2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Bests and Worsts

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It’s always interesting to look back on the racing season that was – to think about which drivers rose up and fell back, as well as the moments we wish to remember fondly and those we’d perhaps like to forget.

Myself and my colleague, Jerry Bonkowski, had NASCAR as our main focus for the majority of weekends this year on MotorSportsTalk. And based on what occurred this season, we can tell you that we weren’t lacking for news.

But now it’s time for each of us to recognize certain people and events in particular. We’ve chosen our Most Improved Driver, Most Disappointing Driver, Best Race of the Year, and Worst Race of the Year.

We also invite you to share your own picks in these categories below in the comments section. As always, just keep it clean. And so, without further ado, here’s our Bests and Worsts from the 2014 Sprint Cup season…

Chris’ Best and Worsts

source: AP
Credit: AP.

Most Improved Driver: Brad Keselowski, Team Penske

You can make a good argument for Keselowski’s teammate, Joey Logano (which my colleague will oblige you with in his picks below), and it’s definitely valid. But the driver of the Blanco Deuce had himself a superb bounce-back season in 2014 even though he was unable to make the Championship 4 in the end.

After capturing his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship in 2012, Keselowski failed to qualify for the Chase in 2013. Bent on making sure that wouldn’t happen again, Bad Brad quickly punched his ticket to the 2014 Chase with an early-season win at Las Vegas.

He would go on to get a half-dozen victories altogether (the most of any driver in the series), and along with Logano, he often rivaled those from the Hendrick Motorsports/Stewart-Haas Racing juggernaut on pure speed from week to week. And if he had been able to avoid the mechanical failure at Martinsville in the Eliminator Round, he likely would have been fighting for his second title at Homestead.

source: AP
Credit: AP

Most Disappointing Driver: Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing

We figured that Stewart would have at least some difficulties getting back to his old self after coming off a broken leg that ended his 2013 season early. But I’m not sure if anyone was expecting “Smoke” to struggle as much as he did on the track.

Putting aside for a moment how his life was changed forever in the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy back in August, Stewart never really was a consistent front-runner in 2014. He only picked up two Top-5 finishes in the first half of the year (fourth at Bristol, then fifth at Fontana the next week), and was nowhere near Chase contention before his horrible sprint car accident on Aug. 9 that claimed the life of the 20-year-old Ward.

Stewart sat out several races to grieve before returning to action at Atlanta. But a late-season surge was not to be for the three-time Sprint Cup champion, who only had one Top-5 finish in his final 12 races of the year.

Of course, all of these on-track struggles pale in comparison to what Stewart has gone through off the track. You hope that he can find some peace this off-season.

source: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images.

Best Race of the Year: Cheez-It 355 at the Glen, Watkins Glen International

One day after the horrible events involving Tony Stewart and Kevin Ward Jr., a pivotal “wild card” race to make the Chase took on a somber dimension. But in the end, we all got an uplift from a thrilling battle in the closing laps at the Glen between A.J. Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose.

Following a restart with two laps to go, Ambrose appeared to gain the advantage when he pushed Allmendinger up the track in Turn 5. But the former Champ Car star didn’t go away and forced Ambrose to cede him space after a drag race into the next turn.

That proved to be the winning pass, as Allmendinger went on to capture the inaugural Sprint Cup triumph for both himself and his JTG Daugherty Racing team, and also complete his own personal comeback story.

He also made sure to remind us to think of all impacted by the Stewart/Ward tragedy in upstate New York, and to be thankful for what you have and who you have to share them with. On that Sunday, they were words that we all needed to hear.

source: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images.

Worst Race of the Year: Sylvania 300, New Hampshire Motor Speedway

After Brad Keselowski opened the Chase for the Sprint Cup with a win at Chicagoland Speedway, there was intrigue over who would be the next contender to push into the Contender Round with a victory in New Hampshire.

