“Nobody has your back like I do.” These were the first words to come out of Denny Hamlin’s mouth after Danica Patrick approached him on pit road following the second Budweiser Duel 150 race on Thursday evening.
Wednesday featured a practice accident between Patrick and Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin. While racing on the backstretch, Hamlin got into her, which sent her to a backup car for the Duel.
But on Thursday night, with pressure to make the Daytona 500, Patrick let her emotions out. On Lap 56, Patrick was inside of the top 10 when she spun out in the center of Turn 3. Hamlin was trailing her at the time – just a few inches behind – and claims he did not touch her. However, she believes otherwise.
“Yesterday when he went to pull down low, it just pulled my bumper around, but it tracked around, I was loose,” Patrick explained in a post-race press conference. “Then it spun and wrecked, we go on to the next car. Something similar happens tonight where I look in my rearview mirror and he's tight up behind me. I can see he's staggered to my left rear, the car gets really light and spins around.”
During the altercation on pit road, Patrick raised her voice and grabbed Hamlin by the collar. Attempting to explain himself, he put his hands on her shoulders in an attempt to calm her down. She told Hamlin that the incident “happened twice, the same person and the same way.”
"No one else is getting close to you,” Hamlin responded. “But, we have to get close to you to get you going forward. To get you going forward, I have to get close to you. I know it got you loose, but I didn't hit you."
The two are neighbors in the motor coach lot, and Patrick said she’s one of his best friends. However, entering a contract year with Stewart-Haas Racing and GoDaddy, missing the Daytona 500 would be considered the apocalypse of her NASCAR career. GoDaddy had to pull her Super Bowl commercial due to a controversy that was sparked from the 30-second marketing campaign, and she was defensive during the Media Tour when asked about her 28th-place finish in points last year.
Following the wreck, her car had minor damage, and she was able to continue for the green-white-checkered finish. Though she nearly lost the pack, teammate Kurt Busch gave her a push and propelled her to 10th place, which was six spots to the good of making it into the “Great American Race.”
“Holy crap, it felt dire,” she said. “This whole scenario is crazy that the series has put us in. Actually I said yesterday, it's horrible that it's left up to other people and what they can do to you to whether or not you get in the race or not.
“At the end when they told me I need four spots or you need to pass these two cars or you're 18th right now, I was like, Okay, do I have to be desperate basically? Do I have to pass these cars? Nobody answered me. I just said, Screw it, I'm going to be desperate. . . . Luckily it shouldn't go unsaid, Kurt was there for me. Without Kurt, I wouldn't have finished where I did.”
When everything settled down, Hamlin took his belief to Twitter and said: "On the streets of real life cops always give the ticket to the car behind in a accident. We will use that logic on this one.#tooclose#mybad. Folks I watched it back and was in the drivers seat so I know.. I did NOT hit her. BUT I was close, too close obviously."
There is nothing like seeing fresh designs rolling into Speedweeks in the midst of the Florida breeze.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season is rapidly approaching. In less than three weeks, the Sprint Media Tour is set to begin. And in just over one month, cars will be roaring around Daytona International Speedway with speeds surpassing 190 mph.
For the 2015 season, there are plenty of drivers in new places, crew chiefs moving all over the place and even sponsors departing the sport. However, with yet another set of changes for the rules package heading into the new year, NASCAR is prepared to possibly have one of their best seasons since the Chase for the Sprint Cup was implemented in 2004.
There are some drivers who are expected to have breakout seasons, but others – not so much. Let’s take a look at what to expect in the 2015 Sprint Cup Series season from each team.
-Jamie McMurray: In 2015, the No. 1 car will have a new man at the top of the pit box. McMurray will be working with former Robert Yates Racing developmental driver and Richard Childress Racing engineer Matt McCall. RCR attempted to sue McCall to prevent him from leaving the team, but on Jan. 1, it was made known that their efforts were unsuccessful. Coming off of a season with seven top fives, McMurray has a solid shot at making the Chase for the Sprint Cup after recording a career-high in laps led with 368. The team lost LiftMaster as a sponsor, but McDonalds and Cessna will likely continue to fill up the schedule for the No. 1 Chevrolet.
