Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 1 – Tony Stewart, Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy

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MotorSportsTalk has counted down the top 20 stories of the 2014 NASCAR season over the month of December.

Here’s a full recap of the stories we’ve done in the series:

Today, we conclude the series with our pick of the top story of 2014, the unfortunate tragedy that involved NASCAR star Tony Stewart and aspiring sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr.

 

Even with the huge accomplishment of Kevin Harvick winning the Sprint Cup championship or the new elimination format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, it’s hard not to point to the Tony Stewart-Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy as the top story in NASCAR in 2014.

Granted, the incident happened on a small upstate New York dirt track, and was not a sanctioned NASCAR track or NASCAR event.

But the significance of the news of Ward being killed when he was accidentally struck by Stewart’s sprint car while a race was underway, and the subsequent events that transpired afterward, was something that dominated the NASCAR news not just for days, but for several weeks.

On the evening of August 9, Ward and Stewart were racing side-by-side when Ward lost control of his sprint car and slammed into the outside retaining wall.

Apparently believing Stewart forced him into the wreck, Ward committed perhaps the biggest mistake any race car driver can do – and one that drivers are constantly warned about.

Ward exited his car and came down the racetrack in an apparent attempt to confront Stewart. The only problem with that is the race was still under way, albeit under caution, and Ward inadvertently stepped into the path of Stewart’s car, was struck and killed.

source: Getty Images
(Rich Barnes/Getty Images)

The incident made worldwide news and was perhaps one of the most divisive topics the sport has seen in many years. On one side were the loyal Stewart fans, who believed it was simply a racing accident, an unfortunate event that resulted in the sad and tragic loss of a fellow driver’s life.

Then there was the other side, those who criticized Stewart and held him responsible for Ward’s death. They called for criminal charges, prison and the immediate end of his racing career.

Many left comments on MotorSportsTalk, vehemently espousing their own opinions pro or con against Stewart.

An Ontario County (N.Y.) Grand Jury was convened and for several weeks deliberated the evidence from the incident, as well as testimony from witnesses.

In the end, the Grand Jury absolved Stewart of any potential criminal charges or liability in Ward’s death. Ward’s family still has the option to bring a civil suit against Stewart, but to date that has not happened.

Stewart missed the three NASCAR Sprint Cup races immediately following the Ward tragedy and remained in seclusion for that period.

He finally returned to racing at Atlanta but finished a disappointing 41st due to a wreck he was involved in.

source: Getty Images
Tony Stewart returned to racing at Atlanta, nearly three weeks after the tragic accident that claimed the life of Kevin Ward Jr. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

From that point on, Stewart competed in 11 more races to wrap up the 2014 season, earning just one top-five finish.

Overall, Stewart had arguably the worst single season performance of his career (not including 2013, when he missed the final 15 races due to injuries suffered in a sprint car wreck) in 2014.

He failed to win even one race in a season for the first time in his Sprint Cup career. He also finished with a career low three top-five and seven top-10 finishes.

Stewart began 2014 still not completely recovered from his 2013 accident injuries. And even though he drove with pain, he never let the pain drive him out and away from behind the steering wheel.

Stewart has had two surgeries during the current off-season, with hopes that he’ll be in much better shape to start the 2015 season – certainly in better shape than the way he began 2014.

Will Stewart be able to bounce back to his old championship- and race-winning form in 2015? It would be a great storyline for him to come right out of the gate and win the season-opening Daytona 500, one of the few things in his long career that Stewart has failed to achieve.

In a sense, he’s his generation’s Dale Earnhardt when it comes to winning the Great American Race. It took Earnhardt 20 tries before finally winning his first (and ultimately only) Daytona 500.

Stewart will make his 17th Daytona 500 start this coming season. What better way to put all the sadness and darkness of the past two seasons behind him and to show any doubters that he still has it as a driver than to win at Daytona.

And then bookend that season start by finishing it with his fourth Sprint Cup championship at season’s end.

Stewart has endured considerable pain, tragedy and sadness over the past two seasons. Will he be able to recover and return to the Smoke of old, the same one who has three championships and 48 race wins in the Cup series?

Only time will tell. But if there’s anyone who can come back from what he’s gone through, Stewart can.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
Joe Portlock - Formula 1/Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”