2014 NASCAR Nationwide Series Season Review

4 Comments

Is this the start of something special?

It’s the one question you come back to when you think about how Chase Elliott came away with the 2014 NASCAR Nationwide Series championship. The 18-year-old son of former Sprint Cup champion Bill Elliott won three times, then pulled away from JR Motorsports teammate Regan Smith in the second half of the year before clinching the title with one race to go.

Time will tell if he will achieve superstar status in the top-level Cup Series one day. But in Elliott’s case, it certainly feels like it’s going to happen. With the guidance of his father and the resources of Hendrick Motorsports (whose owner, Rick Hendrick, co-owns JR Motorsports with Dale Earnhardt Jr.) behind him, the potential is enormous.

We saw some of that in 2014. After claiming his first series win at Texas in April, he followed that one week later with a jaw-dropping run from sixth to first in the final two laps to win at Darlington, perhaps the toughest track in all of NASCAR.

A third victory at Chicagoland later on in July put him atop the NNS standings. From there, a superb run of consistency all the way to the penultimate race in Phoenix (eight Top-5s, 13 Top-10s in that 14-race stretch) enabled him to stay there. The run finally snapped with a 17th-place finish in the season-finale at Homestead, but with the championship already in the bag, it hardly mattered.

With this much success at this young an age, it wouldn’t have been unexpected to have seen Elliott develop an air of cockiness about him. But instead, we saw a down-to-earth and noticeably self-critical figure as he methodically marched to the title.

From his perspective, that wasn’t so much being humble as it was being honest about how a career can ebb and flow.

“I know things can go south a heck of a lot faster than they can go good for you, and just because you had a good run on Tuesday, that doesn’t mean you’re going to be any good on Wednesday,” he explained at Homestead. “You’re happy right now, you might be mad in an hour.

“So everything can change and go the other way so fast…I’m sure things are not going to get any easier in the sport. Things are always changing, and you have to be — you just have to, I guess, kind of learn to deal with the ups and downs, and I just try to be honest with it is kind of the way I go about it.”

If we’re being honest, Elliott effectively locked up the championship at Kansas in October with a 10th-place finish while his closest pursuer, Smith, suffered mechanical woes and finished 22nd. The points gap between Elliott and Smith ballooned to 38, and Smith was left to hang on to second.

But Smith still had a tremendous season that saw him rack up 26 Top-10 finishes (tied with Elliott for a series-high total) and take a win in the season-opening race at Daytona. Winning at Daytona is special for any stock car driver, but after being involved in a bad crash that took place at the end of the 2013 opener (whose debris ended up injuring more than two dozen fans), it certainly meant even more for the former Sprint Cup pilot.

There were other great moments as well. Among the veterans: Brendan Gaughan scored his first career Nationwide win at Road America and then followed that up with a late rally and triumph later in the year at Kentucky. Elliott Sadler got his first NNS victory in almost two years at Talladega. And future Richard Petty Motorsports Sprint Cup driver Sam Hornish Jr. made the most of his part-time opportunity in the series with Joe Gibbs Racing, which included a win at Iowa.

The young bucks also had their days. Ryan Blaney stepped up again for Team Penske at Bristol, while Ty Dillon notched his inaugural NNS win on the biggest stage in the sport: Indianapolis. And let’s not forget about Chris Buescher’s own breakthrough at Mid-Ohio for Roush Fenway Racing.

But make no mistake: Cup stars continued to have a deep impact on the series.

Kyle Busch was a “Monster” once again in NNS competition with seven wins, but Brad Keselowski’s five wins (along with Blaney’s Bristol win) helped power the No. 22 Team Penske Ford to another owner’s championship. Eventual 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick chipped in four wins for JR Motorsports, and Kasey Kahne also won for that team in the Daytona summer race. Cup rookie phenom Kyle Larson was successful too, with a pair of wins in the early season.

Whether dinner or driving, Montoya and Cameron fast friends at Penske

Courtesy of IMSA
Leave a comment

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dane Cameron’s reaction to being told he’d be paired with Juan Pablo Montoya on Team Penske’s DPI Acura didn’t signal the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

“I sign my contract with (Team Penske president) Tim Cindric, and he says, ‘We’re going to put you with Montoya,’ ” Cameron told NBCSports.com, pausing to laugh. “I’m thinking ‘Did I do something wrong? Is he mad at me? Why is he giving me that guy? This is going to be a lot of work.’

“At first I wasn’t really sure what I was in for because (Montoya) definitely has a bit of a reputation. I was like, ‘Oh man, how is this going to go?’ ”

Actually, it’s gone really well.

