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.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500