Even though we say it every year, this past NASCAR season was one for the ages. Not just because of the action on the track and the added pressure of winning due to the new chase playoff format, but also because of the action off the track.
From the highest of highs, the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., winning the season-opening Daytona 500, to the lowest of lows, another huge name in the NASCAR garage, Tony Stewart, being involved in the tragic death of Sprint Car driver Kevin Ward Jr., 2014 had it all. There were fights, there were upsets, there were surprises and there was a first-time champion crowned in the Sprint Cup Series (Kevin Harvick).
You could tell that 2014 was going to be a special season for NASCAR. Whether it was the drivers behind the wheel, or the fans in the grandstands, the action was plentiful this past season.
It started off with a bang at Daytona International Speedway, when Austin Dillon won the pole with the No. 3 car, made famous by Dale Earnhardt Sr., making its return to Sprint Cup competition. Later that week, Earnhardt Jr. won his second career Daytona 500 and then took the world by storm afterward, as he joined Twitter to pay off a bet with a friend for winning the race. As the most popular driver in North America, it was safe to say that the twitter world was buzzing.
One week later, Harvick, the eventual champion, won his first race of the season in dominating fashion at Phoenix, with his newly formed No. 4 team for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Fast forward a couple of weeks to Fontana, California for one of the most exciting races of the season; Kyle Busch won the race, but Kyle Larson (the eventual rookie of the year) was who everybody was talking about. After winning the Nationwide race the day before, he finished second (career best NSCS finish in only his 6th career start). Did I mention that Danica Patrick also got her career-best finish at Kansas Motor Speedway with seventh place? She opened some eyes when the media and fans were really starting to doubt her ability in NASCAR.
One week later, Kurt Busch won at Martinsville for his first win in over 50 races, snapping the longest streak of his career. After a mid-race battle after some rubbing and banging with Brad Keselowski, the No. 41 team persevered, and ended up getting a grandfather clock and a Chase bid.
After another Joey Logano win at Texas, Kevin Harvick won his first Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Then, the summer stretch saw Earnhardt Jr. sweep the races at Pocono (first time winning at Pocono regardless), Jamie McMurray win the All-Star race and a fat $1 million check, Jeff Gordon win his record fifth Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a thrilling finish at Watkins Glen between Marcos Ambrose and eventual winner, AJ Allmendinger. The No. 47 and Allmendinger clinched a spot in the Chase, along with Aric Almirola with his win at Daytona a few weeks before, showing that the “win and you’re in” aspect of the newly-designed Chase format was nothing but the truth. Two underdogs were in, and some big names were on the outside looking in, including Tony Stewart.
The night before the aforementioned race at Watkins Glen was scheduled to go green, Stewart was involved in a Sprint Car race where Kevin Ward Jr. was tragically killed. The details can be interpreted however you want, but when it was all said and done, Stewart sat out multiple weeks, including that race at The Glen. His eventual return was at Atlanta, where the fans overwhelmingly cheered him. But that was not enough. He ended up missing the chase and was emotionally and mentally unstable throughout the grieving process, as well as after he was back in the car. But he added in victory lane in Miami that Harvick, his long-time friend and driver winning the championship, his first and Stewart’s second as an owner, was one of his highest points of the year for sure.
After Hamlin got mad and threw his HANS device at Harvick at Bristol while racing for the lead, who could forget the fan that climbed on top of the fence in the middle of the race at Richmond? It caused a caution and was, deservingly, the topic of conversation that week leading into the new Chase at Chicagoland Speedway. He was arrested and became a well-known figure in the community.
The chase was full of drama. But it was highlighted by the post-race brawl at Texas Motor Speedway when Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski (as well as their teams) engaged in what looked like a huge hockey fight. And then, the term “Harvicking” became a phenomenon as Harvick pushed Keselowski into the mix, telling him to “stand up for [himself].” Matt Kenseth, usually one of the calmest drivers in the garage, tried to tackle Keselowski after a chase race at Charlotte, showing how much was on the line each and every lap.
Another storyline was Ryan Newman, who was in his first season with Richard Childress Racing and ended up making the final four championship round with ZERO wins. Consistency? You bet. He came up just short, but proved a lot of haters wrong, beating out guys like Jimmie Johnson, Gordon and Keselowski. It was Newman, Harvick, Logano and Hamlin in the final four in Miami.
But some would argue that the most impressive performance of the 2014 Cup season was Harvick’s clutch wins at Phoenix and Homestead in back-to-back weeks. His back was against the wall after the controversial Martinsville crash where Kenseth got into the No. 4’s quarter panel. Then they go to Phoenix, and everybody knows that he needs to win to get in. So what does he do? He does it! Goes to Homestead with a championship on the line, and wins that race. If you don’t think that is a Game 7, bases loaded, two outs, walk-off type moment, I do not know what is.
As you can see, 2014 was a season that fans and drivers alike will never forget. And the good news is, the 2015 season is right around turn four. Speedweeks are in mid-February, and then, before you know it, the season will be underway on February 22 at Daytona International Speedway.
Davey Segal is the host of Victory Lane for Impact Sports