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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Indy Lights: Askew clinches 2019 title while VeeKay wins Laguna Seca race 1

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MONTEREY, Calif – Rinus VeeKay may have won the first race of the weekend’s Indy Lights doubleheader at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca Saturday afternoon, but all all eyes post-race were all on the driver who finished the race in the fourth position.

That driver was Oliver Askew, who by simply starting the 30-lap event at the famed road course won the 2019 series title, along with the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series scholarship that guarantees a minimum of three races next season.

“It’s all sinking in,” Askew told NBC Sports following the race. “I’m really happy to be part of this team. They’re back to back champions now in Indy Lights, and I feel very fortunate to be driving in this car this year.

“This is what we worked for all year. I’m very happy to be in this position and I can’t wait to celebrate with my team.”

With the championship in Askew’s possession from the get-go, the best VeeKay could do for in race 1 was to win in dominant fashion. He went on to do just so.

After starting the race from the pole position, VeeKay led every lap from start to finish en route to his fifth victory of the season.

“We managed the car well and kept the car consistent throughout the whole race,” VeeKay said. “I got a great car from the team so I want to give a big shout out to them for giving me a winning car.”

Behind VeeKay, Portland race 2 winner Toby Sowery finished the race in the second position, while Robert Megennis finished third.

Live streaming coverage of race two of the Indy Lights doubleheader at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca begins tomorrow afternoon at 12:10 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold.

Click here for full race results

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter