The 10 Most Defining Moments from NASCAR in 2014

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistDecember 22, 2014

The 10 Most Defining Moments from NASCAR in 2014

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    Kevin Harvick's first career Sprint Cup championship was big, but was it the most defining moment in NASCAR in 2014?
    Kevin Harvick's first career Sprint Cup championship was big, but was it the most defining moment in NASCAR in 2014?Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    The 2014 NASCAR season—including all three major series, Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Trucks—was one that covered a range of emotions, from drama to excitement, hugs to punches and cheering to crying.

    There was the highest of highs when Kevin Harvick finally won the championship that had eluded him for 14 seasons and two different team addresses.

    There was the lowest of lows when Tony Stewart and Kevin Ward Jr. met in an on-track accident that tragically resulted in the young Ward’s death.

    There were thrills and chills, incredible race finishes and young new stars were born.

    Let’s look back at a season that probably had enough defining moments to make three seasons’ worth.

    And if we could have that much this past season, we can only imagine what might happen in 2015.

    Let’s take a look back at the season that was in 2014 and its most defining moments.

10. AJ Allmendinger Wins at Watkins Glen

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    Allmendinger got a huge congratulatory hug from team co-owner and ESPN analyst Brad Daugherty after the win at Watkins Glen.
    Allmendinger got a huge congratulatory hug from team co-owner and ESPN analyst Brad Daugherty after the win at Watkins Glen.Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose put on one of the best shows the sport has seen in a long time during August’s visit to the road course at Watkins Glen.

    They battled back and forth in dramatic fashion in the closing laps until the ‘Dinger finally slipped ahead and held off a hard-charging Ambrose to win the race.

    It was a huge emotional release for Allmendinger, as it was his first career Sprint Cup win. It was also a huge boost to the single-car JTG Daugherty team as a whole.

    That win also put Allmendinger into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, although he unfortunately failed to advance past the first elimination round.

9. Matt Crafton Becomes 1st Driver in History to Win Back-to-Back NCWTS Titles

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    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Matt Crafton is one of the most unassuming guys in the NASCAR garage. He’s quiet and lets his driving do the talking for him.

    And boy, what a driver he is. When Crafton clinched the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship in the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he achieved something no other Truck driver has ever done.

    Namely, Crafton, driver of the No. 88 Menards-sponsored Chevrolet, became the first driver in Truck Series history to win back-to-back championships.

    Not only is Crafton a great champion once again, but he’s also a heck of a nice guy.

8. Chase Elliott Wins the Final NNS—and His 1st—Championship

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    Like father Bill (right), like son Chase (left).
    Like father Bill (right), like son Chase (left).Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Young phenom Chase Elliott didn’t just win the final Nationwide Series championship (the series will be rebranded in 2015 as the Xfinity Series). At 18 years old he also became the youngest champion in any of NASCAR’s three major professional classes in 2014.

    It was somewhat of a bookend sweep for the Elliott family.

    In May, Chase’s father, legendary Cup driver and former champ Bill Elliott, was among five drivers chosen (and on the first ballot as well as the leading vote-getter) to be part of the 2015 induction class for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

    The younger Elliott didn’t even know he’d have a ride in 2014 until last December, when JR Motorsports, Rick Hendrick and NAPA all agreed to field a car for him.

    They didn’t know what kind of a season they’d have, what with it being a brand-new team and with a lot of new personnel, but they came together like a veteran bunch.

    And Chase wasn’t about to wait around to win it all: He clinched the championship in the second-to-last race at Phoenix.

7. Kurt Busch Does ‘The Double’ at Indianapolis and Charlotte

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    R Brent Smith/Associated Press

    This one is kind of two defining moments rolled into one.

    Kurt Busch, the man with the nickname of "The Outlaw," became the first driver in a decade to attempt the proverbial “Double”—namely, driving in the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 in the same day.

    Busch did a great job as an IndyCar rookie, finishing sixth in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. But motor troubles at Charlotte in the NASCAR nightcap relegated him to an early exit and eventual 40th-place finish.

    Still, Busch accomplished something that will not only be part of Indy and Charlotte lore, but he’s already thinking about coming back and trying it again next May.

    It was one of the few highlights Busch had in the season. And, quite frankly, if this whole NASCAR thing doesn’t work out—and given the way he drove at Indy—he may very well have a new career ahead of him in IndyCars.

6. Jimmie Johnson—What Kept 6-Time from Becoming 7-Time?

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    Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

    When Jimmie Johnson ended 2013 with his sixth Sprint Cup championship, fans and media began to referring to him as a G.O.A.T.—the greatest of all-time.

    That’s a pretty heady title when you consider the likes of Richard “The King” Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt still rank ahead of Johnson with seven NASCAR championships apiece.

    While Johnson had a decent season with three wins, he just never had the kind of spirit or momentum that he had in the six title years.

    And the defining moment—and not necessarily in a good way—for Johnson in the 2014 season was the fall Chase race at Talladega.

    He led nearly half (84 laps) of the 194-lap race around the 2.66-mile superspeedway, but when the checkered flag fell, Johnson finished a disappointing 24th.

    Not only that: He was eliminated from advancement in the Chase, bookending a terrible three-race Contender Round that began with a 40th-place finish at Kansas, was followed by a 17th-place finish at Charlotte—and then the end-all and be-all at Talladega.