But following the halfway point of the Sylvania 300 at NHMS, that intrigue was replaced by frustration as NASCAR’s finest – likely spurred on by the pressure to win or at least get a solid finish to keep their hopes alive – turned what had been a relatively tidy race into a total mess.

The final 130 laps at Loudon featured 13 cautions, and one by one, championship hopefuls found trouble in crashes. Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, and several others were caught in various incidents that helped stretch out the torturous proceedings.

A caution with four laps left involving Tony Stewart sent the race into overtime, where Joey Logano finally ended the madness by pulling away on the restart and winning the race.

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Jerry’s Best and Worsts

source: Getty Images
Credit: AP.

MOST IMPROVED DRIVER: Joey Logano, Team Penske

How can you pick anyone other than Sliced Bread? A career-high five wins, reached the Championship 4 round and, had it not been for that pit road problem with the jack on his car at Homestead, we could be talking about Logano being the 2014 champ, not Kevin Harvick.

Not only was this a breakout season for Logano, it also is an indication of even bigger and better things to come in 2015 and beyond.

source: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images.

Most Disappointing Driver: Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing

This is absolutely, positively NOT a knock against Stewart because of the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy. But solely from a performance standpoint, Stewart had the worst season of his Sprint Cup career – and the record book proves it.

In 33 starts, he failed to win a race for the first time in a season in his Cup career and had career lows in top-5s (three) and top-10s (seven). He also had a career-worst average finish per race of 20.0. He’s never been worst than an average finish per race in any single season than 14.9 (not including his injury-shortened 2013 campaign).

While we hope Stewart will rebound in 2015, we also can’t help but wonder if perhaps his best racing days are behind him.

source:
Credit: Getty Images.

Best Race of the Year: Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway

While it may not have been the best overall finish or the closest finish, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win in the rain-delayed Daytona 500 was one that race fans – particularly Junior Nation – won’t soon forget.

It set the tone for Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte in their final season together, and was the linchpin that led to four total wins in the season, Junior’s best showing since he won six races in 2004.

Plus, after fans prodded him for nearly two years, Earnhardt celebrated his win in the Great American Race by not only joining Twitter, he’s become arguably the most prolific user of the social media outlet of any high-profile NASCAR driver.

And let’s not forget, a very close second for best race of the year: A.J. Allmendinger’s neck-and-neck battle with Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen in August.

source: AP
Credit: AP.

Worst Race of the Year: AAA Texas 500, Texas Motor Speedway

It’s hard to quantify what qualifies for the “worst” race of a season. It could be based upon how the race played out, perhaps an ugly incident that took place on the track (or on pit road), or any number of variables.

To me, the worst race of the year — even though it was a competitive event, nonetheless — was the fall Chase race at Texas. Not so much for how it finished, but for what happened afterward in the ugly brawl between Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon and crew members from their respective or affiliated teams.

Sure, the fight grabbed headlines and sparked greater fan interest for the final two races at Phoenix and Homestead. But at the same time, any time there’s a brawl in sports, whether it’s NASCAR or Major League Baseball, it not only sets a very low standard and gives that sport a black eye, it also cheapens the value of the combatants as role models, particularly for young kids.

I understand why Gordon and Keselowski went at it – not to mention Kevin Harvick’s prodding that set things off – but seeing both drivers emerge with fat lips and blood on their faces denigrates the sport to nothing more than a wrestling match.

What’s more, for those critics who love to compare NASCAR with the WWE, the Texas tangle only served to further give fodder to their argument.

NHRA playoffs kick off with Beckman, Crampton, Line, Savoie wins

Photos and videos courtesy of NHRA
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(NHRA media release)

MOHNTON, Pa. – It’s been over a year since Jack Beckman parked his Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car in an NHRA winner’s circle but on Sunday at the 35th annual Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil he came out on top.

Not only did Beckman defeat John Force in the final round at Maple Grove Raceway, he also took over the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series points lead.

