auto racing in general.

    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