Countdown to the 2014 Sprint Cup champion has begun

Leave a comment

Wednesday’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship Media Day in suburban Miami marked the official kickoff for arguably the biggest race weekend not only of 2014, but also potentially in NASCAR history.

After 35 weeks of waiting, including a nine-race playoff run-up that saw 12 of the original 16 drivers that qualified for the Chase eliminated in one of the first three rounds, the stage is set for Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

While the biggest amount of attention is in South Florida, the excitement level spans the country, from Miami to Los Angeles, from New York to Dallas and everywhere in-between.

Barring any weather issues, what will take place on late Sunday afternoon when the green flag drops will be history in the making.

While we’ve had 65 prior NASCAR Grand National and Cup championships decided over the years, we’ve never reached this kind of level, where only four drivers will battle each other – as well as 39 other drivers who may become rolling roadblocks or impediments – for the sport’s biggest prize.

On top of it all, no matter which of the four finalists – Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman – winds up winning the crown, it will be a first-ever Cup championship for the victor.

The finale is reaching the kind of crescendo NASCAR chairman/CEO Brian France predicted, with increased TV ratings and at-track attendance.

Last Sunday’s penultimate race at Phoenix was sold out nearly a week before the green flag fell.

This Sunday’s championship race is a near-sellout for the first time in several years.

While there is still some criticism by a minority number of fans, it appears the majority have not only bought into the new format, but are excited to see how it ultimately plays out Sunday.

Granted, it’s not likely NASCAR expected that the majority of its biggest stars would not be eliminated prior to the biggest race of the season, drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., four-time champ Jeff Gordon, six-time and defending champ Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kurt and Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and others.

But at the same time, the four-driver field we see for Sunday’s race is about as diverse as you can find.

Harvick and Newman are the wily veterans who have waited 13 and 12 years respectively to get a crack at their first-ever title.

Then there’s Denny Hamlin, who is the only one of the four who has ever won at Homestead-Miami Speedway before – in fact, he’s won twice.

And then there’s the still young and precocious Joey Logano, who not only has enjoyed a breakout season in 2014, he’s lived up to all the predictions and hype bestowed upon him by a number of big names such as Mark Martin.

There’s also a revenge or redemption factor for several of the four drivers and their teams.

Hamlin is looking to avenge how he came apart in the heat of the 2010 championship battle, forcing him to eventually see a sports psychologist to deal with the loss.

Hamlin’s crew chief, Darian Grubb, is also likely looking to prove Stewart-Haas Racing wrong for releasing him even after he led Tony Stewart to five Chase wins and the eventual championship in 2011.

Harvick is looking to do with SHR what he ultimately decided wasn’t possible at his former team residence, Richard Childress Racing, for the previous 13 seasons.

And in an ironic twist, Newman is likely looking to show SHR the wrongness of its ways when it let him go last season, only to be replaced by Kurt Busch.

To his credit, even though Newman struggled at times during this year’s regular season, he’s become the Cinderella of the Chase. And in another irony, Newman could very well do for RCR what Harvick felt he’d never be able to accomplish if he stayed with the organization: to win a championship.

Logano has his own revenge factor: he was released after the 2012 season by Joe Gibbs Racing to make room for the incoming Matt Kenseth.

And so who is in this year’s final round? Kenseth was eliminated at Phoenix, but not Logano.

Fortunately for Logano, after being released by JGR, he landed at Penske Racing, which has turned him into a championship contender after being little more than an afterthought during his four-season tenure at JGR.

All four drivers have different ways of getting ready for and planning how to attack in Sunday’s race. Check out their thoughts from Wednesday’s Chase Media Day:

MORE: Calm before the storm: Chase finalists ready for Homestead

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

Leave a comment

Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”