    Given how Johnson’s season ended up (a single-season, career-worst 11th place), one has to wonder if he can bounce back—or will the GOAT ultimately become maybe the third-greatest of all time?

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wins the Daytona 500

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win in the season-opening Daytona 500 may have been sweeter the second time around as opposed to the first time he won in 2004.

    Junior survived not only the elements (two rain delays), but also a race that concluded close to midnight.

    And to celebrate he began using Twitter—and has become arguably the most involved and most prolific NASCAR driver using that social medium today.

    It seemed that Daytona set the tone for Junior, who wanted to end the season the way he began, with a win—only this time it would be the championship after Homestead.

    Sure, he wanted to win his first career Sprint Cup championship for himself, but even more importantly, he wanted to win the first for crew chief Steve Letarte, who was in his final season with Junior. Letarte has since moved on to become an analyst for NASCAR on NBC.

    Through the 2014 season, Earnhardt would win three more races—the most he’s won in a decade (won six in 2004). But when all was said and done, he came up short of his goal of a championship for himself and Letarte, failing to get past the Eliminator Round and winding up with an overall season finish of eighth.

4. Jeff Gordon Falls 1 Point Short at Phoenix

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    One point cost Jeff Gordon the chance for a shot at a fifth Sprint Cup championship.
    One point cost Jeff Gordon the chance for a shot at a fifth Sprint Cup championship.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press/Associated Press

    If you've ever thought one point doesn't mean that much over the course of a season in NASCAR, Jeff Gordon would loudly disagree.

    That's because Gordon became the poster boy in 2014 of why every point in NASCAR counts.

    In the Chase race at Phoenix in early November, Gordon ultimately wound up finishing second to race winner Kevin Harvick.

    But a bold last-lap move by Ryan Newman to force Kyle Larson up into the wall, allowing Newman to get by and pick up an additional point, also caused Gordon to come up one point short of advancing to the Championship Round at Homestead.

    Newman was in; Gordon was out. It was that plain and simple and couldn’t have been more heartbreaking for Gordon and his fans.

    Sure, Gordon had a great season, including a record-breaking fifth win in the Brickyard 400. But if there was ever a race that got away from him, Phoenix in the fall was definitely it—and with it, there went his season.

3. Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon Brawl at Texas

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    Matthew Bishop/Associated Press

    Two years ago, Jeff Gordon got into it with Clint Bowyer in the next-to-last race of the 2012 season.

    This time, it was Gordon and Brad Keselowski going at it following the third-to-last race of the season at Texas in early November.

    Of course, Kevin Harvick gave a little help by pushing Keselowski from behind to essentially stand up for himself.

    The next thing you know, fists were flying, people were falling to the ground and both Keselowski and Gordon wound up with fat lips.

    While the fight gave somewhat of a black eye to the sport on one hand, it also brought a resurgence of viewership and interest for the final two races of the season that followed it. Folks admittedly were wondering if there was going to be a Round 2 (ultimately, there was not).

    While I don’t condone fighting, you have to admit, the fisticuffs did inject quite a bit of emotion and raw drama that would make any other type of reality show pale by comparison.

2. Kevin Harvick Wins His 1st Sprint Cup Championship

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Kevin Harvick left his home of 13 seasons at Richard Childress Racing convinced he could win a championship at his new home, Stewart-Haas Racing.

    It took just one season, and Harvick ultimately accomplished his long-held goal. And he did it in defining fashion, winning each of the last two races to make sure no one else captured the prized Sprint Cup trophy.

    He had to overcome a number of hurdles during the season, most notably bad pit stops and numerous mistakes by his pit crew. It would not be an exaggeration that pit-road errors likely cost him perhaps two or even three more wins during the first 26 races.

    When crew chief Rodney Childers decided to switch Harvick’s pit crew with that of Tony Stewart to start the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, that seemed to be the magic ingredient that had been missing.

    From then on there were few if any mistakes, and Harvick would go on to be the best of the best during the Chase.

    But there was no more defining or memorable moment than when Harvick climbed out of his race car in Victory Lane at Homestead and lifted the Sprint Cup trophy skyward, finally realizing a dream that he had chased for so long.

    To borrow a phrase from one of Harvick’s sponsors, this Bud’s for you, Kevin. Congratulations on achieving the highest honor and prize the sport can give.

    And for an encore, maybe you can do it again in 2015?

1. Tony Stewart-Kevin Ward Jr. Tragedy

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    It was steeped in tragedy, making this the most defining (and sadly memorable) moment of the year.

    The racing accident that took 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr.’s life was heartbreaking, something that in an ideal world would have been avoided, and it affected so many different people.

    There was the Ward family, of course, who lost a son, brother and nephew.

    Stewart also grieved and still likely is. It was something that shook him and his own family to the core.

    And then there was the specter of potential criminal charges that hung over his head for several weeks before a grand jury decided that Stewart was not guilty of any wrongdoing and the incident.

    The most defining moment of the entire episode was the day Stewart was cleared by the grand jury. The local district attorney in Ontario County (New York) concurred, and Stewart did not face any charges. 

    And while this whole incident occurred on a non-NASCAR track and did not involve any other NASCAR drivers other than Stewart, it still became arguably the biggest story—and most defining moment—of the year in the sport because of who it involved and the circumstances of all that happened.

    There’s no getting around how much impact this story had on so many people.

    Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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