STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Blog by Race Chaser Online Associate Editor Kyle Magda — Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America photo —
Kevin Harvick can add another title to his 15-year NASCAR career:
Sprint Cup Series champion.
Nicknamed “The Closer,” Harvick finished off the best season of his Sprint Cup Series career with a win in the finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway and finishing the highest among the final four Chase drivers to claim the championship. The Bakersfield, California driver led more laps (2,197) than in his last seven years combined. The No. 4 car was up front for most Cup races in 2014.
Harvick worked with crew chief Rodney Childers in his first year with the Stewart-Haas Racing team. The duo pounded out five wins (both Phoenix, Darlington, Charlotte (fall) and Homestead) during their 2014 championship campaign. Childers became the first crew chief to win the title with a new driver since Andy Petree did with Dale Earnhardt in 1993.
As I broke down the 2014 season, Harvick was well-deserving of the No. 1 spot in my 2014 power rankings.
The No. 2 driver may surprise you, though. As might a few of the others on down the list…so let’s take a look!
No. 2: Jeff Gordon
I get that he wasn’t in the final four drivers for Homestead, but, nevertheless, Gordon showed a lot of speed in 2014 and brought back shades of the mid-to-late 1990s with a few of his winning performances. The Hendrick Motorsports driver won the Brickyard 400 for the first time in 10 years and also had welcome returns to victory lane at Kansas in May, Michigan in Aug., and Dover in Sept.
Had it not been for the flat tire at Texas, Gordon could be sitting at the champion’s table at Las Vegas in two weeks. He dominated the Cup finale at Homestead, leading 161 of the 267 laps. Gordon stayed out on a caution with 18 laps to go, and after deciding it wasn’t the right move, the four-time Cup champ came in for tires and rebounded to finish 10th. Don’t let the sixth-place points finish fool you. Jeff Gordon was much better than that, if it wasn’t for bad luck.
No. 3: Brad Keselowski
Here’s another driver who didn’t make the Final Four, but like Gordon, Brad Keselowski proved he was capable of going on another championship run. A season-high six wins for Keselowski put him in prime position, but a broken transmission at Martinsville in Oct. put the No. 2 team in an early hole in the Eliminator Round of the Chase.
Finishing third at Texas and fourth at Phoenix wasn’t enough to get the 2012 Cup champ in the final race, but still earned the No. 3 spot in rankings. The defining moment in the Chase for Keselowski was the win at Talladega, in an all-or-nothing situation to move into the next round. He also drove a Redd’s Apple-Ale sponsored car that day, and as the sponsor for three Cup races in 2014, finished no worse than second.
No. 4: Joey Logano
Although Keselowski didn’t make it to the final four, his Penske Racing teammate, Joey Logano, did, and his drive earned him the spot behind Keselowski in fourth. For the first time in his Cup career, Logano won multiple races in a season, tying Harvick with five victories and second-most on the season. The driver of the No. 22 car won twice in the Chase, at Loudon in Sept. and Kansas in Oct., guaranteeing him a spot in the next round. At Homestead, a bad pit stop cost Logano and ended any chances of winning the 2014 title and finishing last of the final four in the race.
No. 5: Ryan Newman
The Richard Childress Racing (RCR) driver just fell short of winning the championship in his first season with the team and crew chief Luke Lambert. Newman finished runner-up to Harvick at Homestead, after barely making it into the last Chase round the week before at Phoenix. A year of consistency and good showings put the No. 31 team in the Chase and Newman got his best finish of the season in the final race of the year.
RCR was a bit behind the eight-ball when it came to horsepower this season, but nevertheless, Newman finished higher in points than all of Hendrick and Penske Racing’s drivers. He was the long shot of winning the championship coming into the Chase, but nearly pulled it off and quieted a lot of people.
No. 6: Denny Hamlin
Neither Hamlin nor Newman made a lot of noise during the season. Although Hamlin had the one win, it came at Talladega in May. He nearly gave Joe Gibbs Racing its first Cup title since 2005, but crew chief Darian Grubb decided to leave Hamlin out on a late caution, while almost everyone behind him came in to pit. Hamlin ended the night finishing seventh at Homestead, a track where he has two Cup victories at.
No. 7: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
2014 was a strong campaign for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He kicked the season off with a bang, winning his second Daytona 500 and first in 10 years. A few surprises happened this season as well, as Earnhardt won on tracks where he never tasted victory lane before. Crew chief Steve Letarte guided the No. 88 team to the Pocono sweep and the fall Martinsville race, making it four victories in his season atop the pit box, before heading to the NASCAR on NBC booth in 2015.
Earnhardt now has a grandfather clock to add to his trophy collection. There will be a new face atop the No. 88 pit box next season, with Greg Ives guiding the ship and coming off a NASCAR Nationwide Series (NNS) championship with Chase Elliott.
No. 8: Matt Kenseth
Despite seven wins in 2013, Kenseth didn’t score a single victory in 2014. The best chance he had at a win was at Bristol in March, before getting collected up in a wreck with a lapped car. The No. 20 team took two tires late in the race at Atlanta, before Kenseth was gobbled up by Kasey Kahne in the end.
A season of good finishes kept him high enough in points to clinch a spot in the 2014 Chase and he was the most consistent out of the three Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) drivers. The Wisconsin driver did score a win in the NNS finale at Homestead for his first NASCAR win in over a year.
No. 9: Jimmie Johnson
Johnson finished outside the top-10 in points for the first time in his 13-year Cup career. The six-time champ made the Chase easily by virtue of his three wins, which came in a span of four races from late May to mid-June. The No. 48 team struggled for most of the second half of the season and made a quiet move into the Chase.
Johnson made it to the second round of the Chase, but the problems only began there. A wreck at Kansas and a bad pit call at Charlotte made Talladega a win-or-out scenario. He led the most laps at Talladega, before being hung out in the draft and becoming a non-Chaser fo5 the first time since its inception in 2004.
No. 10: Kyle Larson:
The biggest surprise of the season was rookie Kyle Larson, coming to the Cup Series after one year in NNS. Chip Ganassi Racing announced in August 2013 Larson would take over the No. 42 car, as Juan Pablo Montoya headed back to the Verizon IndyCar Series to drive for Penske Racing. After struggling the first four races, the 22-year-old driver made the final two laps at Auto Club Speedway exciting, driving from ninth to second and finishing right behind Kyle Busch.
It wouldn’t be the only good showing for Larson in 2014. The rookie never turned a lap at Pocono Raceway until the Cup test there in late May and finished fifth in his first-ever visit to the Tricky Triangle in June. But out of all his best chances at a win, none was more evident than Chicagoland, when Larson led late in the race and about had it in the bag until cautions hurt him on the restarts. He still finished third with a blazing-fast car.
He also scored his first pole at Pocono in August, shattering the old track record with a speed of 183.438 mph. Larson missed the Chase after hovering around the bubble most of the season. If it wasn’t for a 43rd-place finish at Michigan from a blown tire, the outcome likely would be have been different, but Larson was the best of the rest in 17th in points.
Do you agree or disagree with my rankings? Let your voice be heard in the comments below or tweet me at @KyleMagda.