VIEWER’S GUIDE: Five things to watch in the 2020 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona

Entering this weekend’s season-opening Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, Cameron and Montoya are the reigning champions of IMSA’s premier division. In their second year together, the No. 6 duo scored victories last season at Mid-Ohio, Detroit and Laguna Seca while finishing on the podium in seven consecutive events.

But it’s easy to understand why Cameron initially might have had reservations about a working relationship with Montoya.

Over a Hall of Fame career spanning more than two decades, the outspoken Colombian famous for his cutthroat indifference and swashbuckling sizzle has been embroiled in controversial rivalries with many of the world’s greatest drivers while blazing a winning trail in IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula One.

Cameron, meanwhile, is a low-key native of Sonoma, California, who is the first three-time champion of the WeatherTech Series (since the IMSA merger of 2014) but whose professional driving experience is limited nearly exclusively to sports cars.

Yet since their first conversation – Montoya called Cameron while he was driving home from signing that first contract with Penske – their rapport has been strong, and as simpatico as they are behind the wheel, they also get along famously off the track.

“We have such a good relationship,” Montoya told NBCSports.com. “It’s amazing how well we bonded. We really created a friendship. We have massive amounts of trust in each other. Whether he makes a mistake or I make a mistake, there’s no judgment. We always seem to be there for each other, and we complement each other really well.

“I like going to dinner with this guy, put it that way. That doesn’t happen often.”

Cameron said his teammate’s loose and playful style immediately was a welcome relief. During one of his first media appearances with Team Penske’s IMSA driver lineup, Cameron was nervous about maintaining the team’s well-coiffed image of professionalism.

But as Montoya and teammate Helio Castroneves traded barbs about turning gray or graining weight, Cameron suddenly felt at ease.

“Juan’s a good guy to break the ice when it’s getting a little stuffy in the room to have a little joke or make fun of Helio coloring his hair just to lighten the mood,” Cameron said of Montoya. “If things are tense, he’s good. It’s silly and childish but fun. That helped me get more comfortable for sure

“He’s probably a little more brash than I am and likes to pick on people and have some fun, but I like to enjoy myself, too. If everything’s really serious, and you’re miserable, it’s tougher to perform in the car. If you’re enjoying yourself and surrounding yourself with the right people in a good environment, then things come together a lot easier.”

Cameron and Montoya never met before joining Team Penske’s relaunched sports car program two years ago. The team used the same formula for filling each of its Acuras: Pairing an IMSA champion with an IndyCar star.

Ricky Taylor and Castroneves were aligned in the No. 7, and Montoya was teamed with Cameron, who had won the 2016 DP title with Action Express Racing.

The No. 6 Acura in testing for the Rolex 24. Juan Pablo Montoya, Dane Cameron and Simon Pagenaud will share the car this weekend at Daytona (courtesy of IMSA).

“With (Cameron) winning the championship, we knew Montoya would have respect for him,” Cindric said. “We saw pretty quickly that (Montoya) could learn from (Cameron) in this form of racing. It’s been healthy. We’ve never had any problems with them.

“It’s good to see them have success and Montoya get another championship. He was so close to the IndyCar (title) with us, it was good to get one with him.”

Montoya, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, and Cameron will be paired with another Indy 500 champion at Daytona as Simon Pagenaud joins their Rolex 24 entry for the second consecutive season. Montoya and Cameron still are seeking their first endurance victory, and Pagenaud bring the resume of a former American Le Mans Series champion.

The trio will split the driving over 24 hours while also compromising on myriad details, such as the positioning of the seat and pedals. Hitting a setup that can suit each driver’s style with optimized speed is among the biggest challenges in sports car racing.

“You have to find the right balance between standing up for what you really want and what you really need so you can perform and then maybe give up here and there on certain things that aren’t bothering you,” Cameron said. “When you find the right partnership and the right guy to be with, it really can push the program to the next level.”

Said Montoya: “It’s crazy that we always want the same things out of the car. We keep helping each other. And it’s funny because when I’m really happy with the car, he struggles a bit. And when he’s really happy with the car, I struggle a bit. And we kind of found that middle ground where we know it’s good. I can make it work here, and he can make it work there.”

Each has their own track-specific strengths, too. Montoya is a three-time Rolex 24 winner who excels on the Daytona road course, where Cameron still is seeking his first win. It’s the opposite at Sebring International Raceway, where Montoya says, “I know I suck, and Dane’s freaking unbelievable.”

Such brutal honesty is part of what makes Montoya a good teammate.

“He just wants to have fun and drive race cars and really isn’t into drama,” Cameron said. “Sometimes he can’t bite his tongue, but that makes everyone love him at the same time. We just found a really great way to have fun at the racetrack and become closer friends away from the track.

“He’s just the right guy.”

Juan Pablo Montoya (left) and Dane Cameron celebrated after winning at Laguna Seca last year (courtesy of IMSA).