“Our Sunday, I think it was perfect,” Beckman said. “That car was consistent, and it was fast. It’s one thing to be consistent and be a 10th (of a second) off the field but to run numbers as good as any other car out here, up and down the race track all four runs on race day.”

Richie Crampton (Top Fuel), Jason Line (Pro Stock) and Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were victors in their respective divisions at the first race of the 2019 Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

Beckman has been the runner-up four times in 2019 but it was his 3.958-second pass at 330.07 that gave him the holeshot win over Force’s quicker 3.952. One of the runner-up finishes was just two weeks ago at the U.S. Nationals against Force.

“In NHRA, you have zero control over what the car and driver in the other lane are doing,” Beckman said. “Did I want to beat him? Of course. Did it sting that he beat us in the Indy final? Duh. But none of that was going to help me be any better. Some fans came over before the final and said, ‘Hey, we’ll go razz John.’ And I said, ‘Don’t poke the bear.’ That guy, always seems to find a way to get motivated and win more races.”

It was a battle of Kalitta Motorsports in the Top Fuel final round but it was Crampton who raised the Wally trophy when he defeated his teammate Doug Kalitta with his 3.738 pass at 329.10 in his DHL dragster. Crampton now ties team owner and NHRA legend Connie Kalitta with 10 career wins.

Doug Kalitta snagged the Top Fuel points lead when previous leader and reigning champion Steve Torrence made an early exit in round one.

“It was definitely a great day for the whole team,” Crampton said. “All four cars are running good, particularly the dragsters, of course. But for Doug to take the points lead heading out of here, and we made a good jump in the points as well, that’s what we need to do. It’s that time of the year. It’s time to execute on race day and Connie and (crew chief) Kurt Elliott gave me the car to do it.”

Line earned his 50th Pro Stock title when he defeated Fernando Cuadra in the final round of eliminations thanks to his 6.553 pass at 210.60 in his Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro. Line also took over the points lead from his KB teammate Bo Butner. Cuadra, who was completing in his first career final round, is also a KB powered car.

“It was a big victory, for sure,” Line said. “Not one of my shiner moments, but big victory, nonetheless. I was a little tardy (leaving the starting line) so not what you want to do in the final round. But 50 wins just means I’ve had some great race cars to drive and some great people I’ve gotten to work with over the years. It’s been a fun ride.”

Savoie picked up his second consecutive win on his White Alligator Racing Suzuki. He took down Steve Johnson with his 6.774 lap at 198.55 in the final round and went on to claim the Pro Stock Motorcycle points lead.

“It was just a great, great day for everyone. My whole team. I don’t take any of this credit. (Crew chief) Tim (Kulungian) and everybody on the team worked their butts off and here we are. At my age, I can do it. I didn’t count on making the top 10 because I took three races off. And, bam! Here we are. No one, not even myself expected this.”

The Mello Yello Drag Racing Series continues Sept. 27-29 with the second race of the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship playoffs, the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals at World Wide Technology Raceway in St. Louis.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Richie Crampton; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Austin Prock; 4. Brittany Force; 5. Clay Millican; 6. Mike Salinas; 7. Leah Pritchett; 8. Antron Brown; 9. Steve Torrence; 10. Jordan Vandergriff; 11. Dan Mercier; 12. Terry McMillen; 13. Todd Paton; 14. Billy Torrence; 15. Lex Joon; 16. Smax Smith.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Jack Beckman; 2. John Force; 3. Ron Capps; 4. J.R. Todd; 5. John Smith; 6. Tim Wilkerson; 7. Matt Hagan; 8. Robert Hight; 9. Shawn Langdon; 10. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 11. Jim Campbell; 12. Cruz Pedregon; 13. Jonnie Lindberg; 14. Mike McIntire; 15. Bob Tasca III; 16. Terry Haddock.

