From teams to the sanctioning body, change proved to be just what the sport needed in 2014.
Before we ring in the New Year, let’s look back on 2014 one last time.
For NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series it was a season of change.
All too often, companies subscribe to change just for the sake of change. But for a number of competitors – and the sanctioning body – pre-season changes provided remarkable results in 2014.
Catch me if you can…
In January, NASCAR released new parameters for the Chase. The playoff field was expanded from 12 to 16 drivers with a “win-and- you’re-in” scenario that enabled first time contenders such as Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger the opportunity to compete in the Chase – if only in the first round.
As one-fourth of the Chase field was eliminated after every third race, the pressure mounted through each round until the final four teams fought to the finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway with Kevin Harvick standing victorious. But the stress – and the drama – leading up to each elimination race was unlike any play-off scenario presented to Cup teams in the previous decade.
A new champion
After 13 seasons with Richard Childress Racing, Kevin Harvick yearned for a fresh start. He found it at Stewart-Haas Racing.
Harvick, 39, enlisted the services of former driver/veteran crew chief Rodney Childers to build the No. 4 team from scratch. Childers recruited his staff and with the new rules outlined for the Gen 6, went on to build cars that would earn more poles (8) and lead more laps (2137) than anyone on the Sprint Cup tour. For the season, Harvick’s Chevy led 20.27 percent of all laps raced.
Although Brad Keselowski won the most races (6), Harvick’s five wins tied his personal best. His eight poles were more than he had posted throughout his Cup career. And Harvick’s qualifying average of 9.1 was also his best career effort.
Speaking of change, Harvick and Childers did not hesitate to swap pit crews with the No. 14 team prior to the Chase after miscues resulted in missed opportunities. The new over-the-wall support were clearly up for the challenge as Harvick scored six of his 14 top-fives during the play-offs and three victories including in the season finale which ultimately earned Stewart-Haas Racing its second title in four seasons.
Aerodynamic modifications for the 2014 Sprint Cup cars in an effort to improve side-by-side racing paid dividends on a variety of venues and led to record speeds in qualifying.
The alterations also played into the driving styles of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, two of NASCAR’s most popular drivers who enjoyed memorable seasons. Certainly, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 4 car figured out the proper setups to gain the most speed in their cars. But the Nos. 24, 48 and 88 teams each won four races and all four teams qualified for the Chase.
No doubt the Hendrick Motorsports duo of Gordon and Earnhardt led the charge from their stable. From the start of the season with Earnhardt winning the Daytona 500 to his first Martinsville victory after he was eliminated from the Chase, Junior Nation had something to cheer about. Despite losing his crew chief Steve Letarte at the end of the season, the No. 88 never felt like a lame duck team. Overall, it was Earnhardt’s best performance in a decade.
Four-time certainly appeared to be on the road to a fifth title. Not only was his fifth career win at the Brickyard was a storybook experience, the victory added to the No. 24 team’s momentum for the playoffs. It wasn’t until Gordon tangled with Brad Keselowski at Texas during the third round of the Chase that his quest for the Cup was jeopardized. Although Gordon supporters will take comfort that it was the Champ’s best season since 2007, his most memorable moment post-race row at Texas. Under the old point system, Gordon’s average finish of 10.4 would have carried him to the title.
Not your father’s time trials
After years of equating Cup qualifying to watching paint dry, NASCAR adopted a new knockout system for 2014 that put the excitement back into Friday’s.
With two rounds of time trials on short tracks of a mile or less and three rounds on larger venues, qualifying was pressure packed and set the tone for the weekend. Certainly, the lighter, faster cars contributed to track records being shattered but competition was at an all-time high as well.
Not surprisingly, the Team Penske squads – with their open wheel experience – excelled early and often. Together, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski earned six poles, transferred to the final round of qualifying in 27 and 28 races, respectively, and a Penske Ford started from the front row in 21 events. Keselowski’s average qualifying effort of 7.4 was the best on the tour followed by Gordon (9.0), Harvick (9.1) and Logano (9.8).
A second chance
Ryan Newman’s run to the Championship Round of the Chase was more methodical than sexy.
But for the first time in his Cup career, not only did Newman finish in the top five in the point standings, the No. 31 team missed the title by one position at Homestead after finishing second to Kevin Harvick. Newman's second-place finish in the point standings was the best result for a Richard Childress Racing team since Dale Earnhardt was runner up to Bobby Labonte in 2000.
Think of Newman and crew chief Luke Lambert as the little engineers that could. This duo beat most of the powerhouse teams with brains and brawn as Newman muscled his way into the Championship Round sans wins but with consistency. His career-high average finish of 12.7 for 2014 was fifth best on the tour behind Gordon (10.4), Logano (11.3), Earnhardt (12.2) and Keselowski (12.6).