We’re a couple of weeks removed from the 2014 NASCAR race season. Champion’s Week is coming up in Las Vegas, and the 2015 season is about two-and-a-half months away. I thought now would be a perfect time to look back on some of the memorable moments and news stories of the past season. Some of these are memorable for good reason, some for bad and some are simply storylines that played out throughout the year. Some came on the track while others were off. They’re in no particular order and they may be different than any list you may come up with.
Sure, there are champions crowned every year, but the 2014 champions were special, and I mean that in the best possible way. Matt Crafton became the first-ever repeat champion in Camping World Truck Series history, repeating his championship performance from 2013. Chase Elliott also made history with history his Nationwide Series title. Claiming the crown shy of his 19th birthday, Elliott became the youngest champion in NASCAR national series history. He also became the first driver to win the championship and Rookie of the Year honors in the same series in a single season.
And then there’s Kevin Harvick. In his first year driving for good friend Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing, Harvick claimed his first-career Sprint Cup and the second for Stewart-Haas Racing in four years and the second in the team’s six-year existence.
I felt obligated to include this one, and since I mentioned Stewart above, I’ll stick it in here. I am, though, going to lump Stewart and Kurt Busch’s off-track legal battles together.
Stewart struggled mightily, on-track, throughout 2014, maybe because of the leg injury he suffered in the fall of 2013, maybe not, but things got exponentially worse in August at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park when a sprint car he was driving struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr., who had climbed out of his car to confront Stewart. After a lengthy investigation, a grand jury elected not to charge Stewart. Stewart missed three Sprint Cup Series races before returning to his No. 14 ride at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Labor Day weekend.
Stewart’s SHR teammate, Busch, now finds himself in hot water. He’s currently being investigated for domestic assault for an alleged incident at Dover (Del.) International Speedway. Ex-girlfriend Patricia Driscoll claims that Busch slammed her head into a wall multiple times.
THE NEW CHASE
NASCAR implemented a new Chase for the Sprint Cup format for 2014 that expanded the post-season field to 16 drivers and placed more emphasis on winning. Some fans hated it; some loved it, and therefore, it was a hot-button topic throughout the season.
In the end, as noted above, Harvick was champion, and all seemed right in the world, even among those who claim to still hate this new Chase. Because, in the end, one of the better-performing drivers of the season wound up champion.
Harvick’s title didn’t keep everyone from crying “foul,” though. Remaining critics point at how close winless driver Ryan Newman came to making NASCAR history in what they considered a bad way — becoming the first driver to win a Cup without winning a race. It, of course, didn’t happen though.
IT’S A CAT. IT’S A SQUIRREL. IT’S FRITTER
At Atlanta Motor Speedway, Harvick saw something run out onto the track in front of him and then reported to his crew that he almost ran over a cat that ran right out in front of him. Video footage showed that Harvick was mistaken; it was a squirrel, not a cat, that ran across the track in front of him.
On PRN’s live broadcast of the race, John Schneider of Dukes of Hazzard fame was interviewed, and during the interview, he joked that he was looking for his pet squirrel, Fritter. He said he lost Fritter somewhere in the infield.
EVERYBODY HATES BRAD
Everybody may have loved Raymond, but late in the 2014 Sprint Cup Series season, it seemed like everybody hated Brad. Okay, so maybe not everyone hated Brad Keselowski, but he seemed to have more than his fair share of enemies, especially come Chase time.
Keselowski caught the ire of Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth and then Stewart after the fall race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He hit Kenseth on pit road after Kenseth had already unbuckled. Keselowski then, accidentally, hit Stewart. Stewart then backed up his car and hit Keselowski in retaliation.
Afterward, Hamlin followed Keselowski into the garage and then tried to confront him but was held back by members of his team. Nobody held back Kenseth, though, as he jumped Keselowski like a spider monkey, so to speak.
After the smoke cleared, Keselowski and Stewart were penalized for “using cars as weapons” on pit road.
Apparently, the smoke hadn’t really cleared, though. In the closing stages of the race at Texas Motor Speedway a couple of weeks later, Keselowski saw a hole and went for it, much to the dismay of Jeff Gordon. Aftere the race, Gordon attempted to approach Keselowski, but team members got in the way and a big brawl broke out on pit road. Harvick, saying later that he thought Keselowski needed to fight his own battles, pushed Keselowski into the fray and then watched in amusement from the sidelines. From the incident came a new Twitter hastag: #harvicking.
None of the drivers involved were penalized, as they didn’t land punches. A handful of Hendrick Motorsports employees, though, weren’t so lucky.
THAT KYLE LARSON KID IS THE REAL DEAL
I admit that I was one of the many skeptics when car owner Chip Ganassi announced that Kyle Larson would replace Juan Montoya in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet in the Sprint Cup Series in 2014. Are you kidding me? That kid’s not ready?
Boy was I, and a lot of other people, wrong. Larson was beyond impressive in his first year of Sprint Cup competition. He wound up as Rookie of the Year, beating out the best rookie class in quite some time, but his 2014 performance went way beyond that.
Larson didn’t get to victory lane in 2014, but he came oh-so-close oh-so-many times. He took runner-up honors three times, first at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., early in the season and then posting two second-place finishes in a span of three races during the Chase. During the Chase for the Sprint Cup post-season, Larson was actually one of the best-performing drivers, points-wise. He closed out his rookie campaign with eight top-fives and 17 top-10 finishes in 36 races.
JIMMIE JOHNSON, UMM MAKE THAT DALE EARNHARDT JR. WINS THE DAYTONA 500
Okay, we all know now that Dale Earnhardt Jr. kicked off the 2014 Sprint Cup Series season by winning the Daytona 500 and, really, that’s the big news item. That win kicked off what was, perhaps, the best season of Earnhardt’s Cup career; it was at least his best season since joining Hendrick Motorsports. He won four races, including a career-first at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, and posted 12 top-fives and 20 top-10s. He was even considered a championship favorite, come Chase time.
FOX News, though, tried to give the win to Jimmie Johnson, the 2013 Daytona 500 winner. The 2014 race was rain delayed, prompting FOX to fill time by showing last year’s race, won by Johnson. Although its sister network, of sorts, was the network broadcasting the race, FOX News reported after the re-airing of the 2013 race that Johnson won the 2014 Daytona 500. As a result, Johnson reported getting a lot of congratulatory tweets before the 2014 race even concluded.
GOODBYE, MARCOS AMBROSE, ESPN AND NATIONWIDE. HELLO, XFINITY AND NBC SPORTS
The 2014 season was one of goodbyes, as Marcos Ambrose planned a permanent return to his native Australia, going back to his V8 Supercars roots. Also, ESPN gave way to NBC Sports as a NASCAR broadcast parnter and Nationwide was replaced by Xfinity as the title sponsor of the NASCAR Nationwide-turned-Xfinity Series.
What are your most memorable moments of the 2014 NASCAR season? Talk to us on Twitter @AutoRacingDaily or on Facebook (facebook.com/autorcngdaily). Amanda’s also on Twitter @NASCARexaminer and has a fan/like page on Facebook: NASCAR Examiner