-Brad Keselowski: Not much will be changing for Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford. The team was arguably set to win a championship in 2014, and they have potential to do even better in 2015 with the abundance of success that was seen this past season.
-Austin Dillon: Dillon is coming off of a rather disappointing rookie year. He entered the season as Kevin Harvick’s replacement, and was expected to be more of a contender than what he was, especially after winning the pole for the Daytona 500. However, combining limited experience with a lack of speed shown throughout the RCR camp, Dillon finished 20th in points, which was just shy of winning Rookie of the Year honors. With Gil Martin returning in 2015, the No. 3 team has a realistic shot at making the Chase for the Sprint Cup. They might be able to sneak in a win at a restrictor plate track, but they will need to improve from their 17.5 average finish on the season.
-Kevin Harvick: Nothing will be changing on the No. 4 team other than the attempt at becoming a back-to-back champion. Harvick has been great with pressure over the years, and the crew enters 2015 in much better shape than they did in 2014, when Rodney Childers pieced everything together over the off-season. Without the aches and pains of mechanical issues, Harvick will likely be contending for wins on a weekly basis once again. He’ll attempt to be the first back-to-back champion since Jimmie Johnson won five straight titles from 2006 to 2010.
-Kasey Kahne: Kenny Francis will not be leading the No. 5 team in 2015. Instead, McMurray’s former crew chief Keith Rodden will oversee Kahne’s efforts. He has a mediocre 2014 season, so expect him to be more competitive in 2015. Kahne needs a solid season after resigning with Hendrick Motorsports through 2018. With a variety of sponsors, the No. 5 Chevrolet should be a force to be reckon with this season, but inconsistency has plagued Kahne throughout his career.
-Trevor Bayne: After a disappointing season in the Xfinity Series with Roush Fenway Racing, Bayne is moving up to the Cup Series. Bringing back the No. 6 Ford made famous by Mark Martin, the pressure will be on Bayne to perform after racing part-time for the Wood Brothers since making his debut with the organization in 2010. The 2011 Daytona 500 champion DNQ’ed at Charlotte with Roush, and his top 2014 finish in the No. 21 car was a 19th-place result at Texas and Michigan. With Roush’s obvious pain due to the new rules package in 2014, the new round of changes could play into their favor, which is similar to what teams had in the mid-2000s, where Roush saw plenty of success. Expect Bayne to be a mid-pack driver with a handful of top-10 results.
-Sam Hornish, Jr.: The No. 9 team will have a driver change in 2015 after Marcos Ambrose departed for his native Australia. Hornish is expected to run stronger than Ambrose, and possibly better than Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Aric Almirola. Sponsorship has still yet to be announced for this Ford team, but Twisted Tea is expected to up the number of races they fund. Hornish has run just two Cup Series races over the past two years, so the new testing policy probably won’t fall into his favor. Moreover, after running strong with Joe Gibbs Racing in the Xfinity Series, he should be competing for top-10 finishes every few races. He could possibly lock in a Chase for the Sprint Cup spot with a victory at one of the road course events, or even at the restrictor plate tracks.
-Danica Patrick: Following plenty of changes late in the 2014 season, the No. 10 Chevrolet will continue with Daniel Knost as the crew chief. Other than that, no changes will occur for Patrick’s team. Showing some improvements on-track in 2014, Patrick is expected to record at least five top 10s in 2015. However, Knost struggled with Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch, who has a lot more experience than Patrick. There might be some growing pains between the two, but increasing her 23.7 average finish is going to be the biggest key. Her qualifying effort improved by approximately eight positions on average, but she bettered her average finish by a mere 2.4 spots.
-Denny Hamlin: Dave Rogers will take over the helm for Darian Grubb in 2015. Grubb and Hamlin never seemed to have the success that was expected of them. However, after earning a spot into the final round of the Chase as an underdog, Hamlin should have plenty of momentum entering the new season. The team struggled to find speed at intermediate tracks, as did all of the Toyota cars, which will be the key to their success during the new season. Expect Hamlin to earn a few wins, and likely improve upon his seven top fives.
