Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 12 – Newman, Kenseth winless but still successful

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source: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images.

MotorSportsTalk will be counting down the top 20 stories of the 2014 NASCAR season over the month of December.

Here’s what we’ve done so far:

Today, we’re at No. 12 and how two of NASCAR’s top stars made waves in the Chase without winning a race…

No racer worth his or her salt likes a zero in the win column at the end of a season. Finishing first ahead of all the other guys and gals is always the goal, whether it’s under the bright lights of NASCAR or on some nondescript dirt oval in Anytown, USA.

Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth each failed to win a race in 2014. But in the big picture, their seasons were still largely successful ones.

Newman made the Chase for the Sprint Cup but without a signature victory in the regular season, many observers considered him to be up for an early elimination.

But the former Daytona 500 winner defied the odds with a superb run of finishes. And a last-lap shove of Kyle Larson in the Eliminator Round finale at Phoenix thrust Newman into the Championship 4 at the season-finale in Homestead.

With the new Chase format having put more emphasis on winning than ever before, here was Newman riding consistency all the way to the final battle.

The prospect of him as the first winless Sprint Cup champion ever became a major storyline in the lead-up to the Ford Ecoboost 400. But in the end, it was Kevin Harvick outlasting Newman to win the race and the title following a three-lap dash to the checkered flag.

Newman’s runner-up at Homestead was his best finish of 2014. He earned just five Top-5 finishes and led just 41 laps all season. Yet he came within half a second of delivering perhaps the greatest title upset in NASCAR history.

As for Kenseth, he was unable to get off the schnide in his followup campaign to a 2013 season that had him take a series-high seven wins and fight Jimmie Johnson for the championship.

To be fair, a noticeable power deficit for the Toyota camp against the dominant Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing, and Team Penske meant that Kenseth had to use the consistency card as well during the regular season.

Kenseth used it to perfection by staying within the Top 5 of the points standings from Fontana all the way to the Chase. He ended up earning his post-season berth on points alone with one race remaining in the regular season.

Strong efforts in the first two elimination races – a fifth in the Challenger Round finale at Dover and a second in the Contender Round finale at Talladega – helped Kenseth go into the Eliminator Round along with Newman.

Unfortunately for the 2003 Cup champ, a 25th-place finish at Texas put him in what proved to be too big a hole for him to advance to the Championship 4. Kenseth was knocked out the next week at Phoenix despite coming home in third place.

Obviously, Newman and Kenseth will be seeking to get wins under their belts and punch their tickets to the Chase early in 2015. But this past year, they proved that winning isn’t the only way to make an impact.

Miguel Oliveira wins MotoGP Thai Grand Prix, Bagnaia closes to two points in championship

MotoGP Thai Grand Prix
Mirco Lazzari / Getty Images
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Miguel Oliveira mastered mixed conditions on the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand to win the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix. Oliveira showed the adaptability as he navigated a race that began in wet conditions and turned dry over the course of the race. Oliveira won the Indonesian GP in similar conditions.

“It was a long race, but I can’t complain,” Oliveira said on CNBC. “Every time we get to ride in the wet, I’m always super-fast. When it started raining, I had flashbacks of Indonesia. I tried to keep my feet on the ground, make a good start and not make mistakes and carry the bike to the end.”

All eyes were on the championship, however. Francesco Bagnaia got a great start to slot into second in Turn 1.

Meanwhile Fabio Quartararo had a disastrous first lap. He lost five positions in the first couple of turns and then rode over the rumble strips and fell back to 17th. At the end of the first lap, Bagnaia had the points’ lead by two. A win would have added to the gain and for a moment, it appeared Bagnaia might assume the lead.

Early leader Marco Bezzecchi was penalized for exceeding track limits, but before that happened, Jack Miller got around Bagnaia and pushed him back to third. Oliveira was not far behind.

After throwing away ninth-place and seven points on the last lap of the Japanese GP last week, Bagnaia did not allow the competition to press him into a mistake. He fell back as far as fourth before retaking the final position on the podium.

“It’s like a win for me, this podium,” Bagnaia. “My first podium in the wet and then there was a mix of conditions, so I’m very happy. I want to thank Jack Miller. Before the race, he gave me a motivational chat.”

Miller led the first half of the Thai Grand Prix before giving up the top spot to Oliveira and then held on to finish second. Coupled with his Japanese GP win, Miller is now fully in the MotoGP championship battle with a 40-point deficit, but he will need a string of results like Bagnaia has put together in recent weeks – and he needs Bagnaia to lose momentum.

Miller’s home Grand Prix in Australia is next up on the calendar in two weeks.

Bagnaia entered the race 18 points behind Quartararo after he failed to score any in Japan. The balance of power has rapidly shifted, however, with Quartararo now failing to earn points in two of the last three rounds. Bagnaia won four consecutive races and finished second in the five races leading up to Japan. His third-place finish in Thailand is now his sixth MotoGP podium in the last seven rounds.

Aleix Espargaro entered the race third in the standings with a 25-point deficit to Quartararo, but was able to close the gap by only five after getting hit with a long-lap penalty for aggressive riding when he pushed Darryn Binder off course during a pass for position. Espargaro finished 11th.

Rain mixed up the Moto2 running order in the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix as well. Starting on a wet track, Somkiat Chantra led the opening lap in his home Grand Prix. He could not hold onto it and crashed one circuit later, but still gave his countrymen a moment of pride by winning the pole.

Half points were awarded as the race went only eight laps before Tony Arbolino crossed under the checkers first with Filip Salac and Aron Canet rounding out the podium.

American Joe Roberts earned another top-10 in eighth with Sean Dylan Kelly finishing just outside the top 10 in 11th.