PRO STOCK: 1. Jason Line; 2. Fernando Cuadra; 3. Matt Hartford; 4. Jeg Coughlin; 5. Deric Kramer; 6. Bo Butner; 7. Erica Enders; 8. Alex Laughlin; 9. Aaron Stanfield; 10. Kenny Delco; 11. Chris McGaha; 12. Bob Benza; 13. Greg Anderson; 14. Wally Stroupe; 15. David Miller; 16. Val Smeland.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie; 2. Steve Johnson; 3. Matt Smith; 4. Karen Stoffer; 5. Angelle Sampey; 6. Eddie Krawiec; 7. Andrew Hines; 8. Hector Arana Jr; 9. Angie Smith; 10. Ryan Oehler; 11. Kelly Clontz; 12. Jianna Salinas; 13. Michael Ray; 14. Scotty Pollacheck; 15. Hector Arana; 16. Ron Tornow.

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FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Richie Crampton, 3.738 seconds, 329.10 mph def. Doug Kalitta, 3.779 seconds, 331.28 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 3.958, 330.07 def. John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.952, 328.78.

PRO STOCK: Jason Line, Chevy Camaro, 6.553, 210.60 def. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, 6.594, 208.78.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.774, 198.55 def. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.805, 196.59.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Austin Prock, 3.698, 331.61 def. Jordan Vandergriff, 3.757, 322.34; Mike Salinas, 3.818, 252.80 def. Billy Torrence, 4.727, 163.53; Brittany Force, 3.691, 326.79 def. Todd Paton, 4.265, 207.98; Leah Pritchett, 3.731, 326.40 def. Lex Joon, 4.858, 152.73; Doug Kalitta, 3.722, 330.96 def. Smax Smith, 8.356, 74.14; Richie Crampton, 3.733, 329.26 def. Dan Mercier, 3.892, 310.63; Antron Brown, 3.743, 328.30 def. Terry McMillen, 4.130, 237.59; Clay Millican, 3.752, 329.67 def. Steve Torrence, 3.741, 330.15; QUARTERFINALS — Crampton, 3.781, 324.44 def. Brown, 9.080, 81.48; Kalitta, 3.740, 329.83 def. Salinas, 4.354, 196.39; Prock, 4.735, 219.51 def. Pritchett, 5.736, 105.48; Force, 3.784, 306.67 def. Millican, 3.927, 266.42; SEMIFINALS — Crampton, 4.656, 164.57 def. Force, Broke; Kalitta, 3.740, 333.91 def. Prock, 4.015, 295.66; FINAL — Crampton, 3.738, 329.10 def. Kalitta, 3.779, 331.28.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — John Smith, Dodge Charger, 4.280, 245.05 def. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 6.422, 144.74; Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.926, 320.36 def. Terry Haddock, Mustang, 10.025, 83.22; Ron Capps, Charger, 3.909, 327.51 def. Mike McIntire, Toyota, 5.898, 119.98; Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.908, 331.45 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.204, 249.21; John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.938, 326.40 def. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 4.752, 172.94; Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.919, 331.04 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Mustang, 5.774, 127.88; J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 3.915, 329.58 def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.977, 327.66; Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.899, 332.02 def. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.961, 329.91; QUARTERFINALS — Force, 3.944, 331.61 def. Wilkerson, 7.140, 133.20; Beckman, 3.927, 331.61 def. Hight, 9.203, 83.25; Capps, 3.916, 329.18 def. Hagan, 8.623, 79.91; Todd, 3.949, 324.75 def. J. Smith, 4.013, 313.80; SEMIFINALS — Beckman, 3.916, 331.12 def. Todd, 5.501, 167.26; Force, 3.929, 329.42 def. Capps, 4.262, 240.25; FINAL — Beckman, 3.958, 330.07 def. Force, 3.952, 328.78.