-Casey Mears: Mears will return to Germain Racing with limited changes to the No. 13 crew. He had an up and down 2014 season, but performed well when momentum was on their side. Expect him to improve from 26th in points to approximately 23rd to 25th. As they continue their RCR alliance, they should be able to run very well at the road course events, which is Mears’ strong suit.
-Clint Bowyer: Toyota was lacking horsepower in 2014, but Michael Waltrip Racing fell behind more than that. Bowyer failed to make the Chase in what was arguably his worst season since his rookie year in 2006. His best finish was third-place at both Talladega races and Richmond, yet other than that, he led just 109 laps on the year. For 2015, MWR will have to come up with a way to score a victory. Expect Bowyer to be competitive at the short tracks, but have some struggles at the intermediate tracks after having an abysmal average finish of 17.1 in 2014.
-Greg Biffle: Biffle had a sub-par 2014 season to say the least. Although he made the Chase with Roush Fenway Racing, Biffle was extremely inconsistent. With just three top fives and 11 top 10s, 2014 was arguably just as mediocre as 2011 for the Roush driver. In 2015, he’s going to be the veteran of the camp. RFR is making plenty of changes, and Matt Puccia is staying aboard as his crew chief. With new sponsor, Ortho, coming on board, the No. 16 team will look to not only make the Chase, but get back in Victory Lane during the new season.
-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.: After missing the Talladega race in October, Stenhouse and the No. 17 team’s struggles were fully exposed. The high expectations that were laid upon him following back-to-back Xfinity Series titles were too abundant, and he has struggled since going full-time in the Cup Series. In 2015, if RFR can fix the aerodynamic issues that have plagued them, Stenhouse and new crew chief Nick Sandler have a chance at finishing inside of the top-20 in points. It would be a stretch for them to get a victory, but a handful of top fives is realistic for this bunch.
-Kyle Busch: With the Gibbs struggling at intermediate tracks, Busch was not able to perform well at his favorite places. Earning just one victory in 2014, the driver of the No. 18 car is looking for more success in 2015. He will be working with Adam Stevens, who won 19 Xfinity Series races with Busch over the past two years. Expect Busch to run better in 2015, especially after being paired with a man he has great chemistry with. The pair should easily make the Chase, but don’t expect more than four wins from them, which has been his plateau since 2009.
-Matt Kenseth: Kenseth, like his teammates, struggled on the intermediate tracks in 2014. One could say that it is the runner-up slump, which seems to occur nearly every season. Earning a career-high seven wins in 2013, the driver of the No. 20 Toyota earned no victories in 2014. Kenseth had more top fives and top 10s during his second year with Gibbs, yet he just couldn’t find Victory Lane. He was the most consistent of the team’s three cars last year, and that should be the case once again in 2015. Expect Kenseth to win early in the season, but he will likely earn three to four victories – showing he is fast, but consistent as well.
-Ryan Blaney: Blaney will be running at least 12 races for the Wood Brothers in 2015. He might get a handful of events with Team Penske in a third car, but that will depend on sponsorship. Jeremy Bullins returns to the Wood Brothers after being Penske’s Xfinity Series crew chief, where he brought them back-to-back owner’s titles. Blaney finished runner-up with Brad Keselowski Racing in the Camping World Truck Series in 2014, and earned 13 top 10s in 14 starts under Bullins’ leadership. Expect Blaney to run better than Bayne did, especially with the Team Penske alliance.
-Joey Logano: Logano came extremely close to winning the 2014 Sprint Cup Series championship. Earning five wins and an average finish of 11.3 in the No. 22 car, Logano was able to reach his full potential this past season. If it weren’t for a faulty pit stop late in the season finale at Homestead, Logano might have been able to contend for the title with Harvick. Expect 2015 to be just as good for the 24-year-old, who recently got married. The team hasn’t changed anything in the No. 22 camp for the fresh season, and that should give them plenty of momentum heading into 2015.
