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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Rossi remains “The Story” in INDYCAR in 2019

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
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ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – Alexander Rossi’s greatness was on full display Monday at Road America.

He started on the outside of the front row, drafted behind pole sitter Colton Herta at the drop of the green flag, pulled out a perfectly-timed move to race side-by-side with Herta going into Turn 1. By Turn 2 of the first lap of the race, Rossi’s No. 27 NAPA Honda was out front and drove away from the field, easily winning the REV Group Grand Prix of Road America by nearly 30 seconds over Team Penske’s Will Power.

Rossi was so good, it appeared he was running on a different race course than the other 23 competitors. There was some outstanding racing throughout the field with 191 total passes including 175 for position, but none of those passes were at the front.

According to Rossi’s engineer, Jeremy Milles, there was just one thing missing from deeming Rossi’s race complete perfection.

“It we had stayed out two laps longer on the last pits stop, we would have led every single lap instead of Graham Rahal leading one lap,” Milless told NBC Sports.com. “It’s good to see when we give him a proper car, he puts it to work.

“He’s not like a lot of drivers.”

Rossi led 54 of the 55 laps in the race and defeated Power by 28.4391 seconds – a huge margin of victory by today’s standards. Back in 1982, Hector Rebaque defeated Al Unser by one-full lap at the 4.014-mile, 14 Road America road course, but those were far different times than today’s very deep field in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Although it was Rossi’s second victory of the season and the seventh of his career, the 27-year-old from Nevada City, California has been the driver everyone talks about in 2019. The win snapped a four-race streak where he finished third three of the four times and fifth in the other.

Simon Pagenaud won the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26, but the fans and media were talking about Rossi’s bold, daring moves, including some wildly aggressive passes down the frontstraight and to the outside in Turn 1.

Rossi had a fantastic car the next week in the first race of the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle, but was burned by the timing of a caution period for a crash just as his main challenger, Josef Newgarden, dove into the pit area to make a stop just before pit lane closed because of the caution. Rossi had to wait until the pits were reopened to make his stop, and that put him behind Newgarden and ultimately decided the race.

After a fifth-place finish the following day in Race No. 2, Rossi was once again standing up in his seat and on top of the steering wheel in a tremendous battle with Newgarden at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8. Rossi tried his best to make his car stick on the outside lane going into Turn 1, but when he discovered the risk was much higher than the reward, he had to begrudgingly settle for second, finishing 0.816-of-a-second behind the current NTT IndyCar Series points leader.

Rossi left no doubt on his Sunday drive through the Wisconsin woods as he was never challenged.

In just three short seasons, Rossi has developed into one of the greatest drivers in a generation in IndyCar. He doesn’t even have 10 victories yet, and he already had the makings of a legend.

“It’s almost like Juan Pablo Montoya, when he arrived as a rookie, he was great immediately,” Rossi’s team owner Michael Andretti told NBC Sports.com after the race. “Juan is one of the greats and I think as time moves on, Alex will prove to be one of the greats.

“He is very aggressive, very calm, very confident, everything you want in a driver. He wasn’t racing anybody all day; he was just racing himself not to make any mistakes.”

For Andretti, this is a very important time in his relationship with Rossi. The driver’s contract concludes at the end of this season and he is the focal point of speculation on where he will race in 2020.

Before Pagenaud revived his career with a sweep of the major events at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May, Rossi looked like “Penske Material” as the driver that would take over the No. 22 Chevrolet. After Pagenaud won the Indy 500, team owner Roger Penske assured him he would be back on the team in 2020.

Rossi’s loyalties like with Honda. Both him and his father, Pieter, share a close relationship with the engine manufacturer that helped the former Formula One test driver at Manor find a full-time home in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Andretti told NBC Sports.com on Friday that he was “optimistically confident” that he will re-sign Rossi once a sponsorship agreement with NAPA is completed.

Andretti remains confident after Rossi’s win on Sunday.

“We’re getting there, I think we’re getting there,” Andretti said. “We are feeling pretty good about it.”

There are others, however, that aren’t as optimistic.

If Roger Penske wants a driver, who turns down an opportunity like that. After all, Team Penske is far and away the winningest team in IndyCar history including a record 18 Indy 500 wins.

Think of these scenarios.

What if McLaren makes a substantial offer to align with Andretti Autosport for a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team in the future after McLaren’s debacle in this year’s Indy 500? In order for that to happen, though, Andretti would have to switch to Chevrolet, because Honda ‘s parent company in Japan will no longer do business with McLaren.

The last time Andretti considered leaving Honda for Chevy, Rossi was set to leave Andretti to join another Honda team, Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports in 2017.

If Andretti Autosports and McLaren joined together, that would also mean the Andretti-aligned Harding Steinbrenner Racing would become a Chevy operation.

Honda could keep Rossi as one of its drivers by leading him to Chip Ganassi Racing. Five-time Cup Series champion Scott Dixon remains on top of his game, but it’s unlikely he will be racing Indy cars 10 years from now.

Barring unforeseen circumstance, Rossi will still be in the cockpit and winning races 10 years from now and that would position Ganassi’s team for the future. The team’s second driver is rookie Felix Rosenqvist, who is currently racing with a one-year contract.

Even Rossi knows his situation for next year is complicated, that is why he chooses not to talk about it. He has developed a strong bond with Milless as his engineer and Rob Edwards (white shirt on left) as his race strategist. Do both of those key members end up on a different team with Rossi? Edwards is a key member of management at Andretti Autosport as the Chief Operating Officer.

Rossi is as cerebral as he is aggressive. After his victory, when pressed upon his next contract, he concluded the conversation perfectly.

“I have no considerations,” Rossi said regarding his contract status. “It’s in God’s hands.”