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Fernando Cuadra, Chevy Camaro, 6.588, 209.75 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.578, 209.75 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.622, 211.06; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.549, 210.21 def. Aaron Stanfield, Camaro, 6.557, 210.54; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.552, 210.08 def. Bob Benza, Camaro, 6.593, 208.10; Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.564, 209.92 def. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.587, 209.30; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.540, 210.44 def. Wally Stroupe, Camaro, 17.922, 45.55; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.554, 209.36 def. David Miller, Dodge Dart, 19.609, 36.81; Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.568, 210.44 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; QUARTERFINALS — Hartford, 6.591, 209.75 def. Laughlin, 7.169, 205.82; Cuadra, 6.578, 209.56 def. Enders, 6.581, 209.07; Coughlin, 6.568, 209.65 def. Kramer, 6.571, 209.92; Line, 6.549, 210.41 def. Butner, 6.575, 210.41; SEMIFINALS — Cuadra, 6.598, 208.46 def. Coughlin, Foul – Red Light; Line, 6.572, 210.57 def. Hartford, 6.604, 210.73; FINAL — Line, 6.553, 210.60 def. Cuadra, 6.594, 208.78.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Matt Smith, 6.843, 198.15 def. Scotty Pollacheck, 7.109, 192.91; Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.807, 195.11 def. Hector Arana, Foul – Red Light; Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.891, 196.36 def. Angie Smith, 6.902, 196.19; Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.837, 194.72 def. Kelly Clontz, Suzuki, 6.971, 193.18; Hector Arana Jr, 6.897, 197.19 def. Ryan Oehler, 6.946, 194.46; Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.822, 197.31 def. Ron Tornow, Buell, Broke – No Show; Angelle Sampey, Harley-Davidson, 6.865, 195.03 def. Jianna Salinas, Suzuki, 6.976, 191.40; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.871, 197.31 def. Michael Ray, 7.009, 189.71; QUARTERFINALS — M. Smith, 6.862, 199.58 def. Sampey, 6.857, 196.07; Johnson, 6.854, 195.42 def. Arana Jr, 6.967, 192.08; Stoffer, 6.847, 196.96 def. Krawiec, 6.878, 196.70; Savoie, 6.818, 197.10 def. Hines, 6.904, 196.44; SEMIFINALS — Johnson, 6.834, 195.70 def. M. Smith, 6.847, 198.64; Savoie, 6.818, 196.42 def. Stoffer, Foul – Red Light; FINAL — Savoie, 6.774, 198.55 def. Johnson, 6.805, 196.59.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Doug Kalitta, 2,180; 2. Brittany Force, 2,147; 3. Steve Torrence, 2,133; 4. Antron Brown, 2,127; 5. Richie Crampton, 2,126; 6. Mike Salinas, 2,104; 7. Austin Prock, 2,094; 8. Leah Pritchett, 2,093; 9. Clay Millican, 2,092; 10. Billy Torrence, 2,032.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Jack Beckman, 2,179; 2. John Force, 2,160; 3. Robert Hight, 2,155; 4. Ron Capps, 2,136; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,105; 6. Matt Hagan, 2,092; 7. J.R. Todd, 2,089; 8. Bob Tasca III, 2,072; 9. Tim Wilkerson, 2,057; 10. Shawn Langdon, 2,043.

PRO STOCK: 1. Jason Line, 2,194; 2. Bo Butner, 2,155; 3. Alex Laughlin, 2,139; 4. Erica Enders, 2,116; 5. Matt Hartford, 2,103; 6. Jeg Coughlin, 2,099; 7. Deric Kramer, 2,095; 8. Greg Anderson, 2,092; 9. Chris McGaha, 2,041; 10. Val Smeland, 2,031.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie, 2,166; 2. Andrew Hines, 2,160; 3. Matt Smith, 2,143; 4. Eddie Krawiec, 2,134; 5. Karen Stoffer, 2,120; 6. Hector Arana Jr, 2,117; 7. Angelle Sampey, 2,083; 8. Angie Smith, 2,062; 9. Ryan Oehler, 2,042; 10. Hector Arana, 2,032.