-Alex Bowman: Bowman will not be returning to BK Racing in 2015. He is headed over to Tommy Baldwin Racing – replacing Annett in the No. 7 car. Bowman’s rookie season was horrific. He had six DNFs with one top-20 finish (Daytona in July – 13th-place). For the majority of the season, he was being overly aggressive, which caused him to have just three finishes on the lead lap. The equipment is going to be better in 2015, but Bowman will need to improve his maturity level if he wants to be successful and help build this team.
-Jeff Gordon: With Gordon retiring at the end of this season, he is expected to go out on top. The No. 24 team excelled in 2014, earning four victories and an average finish of 10.4, which was Gordon’s best since 2009. Although an aching back could harm his results, it didn’t have much of an effect on him last year. His retirement tour is going to be extremely emotional for the entire sport. Hendrick Motorsports is set to have Chase Elliott fill in for him in 2016. But for now – you will see Gordon still competing for wins, and he should be able to win a handful of events in 2015, with the potential at winning his elusive fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Gordon will also be in the booth for FOX Sports during select NASCAR Xfinity Series events.
-Paul Menard: Menard is coming off of his best year int he NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Leading RCR with five top fives and 13 top 10s, the Wisconsin-native is expected to continue the momentum from last year. He has emerged as a team leader and mentor for the organization’s younger drivers, which should give him more potential to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2015. Although Menard’s average finish was 17.9, his handful of top fives is showing the potential that they have to succeed this season.
-The Motorsports Group: Ron Hornaday, Jr. is going to be the team’s primary driver in 2015. The soon to be 57-year-old has not raced in the Sprint Cup Series since 2003, and only ran more than three events in one season (2001). However, working with an upstart Chevrolet team, Hornaday should bring expertise that they need following nine and a half straight years running the Truck Series. Expect the team to struggle to make races at first, but they should catch on mid-way through the season. Sponsorship has always been a concern for them in the Xfinity Series, but Curtis Key has self-funded the program for multiple seasons.
-Ryan Newman: Some way or another, Newman finished second in points. He didn’t have a great season, but the runner-up curse might hit him in 2015. Earning a mere five top fives and 16 top 10s, the No. 31 team excelled under pressure. Expect them to earn a win victory this year, making the Chase, but not getting too far. RCR was strong at the intermediate tracks, which could fit Newman’s aggressive driving style.
-Go FAS Racing: Bobby Labonte will pilot the No. 32 Ford in each of the plate races this year. His brother, Terry Labonte, drove the car for a handful of years, but retired following the Talladega race in October. The team hasn’t announced their primary driver, yet they are expected to have multiple co-pilots once again. Travis Kvapil was the primary driver for this team last year, but it has not been announced if he will return.
-Circle Sport Racing: This team has not announced their plans, but RCR will run the No. 33 car for approximately 10 events, with Circle Sport filling out the rest of the year.
-David Ragan: Ragan is returning for another season with Front Row Motorsports in the No. 34 car. In 2014, he earned the team their first top-10 result at a non-plate track with a 10th-place result at Martinsville. The organization struggled mightily in 2014, and he seldom ran inside of the top 25. However, 2015 should see an improvement with a third team.
-Cole Whitt: Whitt moves over to FRM after working with Swan Racing/BK Racing in 2014. He wasn’t exceptional in either ride, but he was the top driver while working for both organizations. Running inside of the top 25 was considered a solid run for Whitt, and that will be the case again in 2015. Expect him to outrun his teammates, but seldom run inside of the top-20.
-David Gilliland: Earning the pole at Daytona was the highlight of Gilliland’s 2014 season. He continually spoke about the lack of an alliance with one of the larger Ford organizations. Expect him to improve in 2015, but he won’t get much better than his 28.8 average finish last year.
-Landon Cassill: Getting the most out of little equipment is what Cassill did best with in 2014. He was consistently the top underfunded team, and raced with limited sponsorship throughout the year. If he can continue to improve, Cassill will bring Hillman Racing into the top 25 on a weekly basis.
