2014 NASCAR Nationwide Series Season Review

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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.

Rolex 24 at Hour 8: Acuras, Cadillacs look strong in GTP; tough times for Tower in LMP2

Rolex 24 at Daytona
James Gilbert/Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The premier hybrid prototype era of the Rolex 24 at Daytona began with a relatively smooth start Saturday through the Hour 8 mark.

Though two of the new Grand Touring Prototype cars fell out of contention within the first six hours, seven cars representing four big-money manufacturers were setting the pace (albeit conservatively at times) after eight of 24 hours in the endurance race classic.

The Cadillacs of Alex Lynn (No. 02, Chip Ganassi Racing) and Jack Aitken (No. 31 of Action Express) held the top two spots with a third of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship completed.

RUNNING ORDER: Standings through eight hours l By class

Brendon Hartley was running third in the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Acura, followed by Nick Tandy in the No. 6 Porsche Penske Motorsport 963, Renger van der Zande in the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac and Tom Blomqvist in the No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing Acura.

The No. 24 BMW M Team RLL BMW M Hybrid V8 ’s No. 24  was the first GTP car a lap down, but in better shape than its sister. The No. 25 BMW pulled off track for major repairs near the end of the first hour and was classified 133 laps down in 59th in 61 cars.

Misfortune also befell the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsport, which was forced into the garage for a battery change with 18 hours and five minutes remaining. The 963 was 19 laps down in 22nd.

But all things considered, the debut of the GTPs had belied the hand-wringing and doomsayer predictions that had hung over Daytona the past two weeks. Cadillac Racing’s three V-LMDh cars had avoided mechanical problems (needing only typical body repairs for the front end of the No. 01 and rear end of the No. 31 for minor collisions in heavy traffic throughout the 61-car field).

Its stiffest competition seemed to be the Acura ARX-06s, which led more than 100 laps in the first eight hours.

Pole-sitter Tom Blomqvist built a sizeable lead in the No. 60 (which won last year’s Rolex 24) while leading the first 60 laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course.

“That was my longest time in the car since we got it,” said Blomqvist, who led the car to the IMSA premier championship last season. “We’re driving it into the unknown now. We’ve done everything we can. We know it’s a strong, fast car, but there are so many things to learn it almost feels like we’re winging it. It’s a constant learning curve, for both me as a driver but for the whole team. We’ve had a good start to the race, but there’s a lot of race to go and anything can happen.”

The No. 60 lost positions when Helio Castroneves spun just short of seven hours remaining but later soldiered back into the lead with Blomqvist.

“That was a wild ride,” Castroneves said. “I just got caught up in the moment and I’m not sure what happened. It locked the rear so unexpectedly. Certainly, the car is fast. There’s a lot of traffic. It was very, very difficult. The Acura has good pace so far, and we are learning a lot in a short time.”

Two days after predicting the race would be an “old-school endurance race” with conservative driving and setups, Simon Pagenaud said his forecast has been realized.

“Totally,” the Meyer Shank Racing said after completing his first turn behind the wheel of the No. 60 shortly before Castroneves’ incident. “It’s been rare that I’ve been saving equipment this much here. In any of my experience in sports car racing, I’ve rarely driven this cool, basically trying to protect everything. It’s what we’ve got to do. And we’ve got the advantage having pace with the Acura.

“So for us, this time of the race, we’ve just got to build the foundation of our race. There’s really no need to dive into the Bus Stop on somebody right now. Six hours to go is a whole different story. If we’re there, there’s no problem. We’ll do it. We have the capacity to do that, which is honestly such a luxury. But at this point to me, we’re just going to save the equipment, get there and see where we are because the car is extremely fast.”

Pagenaud was involved in one when he was warned by IMSA stewards for “incident responsibility” on a spin involving the No. 8 Tower Motorsports LMP2 that is being co-driven by Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin (two of the 10 active IndyCar drivers in the 2023 Rolex 24).

Tower driver-owner John Farano was in the car at the time, but Pagenaud joked he thought it was Newgarden, his former IndyCar teammate at Team Penske.

“I thought the Tower car, that must be Newgarden,” Pagenaud cracked. “Was it him? Don’t tell me. I know it was him. Doesn’t matter. Let me just take it. I’m going to say it’s him. Please tell him I said that when you see him.

The 2019 Indy 500 winner and 2016 IndyCar champion chalked up the run-in with Farano as “a misunderstanding. He hesitated passing the car ahead of him and gave me the left side, so I dove in on the outside, and he basically released the brake and hit my rear. So you could say it’s on me. You could say it’s on him. Honestly, I was confused as to what happened because I just saw him spin in the mirror. I don’t think we had contact.”

It already was a long day for the No. 8 Tower, which had to pull off the track on the first lap. A water bottle fitting leaked onto the ORECA LMP2 07’s electronic control unit, which malfunctioned. The team lost 10 laps while being towed to the pits and repaired as the first yellow flag flew less than five minutes into the race for the incident.

By the time Newgarden handed off the car to McLaughlin, the No. 8 still was nine laps down with eight hours to go.

Last year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona LMP2 winner, which also featured two IndyCar stars in Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward, rallied from five laps down, but Newgarden lamented missing three opportunities to regain a lap under yellow.

“We’re trying to chip away at it; it’s just difficult,” the two-time IndyCar champion said. “I feel solid, and it’s very fun to be in the mix the first time. Very special to be out there in the action. Just wish we were on the lead lap. Our pace was solid. We were strongest on track, but that’s going to change in the later hours with the hot shoes in the car. It’s not going to be easy to pull laps back on this field. It’s a very stacked contingent. They’re all good teams, lot of good drivers. Put ourselves in a hole not a good situation to be in, keep fighting at it. Felt like our pace was good.

“It’s not looking good now. You get toward the end of race, you won’t gain laps back on pace. There are too many good teams and drivers. … We need 8 or 9 yellows to go our way. It just doesn’t look good. But never say never. What if all the GTPs just blow up? I don’t know what’s going to happen. They look really good right now. This is not what everyone predicted. Let’s see. You just never know in racing.”