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.

An IndyCar iRacing Challenge at Talladega? Drivers have discussed it

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If Dale Earnhardt Jr. is interested in an IndyCar iRacing event on an oval, he might like the latest idea being kicked around by NTT Series drivers.

“I personally would want to run at Talladega, but I don’t think that’s an option,” Arrow McLaren SP driver rookie Oliver Askew told NBCSports.com in a Friday interview about his simulation work for the second round of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge. “IndyCar drivers have a group chat with iRacing, and someone had the idea of running at Talladega, and I thought it was brilliant.”

It actually would be a throwback of sorts as a USAC-sanctioned race with Indy cars at Talladega nearly happened 40 years ago.

The IndyCar iRacing Challenge will be running its second consecutive road course Saturday at Barber Motorsports Park (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN or streaming here).

Of the four remaining races in the six-race series, there’s a chance that three of them could be ovals: A Drivers’ Choice track April 11; a “Random Draw” April 18 and a non-IndyCar “Dream” track May 2 (the April 25 race will be at Circuit of the Americas).

ENTRY LIST: Who will be racing at Barber

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IndyCar drivers are voting on next week’s track, and the options include high-speed ovals such as Texas Motor Speedway and Michigan Speedway.

A multicar crash at Talladega last October. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Talladega apparently isn’t on the list for next week, but surely it could be considered for a future race if it meant having Earnhardt in the field. The 15-time NASCAR Most Popular Driver is a six-time winner at Talladega, and the NASCAR on NBC analyst’s family is synonymous with the 2.66-mile oval where his late seven-time champion father won a record 10 times.

“I hope he can make that happen,” Askew said of racing against Earnhardt. “I hope IndyCar can grant his wish on that.”

The addition of Earnhardt would fit well with an IndyCar iRacing Challenge that already features champions from NASCAR (Jimmie Johnson) and Supercars (Scott McLaughlin).

Will Power would like to see more of that.

“I think that would be great if we can get big-name drivers from other series,” Power said. “Getting a couple guys from Europe would be cool.”