-Kurt Busch: Once the court case with Busch’s ex-girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, is completed, the No. 41 team can focus without any distractions. It appears that there is something going on with Busch almost every year, and this one is no different. However, if he can put the distractions behind him, he can be a contender for the championship. With the exception of Harvick, SHR struggled in 2014, especially at the intermediate tracks. Earning just six top fives and 11 top 10s last season, Busch should improve going into this season.
-Kyle Larson: Coming off of a stellar rookie season, Larson is now a father. He has extra motivation to do well. Not to mention, he also has more funding with Target cutting one of their IndyCar Series teams, which gives more focus on the No. 42 car. Earning eight top fives and 17 top 10s in his first full-time season, expectations are high for the Drive for Diversity graduate. In 2015, he’s going to focus on the Cup Series, but he will split the XFINITY Series season with Ganassi development driver, Dylan Kwasniewski. Expect Larson to make the Chase and pick up a victory or two at one of the intermediate tracks.
-Aric Almirola: Almirola made the Chase last season with a win at Daytona. But other than that victory, there weren’t too many bright spots for the No. 43 team. He tallied up a mere seven top-10 finishes in 2014. Although that is a career-high for the Florida-native, Almirola drove better than that. Inconsistency plagued this team severely, but they showed speed nearly every week, which is the bright side. In 2015, expect Almirola to miss the Chase. However, he will be running near the top 10 more frequently, especially with Richard Petty Motorsports getting stronger with Hornish’s arrival.
-AJ Allmendinger: He finally made it to Victory Lane in 2014. It doesn’t get better than that for a small team and a driver trying to revive a career that was extremely promising a few years ago. The team wasn’t too horrific considering they are a single-car operation. Allmendinger showcased his leadership skills by getting this team a win at Watkins Glen, but also getting them competitive enough to run inside of the top 15 when they didn’t have anything go wrong. For 2015, expect Allmendinger to miss the Chase if he doesn’t win at one of the road courses. However, he should be more consistent in his second season with JTG.
-Jimmie Johnson: Disappointment. That is the only way to describe 2014 for Johnson and the No. 48 team. Chad Knaus and he had plenty of chaos throughout the year. The speed just wasn’t there for this team, and neither was any luck. Johnson usually struggles in the summer, but 2014 was arguably the worst summer of his career. Although he won four events and led 1,310 laps, the six-time champion set career-lows in multiple categories, including average finish, laps completed, top 10s and more. In 2015, expect them to rebound tremendously. Johnson has a history of doing well following a sub-par season, and that’s what is expected of him this year.
-Justin Allgaier: Allgaier didn’t have the greatest rookie season, but it certainly wasn’t the worst. He was consistently near the top 25, which is decent for a rather new single-car team. Toward the end of the year, the No. 51 team started to finish inside of the top 20. They have potential to earn a handful of top 10s in 2015, especially with a second car, but don’t expect much more than a top-25 finish in points.
-Premium Motorsports, LLC: This team’s plans are unknown for 2015. They raced with Mike Wallace late last season, but didn’t perform well at all.
-Martin Truex, Jr.: 2014 was a disappointing year for this team. Besides the on-track struggles Truex had, his personal life faced too much adversity. His long-time girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the summer, and she has been on a rough journey since. But the fighter that she is, Pollex is slowly fighting the cancer off, and she will hopefully be in remission sooner rather than later. Truex and this team are better than the 20.2 average finish they recorded last year, and 2015 will certainly be better. They have plenty of motivation, along with stronger equipment due to their growing alliance with RCR.
-JJ Yeley: Yeley will be piloting one of the BK Racing machines in 2015. Following two solid runs in a handful of races with the struggling team, they gave Yeley a full-time job for the new season. Expect him to earn a few solid finishes, and be a leader for a team that went with inexperienced drivers last year.
-Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: Expectations for NASCAR’s most popular driver are high in 2015. Coming off of one of the best years in his career, Earnhardt should continue to do well this upcoming season. Earning multiple wins for the first time in a decade, the son of a NASCAR legend enters the new year with arguably his best chance at a title. In 2014, he and Steve Letarte had an average finish of 12.2 with 12 top fives. Expect Earnhardt to continue to run well with a handful of wins as Greg Ives takes over as crew chief for the No. 88 team.
