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.


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.

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.

After New York whirlwind, Josef Newgarden makes special trip to simulator before Detroit


DETROIT – There’s no rest for the weary as an Indy 500 winner, but Josef Newgarden discovered there are plenty of extra laps.

The reigning Indy 500 champion added an extra trip Wednesday night back to Concord, N.C., for one last session on the GM Racing simulator before Sunday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

After a 30-year run on the Belle Isle course, the race has been moved to a nine-turn, 1.7-mile layout downtown, so two extra hours on the simulator were worth it for Newgarden.

INDYCAR IN DETROITEntry list, schedule, TV info for this weekend

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“I really wanted to do it,” he told NBC Sports at a Thursday media luncheon. “If there’s any time that the sim is most useful, it’s in this situation when no one has ever been on a track, and we’re able to simulate it as best as we can. We want to get some seat time.

“It’s extra important coming off the Indy 500 because you’ve been out of rhythm for a road or street course-type environment, so I really wanted some laps. I was really appreciative to Chevy. There was a few guys that just came in and stayed late for me so I could get those laps before coming up here. I don’t know if it’s going to make a difference, but I feel like it’s going to help for me.”

After a whirlwind tour of New York for two days, Newgarden arrived at the simulator (which is at the GM Racing Technical Center adjacent to Hendrick Motorsports) in time for a two hour session that started at 6 p.m. Wednesday. He stayed overnight in Charlotte and then was up for an early commercial flight to Detroit, where he had more media obligations.

Newgarden joked that if he had a jet, he would have made a quick stop in Nashville, Tennessee, but a few more days away from home (where he has yet to return in weeks) is a worthy tradeoff for winning the Greatest Spectacle in Racing – though the nonstop interviews can take a toll.

“It’s the hardest part of the gig for me is all this fanfare and celebration,” Newgarden said. “I love doing it because I’m so passionate about the Indy 500 and that racetrack and what that race represents. I feel honored to be able to speak about it. It’s been really natural and easy for me to enjoy it because I’ve been there for so many years.

“Speaking about this win has been almost the easiest job I’ve ever had for postrace celebrations. But it’s still for me a lot of work. I get worn out pretty easily. I’m very introverted. So to do this for three days straight, it’s been a lot.”

Though he is terrified of heights, touring the top of the Empire State Building for the first time was a major highlight (and produced the tour’s most viral moment).

“I was scared to get to the very top level,” Newgarden said. “That thing was swaying. No one else thought it was swaying. I’m pretty sure it was. I really impressed by the facility. I’d never seen it before. It’s one of those bucket list things. If you go to New York, it’s really special to do that. So to be there with the wreath and the whole setup, it just felt like an honor to be in that moment.”

Now the attention shifts to Detroit and an inaugural circuit that’s expected to be challenging. Along with a Jefferson Avenue straightaway that’s 0.9 miles long, the track has several low-speed corners and a “split” pit lane (teams will stop on both sides of a rectangular area) with a narrow exit that blends just before a 90-degree lefthand turn into Turn 1.

Newgarden thinks the track is most similar to the Music City Grand Prix in Nashville.

“It’s really hard to predict with this stuff until we actually run,” he said. “Maybe we go super smooth and have no issues. Typically when you have a new event, you’re going to have some teething issues. That’s understandable. We’ve always got to massage the event to get it where we want it, but this team has worked pretty hard. They’ve tried to get feedback constantly on what are we doing right, what do we need to look out for. They’ve done a ton of grinding to make sure this surface is in as good of shape as possible.

“There’s been no expense spared, but you can’t foresee everything. I have no idea how it’s going to race. I think typically when you look at a circuit that seems simple on paper, people tend to think it’s not going to be an exciting race, or challenging. I find the opposite always happens when we think that way. Watch it be the most exciting, chaotic, entertaining race.

Newgarden won the last two pole positions at Belle Isle’s 2.35-mile layout and hopes to continue the momentum while avoiding any post-Brickyard letdown.

“I love this is an opportunity for us to get something right quicker than anyone else,” he said. “A new track is always exciting from that standpoint. I feel I’m in a different spot. I’m pretty run down. I’m really trying to refocus and gain some energy back for tomorrow. Which I’ll have time to today, which is great.

“I don’t want that Indy 500 hangover. People always talk about it. They’ve always observed it. That doesn’t mean we have to win this weekend, but I’d like to leave here feeling like we had a really complete event, did a good job and had a solid finish leading into the summer. I want to win everywhere I go, but if we come out of here with a solid result and no mistakes, then probably everyone will be happy with it.”