Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 3 — Kevin Harvick wins the Sprint Cup championship

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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 come to No. 3, Kevin Harvick’s outstanding “rookie” season with Stewart-Haas Racing, culminating with the first Sprint Cup championship of his career.…

When the 2014 Sprint Cup season began, Kevin Harvick was essentially an unknown entity.

After 13 seasons with Richard Childress Racing, Harvick pulled up stakes and moved to Stewart-Haas Racing, co-owned by one of his best friends and three-time Sprint Cup champion, Tony Stewart.

Harvick went from knowing what he had at RCR to a brand new team, brand new crew chief, brand new pit crew, brand new organization, brand new cars – and a brand new way of doing things.

The initial learning curve was steep, but Harvick’s experience, coupled with an almost immediate bonding with crew chief Rodney Childers, helped lessen what could have been significantly greater growing pains.

Harvick jumped out to a great start with his new team, finishing 13th in its first race, the Daytona 500, and followed that up with a win at Phoenix in the second race of the season.

Then things fell completely apart.

Harvick finished 41st at Las Vegas, 39th at Bristol (crash) and 36th at Fontana, dropping from fourth place in the standings after his win at Phoenix to 25th after Fontana.

After a seventh-place finish at Martinsville, he plummeted to 42nd at Texas due to engine issues (dropping to 26th in the season standings) before winning for a second time at Darlington.

At the same time, Harvick’s pit crew began to unravel at times, making several mistakes on pit road that ultimately cost Harvick several positions on the race track, if not potentially a few more wins in the process.

But the win at Darlington finally got the team back on track, and over the following 15 races, would achieve five top-five finishes (all runner-up finishes) and four other top-10 showings.

Still, pit road errors continued to be a significant factor. In several of those runner-up finishes, if the pit crew had not made a mistake such as loose wheels, dropped/missing lug nuts and the like, who knows how many more races Harvick would have potentially won.

Not wanting to go into the Chase and run the risk of even more mistakes, Childers made a bold move, “trading” Harvick’s pit crew to that of teammate Tony Stewart for the playoffs.

The move was nothing short of genius.

But there were still struggles along the way in the Chase, particularly in the seventh race of the 10-race playoff. It was at Martinsville that Harvick had his worst finish in the Chase, a 33rd-place showing to begin the Eliminator Round segment.

He dropped to last of the eight drivers remaining in the Elimination Round and stayed in eighth even after finishing second at Texas the following week.

He needed a strong race at Phoenix, the final race of the Eliminator Round, to make the Championship Round season finale at Homestead.

And he did, winning in the Valley of the Sun to not only jump back to No. 1 in the standings, but also to go into Homestead with arguably the best momentum of the four drivers that would battle it out in the winner-take-all title match.

Harvick put everything on the line, drove like he’s never driven before and ultimately not only won the race at Homestead, but also the championship in the process.

Harvick would end the season with five wins, 14 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes, along with a career single-season personal record of eight pole positions.

But most importantly, he finally succeeded in his career-long goal of winning a Sprint Cup championship.

In the process, he may very well have proven to other drivers who in the near future may decide to leave their own long-time homes to see if the grass – and overall racing success – is truly greener with another organization.

While Harvick has had temper flare-ups at several points during his Cup career, he couldn’t have been more cooler, patient or in control as he was in the Chase.

He didn’t let his emotions or even bad finishes get to him in the playoffs. He remained confident, cool and collected – the very ingredients that make up true champions.

Will Harvick be able to repeat as champ in 2015?

Given the revised Chase format that went into effect in 2014, it likely will be much more difficult to see a repeat winner going forward – unlike the way Jimmie Johnson won five Cup crowns in a row (and six of eight).

Still, Harvick now knows how to win a championship – particularly under the new format – and if anyone can make it two in a row, the Bakersfield, Calif., native can.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”


Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”


Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500