-Michael McDowell: Sponsorship is finally piecing together for McDowell. He will have Thrivent Financial aboard the No. 95 car for 10 events in 2015, along with K-LOVE for a few races. McDowell will run a minimum of 20 races for Leavine Family Racing, but that will likely increase as the season rolls on. In 2014, there were signs of potential from this small team, yet that never came to fruition as they continued to have struggles. However, 2015 should be solid for them with a partnership with Team Penske expanding. Expect McDowell to race around 25th for the most part, but he should be able to earn a handful of top-20 results this year.
-Josh Wise: Wise will return to Phil Parsons Racing in 2015. They only missed one race last year, which isn’t bad for an independent team. Finishing 23rd at Bristol after holding off the leaders certainly gave them plenty of attention, and that brought on Reddit and Doge. He made it into the All-Star Race with the fan vote, and had a few solid runs on the year. For his first true full-time season (without more than two start-and-park deals), Wise ran rather well for this team. Expect them to do better for the new year with more sponsorship dollars coming through, along with better equipment.
Then, there are several drivers who are still searching to resign with their 2014 teams, or are searching for new ones:
-Ryan Truex: Truex was awful in his time with BK Racing. Most of it was due to the lack of equipment, but he also had four DNFs due to accidents. Missing the Daytona 500 wasn’t the lowest point of his season. Instead, getting the boot after Chicago was. In 23 races, the brother of Martin Truex, Jr. had just two finishes inside of the top-30. His plans are unknown for 2015, but he is still under contract for RPM as a development driver.
-David Stremme: Stremme will likely appear in some events for one of the smaller teams in 2015. He ran a few races for Circle Sport, and might return for them. If not, there are still some open seats for him with part-time teams.
-Parker Kligerman: Kligerman’s plans are unknown for the new season. He is expected to return to NASCAR competition, but is also working with NBC’s NASCAR America. Kligerman ran a handful of Sprint Cup Series races last year, but Swan Racing closed and the rest is history.
-Reed Sorenson: Sorenson had a mediocre season with TBR. It doesn’t look like he will return, but he could run part-time for the organization. Returning to full-time competition for the first time since 2009, he definitely had trouble getting readjusted to the Cup Series. Having blank quarter-panels certainly didn’t help his cause. However, he ran decent at the short tracks, and showed the possibility for improvement if they had the funding to do so.
-Travis Kvapil: Expect Kvapil to land at BK Racing in 2015. Team owner Ron Devine circled him on his list for drivers to race in 2015, and he doesn’t have a ride yet. Kvapil would be a solid co-pilot with Yeley, and they could elevate the team to the middle of the pack. He ran 21 races last year, but the highlight of his year was at Talladega, where he finished sixth for Circle Sport. If he doesn’t sign with BK Racing, expect him to run for Go FAS Racing, or Circle Sport.
-Joe Nemechek: Nemechek will likely run just a few Cup Series races this year. His focus is going to be on the Truck Series with his son, John Hunter. He partnered with Jay Robinson last season, and never finished better than 30th. If he races in the Cup Series, it will either be under the NEMCO Motorsports banner, or he will run a handful of events for a small team like RAB Racing.
You can follow me on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR.
He is the champion. After 13 years of coming close to winning it all, Kevin Harvick captured the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series fashion by making good use of his nickname: The Closer.
However, for Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Danica Patrick, 2014 was a step in the right direction. One of the most popular drivers in the sport, she was expected to steadily improve this year, but didn’t make the leap that was expected of her.
But for Harvick, 2014 was a dream come true for a Bakersfield, California kid that nearly became an architect.
After making the swap from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing, Harvick had plenty of support from multiple sponsors, including Budweiser, Jimmy Johns and Outback Steakhouse. Moreover, the No. 4 team was starting from scratch. Led by crew chief Rodney Childers, the magic rapidly increased in the organization, and Harvick was on the fast road to success.
