Top NASCAR Stories of 2014: No. 5 — Jeff Gordon falls short of Drive For Five

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MotorSportsTalk is 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 look at the fifth biggest story of the 2014 season in our estimation: the championship season that almost was for Jeff Gordon.

After 12 previous tries, it appeared that Jeff Gordon’s long-held dreams of winning a fifth Sprint Cup championship – and his first since 2001 – would finally come true in 2014.

Gordon had an outstanding season, leading the points standings most of the 26-race regular season, and then entered the Chase for the Sprint Cup as one of the favorites.

Unfortunately, Gordon would fall short of reaching his goal of winning the championship – let alone even having the opportunity to do so – by perhaps the deepest cut a driver can ever experience:

He missed out by one mere point.

Even though he finished a close second in the fall Chase race at Phoenix to winner Kevin Harvick, Gordon would find himself eliminated from the Championship Round when Ryan Newman got past Kyle Larson to reach the final round of four drivers.

And as a result, Gordon ultimately would not.

All of Gordon’s hard work – four wins, 14 top-fives, 23 top-10s, three poles, 1,083 laps led (his most in a season since 2007), 32 lead-lap finishes, an average race start of 9.0 (best since 2004) and average finish of 10.4 (best since 2009) – would ultimately count for virtually nothing.

Leading the standings for 17 of the first 26 races, and three times in the first seven Chase races, as well as his record-breaking fifth career win at the Brickyard 400 (plus wins at Kansas in the spring, Michigan in the summer and Dover in the Chase), would also count for little in the ultimate way the season played out.

source: Getty Images
Jeff Gordon won a record fifth Brickyard 400 in 2014. (Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images)

In the end, when fans or historians look back upon the 2014 season, unless they were to really dig deep for how the season played out, they’ll instead see simply that Gordon finished sixth in the final standings for the second season in a row.

If there’s one race that ultimately proved to be Gordon’s Achilles heel in 2014, it was the fall Chase race at Texas.

In the closing laps, he was challenging Kevin Harvick for the lead and swung slightly wide. Brad Keselowski saw the opening – even though it wasn’t completely wide enough to squeeze a race car through – and made contact with the left rear of Gordon’s car.

Two laps later, Gordon would spin out courtesy of the cut-down tire brought about by the contact with Keselowski.

And instead of finishing in the top-five at Texas, Gordon would end up a disappointing 29th, his worst finish in the Chase. What’s more, Gordon ended up in one of the ugliest post-race brawls of his career when he and Keselowski went at it afterward.

source: AP
Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski both emerged with fat lips after this post-race brawl at Texas in early November. (AP Photo/Matthew Bishop)

Had he finished in the top-five, or even the top-10, Gordon would likely have earned enough points to reach the championship round two races later.

But with the way Texas played out, Gordon had to literally drive the race of his life at Phoenix – and did just that.

He did everything right, was competitive, guarded his position on the track and gave Harvick everything he could – only to miss by one point.

In a way, you can draw a comparison between Gordon coming up short and Carl Edwards in the 2011 championship.

Edwards actually tied Tony Stewart for the Sprint Cup crown, but essentially lost by one point on an ensuing tiebreaker – Stewart won by virtue of five wins to just one victory for Edwards.

Now Gordon returns for a 23rd Sprint Cup season in 2015. He turns 44 in August and, even though he ultimately once again missed out on his Drive For Five, maybe the 14th try will be the one.

In addition, Gordon is now just eight wins away from 100 in his Sprint Cup career, and just 13 wins away from tying David “The Silver Fox” Pearson’s 105 career wins, which are second on NASCAR’s all-time wins list to Richard Petty’s 200 victories.

Honestly, given the misfortune and close-but-no-cigar season finishes he’s had since winning his fourth Cup crown in 2001, Gordon may very well have a better chance of hitting 100 wins first before he wins that fifth Cup title (if he ever does).

And yes, we know, Gordon would likely have had six and maybe even seven championships by now if NASCAR had not implemented the Chase format in 2004 and kept the points structure the same as it was before then.

Still, Gordon has nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about for falling short of No. 5 in 2014. He gave it his best – and that’s all any driver can do.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E Team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship team from Mercedes-EQ. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”