NASCAR 2014: A memorable season that’ll be hard to top

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The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season was indeed one for the record books.

It began with a radically revised elimination format in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

It ended with arguably one of the most exciting and thrilling season finishes in the sport’s history, when Kevin Harvick had to win the season-ending race to also win his first Sprint Cup championship.

Anything less and we likely would not be toasting Harvick at Friday night’s Sprint Cup awards banquet in Las Vegas.

Harvick was one of the biggest stories of the season in the way he won the championship, but it’s the back story that is equally as compelling.

After 13 seasons of loyalty and hard work while driving for Richard Childress Racing, Harvick decided that he had nothing to lose – and potentially a championship to gain – by moving to Stewart-Haas racing for the 2014 season.

Harvick’s decision will become one of NASCAR lore, taking a leap of faith and turning it into not only his first Cup crown, but also SHR’s second championship in four seasons (after Tony Stewart won in 2011).

But Harvick wasn’t the only big story of 2014.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the season-opening Daytona 500 and would go on to win four races in total in his final season with crew chief Steve Letarte (now with NBC as a NASCAR analyst).

Junior even took to Twitter – becoming a prolific master of the 140-character message board – to celebrate his win in the Great American Race.

Sadly, however, the biggest NASCAR story of 2014 occurred not even in a NASCAR race, per se.

In a Saturday night dirt track sprint car race in upstate New York on August 9, Stewart struck and killed 20-year-old fellow racer Kevin Ward Jr. in a tragic on-track racing accident.

It was a story that would reverberate around the world and shake racing as a whole – not just NASCAR – to its core.

A grand jury would ultimately find Stewart innocent of any culpability or negligence in Ward’s death.

Whether Stewart will ever be able to recover fully from the Ward tragedy and return to the race-winning (he failed to win a Cup race in 2014 for the first time in a season in his 16-year career) and championship-winning form of old remains to be seen.

Still, the 2014 season was one that will be remembered by many and for a long, long time – and not just for what happened in the Sprint Cup Series, but also for some historic firsts also in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, as well.

At the same time, with the way the 2014 played out begs to ask a loaded question: What does NASCAR do for an encore in 2015?

We don’t know the answer, but we sure are excited about the prospects.

So without further adieu, let’s look back at the 30 biggest stories in NASCAR of 2014:

1. The Tony Stewart-Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy.

2. Introduction and playing out of the new Chase elimination-style format.

3. Kevin Harvick wins his first Sprint Cup championship in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing, following a 13-season tenure at Richard Childress Racing.

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. earned four wins in 2014, the most in one season for him in a decade (won six races in 2004).

5. Earnhardt won the season-opening Daytona 500 – and took to Twitter to celebrate with his fans!

6. The early November throwdown at Texas between Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon.

7. Ryan Newman reaches the Championship 4 round and almost pulls off the upset, all without even winning one race in a season where wins have never been more important.

8. Joey Logano’s breakout season, with five wins and a berth in the Championship 4 round.

9. Jeff Gordon falls short in what arguably had been his best chance for a fifth Sprint Cup championship – his so-called “Drive For Five” – in at least the last six or seven seasons.

10. Brad Keselowski leads the series with six wins, but ultimately fails to reach the final four-driver championship round – missing out in his attempt to win a second Cup crown in three seasons.

11. Kurt Busch becomes the first driver to perform “The Double” in a decade, competing in both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.

12. Matt Kenseth goes from a series-leading seven wins in 2013 to zero wins in 2014.

13. Speaking of Joe Gibbs Racing, what happened in 2014? While Denny Hamlin reached the Championship 4 round, JGR as a whole won just two races this season (one each by Hamlin and Kyle Busch).

14. Carl Edwards announces he will leave Roush Fenway Racing and follow former teammate Matt Kenseth to Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2015 season.

15. Chase Elliott becomes the youngest champion in NASCAR history by winning the final Nationwide Series championship at the age of 18.

16. Matt Crafton became the first driver in Camping World Truck Series history to win back-to-back championships in 2013 and 2014.

17. The 2015 induction class for the NASCAR Hall of Fame is named: Bill Elliott, Wendell Scott (the Hall’s first African-American inductee and the first minority driver to ever win a NASCAR race), Fred Lorenzen, Joe Weatherly and Rex White.

18. Jimmie Johnson fails to win a seventh Sprint Cup championship – which would have made it seven in nine seasons. Ironically enough, Johnson ended 2013 and came into the 2014 season considered by many as NASCAR’s greatest driver of all-time. Unfortunately, he did not end the season in the same fashion.

19. Kyle Larson earned Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year honors, yet drove like a veteran, coming close to winning several races. He is one of the most exciting prospects for the sport in the future.

20. The Nationwide Series comes to an end after a seven-year run. NASCAR’s junior league will become known as the Xfinity Series for the next 10 seasons, starting in 2015.

21. Austin Dillon brings back the No. 3 to Sprint Cup competition for the first time since Dale Earnhardt was killed in the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Dillon had an outstanding debut in the No. 3, earning the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500.

22. A.J. Allmendinger wins the road course race at Watkins Glen in both dramatic and emotional fashion, ultimately qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in his career.

23. Aric Almirola wins the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in early July to earn his first berth in the Chase, as well.

24. Almirola’s teammate, Marcos Ambrose, ends his nine-year racing career in NASCAR and returns to his native Australia to once again compete in that country’s high-profile V8 Supercars series. Ambrose won the V8 championship in 2003 and 2004 and finished third in 2005 before coming to NASCAR the following season.

25. Brendan Gaughan earns his first career Nationwide Series victory at Road America (a race in which the majority was run under rain conditions) and then doubled-up at Kentucky later in the season.

26. Two-time Sprint Cup champ Terry Labonte drives in the final race of his career at Talladega in the fall.

27. Jimmy Fennig announces he will retire after the 2014 season after an outstanding career as a NASCAR crew chief for a number of drivers, including winning the 2004 championship with Kurt Busch, as well as tenures atop the pit box for Mark Martin, Carl Edwards and others.

28. Danica Patrick didn’t move the needle with her 28th-place finish in the season standings, but she definitely showed improvement in performance and finishes in 2014.

29. Following a big to-do at Daytona with rapper and minority team investor 50 Cent, Swan Racing folds less than 10 races into the 2014 season. While Cole Whitt catches on with BK Racing, the other Swan driver, Parker Kligerman, is left without a ride for the remainder of the season.

30. Michael Waltrip appears on Dancing With The Stars and goes several rounds before being eliminated. It’s arguably the most notable performance of anyone from Michael Waltrip Racing in 2014.

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Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.