Right off of the bat, Harvick showed he was going to be the car to beat – posting top speeds consistently during the first test prior to the 2014 season at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Dominating at Phoenix, he scored SHR’s first of six victories on the year. Although he continued to be one of the quickest cars week-in and week-out, Harvick’s team struggled with luck.
Mechanical issues and faulty pit stops took away multiple wins for the No. 4 team. During the first 10 races of the 2014 season, he finished 36th or worse four times, and was barely sitting inside of the top-20 in points. However, Harvick persevered and won five races on the year. Having led an astonishing 2,137 laps, he led the Sprint Cup Series in that category by over 500 laps ahead of Brad Keselowski.
But with all of the laps led, Harvick’s success truly came late in events. Even when he might not have had the strongest car, he made bold moves that put him in position to not only finish inside of the top five, but to earn the win. And that’s just what he did.
With struggles occurring throughout SHR over the course of the season, Harvick became the team leader that they were looking for. He was a mentor to Patrick, and helped out Kurt Busch and team co-owner Tony Stewart when they were struggling on and off of the track.
As for Patrick, she finished 28th in points, which is one position down from her rookie season. She made steady gains throughout the year, but unfortunately for the No. 10 team, so did the rest of the middle part of the field.
Earning a top-10 finish at Kansas in May, Patrick began to raise eyebrows. After running inside of the top five for a substantial portion of the race, it looked like she would continue that pace for the rest of the year. But things at SHR started to shake up, and as she was gaining momentum with crew chief Tony Gibson, he was assigned to work with Kurt Busch. She was paired with first-year crew chief Daniel Knost, who notably struggled with Busch for the majority of the year.
Patrick ended the year with three top-10s, which isn’t too good compared to her teammates. But she has a sponsor that is backing her with plenty of funding to continue at SHR in 2015.
Harvick is expected to pick up from where he left off. The reigning champion usually does extremely well or . . . not so much. Childers and he have a rare chemistry that is seldom seen in NASCAR.
But now that the team likely won’t be dealing with mechanical issues, Childers should lead Harvick to even more success in 2015. With eight poles in 2014, Harvick became a great qualifier. Although that might not remain next year, he will certainly be a consistent factor during race day.
If there is any room for improvement in this team, it will have to be the pit crew. Late in the year, SHR swapped the No. 14 and No. 4 pit crews in order to give Harvick as much of an advantage as he can have. It paid off in the short-term, but he’s going to have his original crew back in 2015. Practice makes perfect, and if they can make fewer mistakes in 2015, expect Harvick to win at least three-five races before the Chase for the Sprint Cup cut-off.
2015 will be an important year for Patrick. She needs to finish inside of the top five at least once at a non-restrictor plate track in order to prove that she belongs in the Cup Series. She improved in each category in 2014, but that wasn’t enough to make up for some of her horrific races, such as Texas late in the year.
Patrick’s struggles are known throughout the sport due to being rushed up to the top-tier division following limited success in the Nationwide Series with JR Motorsports. However, she has potential to finish inside of the top-20 in points if she and Knost find chemistry right off of the bat. She will be strong at the plate tracks, but where she can truly excel is the intermediate tracks, which she showed strengths at.
Starting out from scratch last winter gave Rodney Childers a chance to start fresh. After leaving Michael Waltrip Racing, he set his sights on one thing: the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship trophy.
Childers and Kevin Harvick have gelled throughout the year. With four victories on the year, they have advanced to the championship round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. However, there were plenty of times throughout the year where the team struggled.
The Stewart-Haas Racing crew has issues on pit road over the course of the season. That alone cost Harvick about two to three wins. But the real adversity came in the first half of the year. Recording four finishes of 36th or worse within the first two months of the 2014 season, Harvick dropped outside of the top-20 in points. Childers was a true leader and excelled when they needed to.
Setting their sights on the championship, the two went out and dominated Phoenix, in which they led a season-high 264 laps. Over the course of the year, the No. 4 car was out front for at least one lap in 26 of the 35 events. Moreover, he’s led 100 or more laps in nine events – proving why he is set to win his first Sprint Cup Series title.
“I feel like everything we did last week with our -- it was one and done,” said Harvick during the championship press conference on Wednesday evening. “The guys did a great job preparing the car, called a good race, had good pit stops. I feel like they had more pressure last week than they did this week, so I feel like we've already experienced it, and it was just last week. I feel like that was a good exercise as a team for us to go through, and you know, I just told everybody this week, just go out and do exactly what you did last week, and everybody knows what to expect.”
Winning a title would be the second in the team’s history. Team co-owner Tony Stewart took home the championship as an owner-driver in 2011. Since then, the organization has been plagued by inconsistency. Stewart was out of the seat for the latter part of the 2013 season, and missed a few races this year, which threw away his shot at winning another championship. Ryan Newman left the team for Richard Childress Racing after a few unsuccessful seasons full of being mediocre. Now, Newman is battling Harvick after they swapped organizations.
Showing speed since the first test with the new aero package last December, the No. 4 team has been the one to beat throughout the year. Stewart has been a big supporter of Harvick, and it has paid off for both sides.
“Well, I think the main thing was from the first test that they had in December after the season was over last year, they showed a lot of speed,” said Stewart. “You know, with this format, there's so many things that can go wrong, and one bad day can change the complexion of whichever phase of the Chase you're in at that time.”
Although Harvick doesn’t have the most victories out of the four drivers competing for the championship, he has led the most laps (2,083) and he’s shown the most speed throughout the year. Heading into Homestead, his biggest competition is going to be Joey Logano, who has five wins on the year. Logano has an average finish of 11.2, compared to Harvick’s 13.3.
With four victories at intermediate tracks this year, Harvick the edge over his competition. There would be nothing better for Childers to show that his decision to leave MWR has certainly been worthwhile.
The level of intensity at Phoenix International Raceway was higher than the clouds. Coming down to the final lap, the four drivers that will be fighting for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway now know that they are safe.
In dominating fashion, Kevin Harvick locked himself into the final round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup with a victory on Sunday afternoon during the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500. Leading 264 of 312 laps at Phoenix, Harvick separated himself from the field to take his third-straight win at the 1-mile speedway.
“I could tell that we were probably going to have to win because everybody was running up in the front of the pack that we were racing against,” Harvick said following the race. “That was our goal coming in here and that’s really the goal every time you come to Phoenix. This place has just been phenomenal for me personally and for this team this year.”
With the triumph, Stewart-Haas Racing now has a shot to win their second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title. Harvick now has four victories through the 2014 season and had he not won at Phoenix – likely would not have advanced to the final round of the Chase.
Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman were able to advance to the final round of the Chase. Hamlin had a flat tire during a caution period early in the race. Subsequently, the No. 11 car went a lap down during that green-flag run. However, he rallied back on the lead lap, albeit he proceeded to get lapped once again just after the halfway mark. But with approximately 100 laps remaining in the race, the soon to be 34-year-old received the free pass to get back on the lead lap. Hamlin drove his Toyota into the top-five late in the race and solidified his spot in the championship round.
For Logano, he had a penalty for dragging equipment out of his pit stop after winning the race off of pit road during the second caution of the day. Like Hamlin, the No. 22 Ford was lapped by Harvick, yet he got the lucky dog to get his lap back. He finished sixth on Sunday at Phoenix, which helped ease his way into the final four as he had a nine-point cushion over Jeff Gordon, who narrowly missed the cutoff.
"When the 4 car laps you, you don’t know how the race is gonna play out," said Logano following his comeback on Sunday. "You don’t know if there are gonna be enough cautions to get the lucky dog or will you get the lucky dog. When you go down a lap it’s not a day-ender, but it makes your day a lot harder. We missed the lucky dog by one that time, and we had a decent car but when you’re trying to work your way through the field and race really hard you burn your stuff up too much and you get in trouble. We were able to adjust our car to that and then worked our way back up there slowly but surely.”
Then, there is Newman. For a moment, he seemed to be like the Newman from Seinfeld. After struggling through the first 100 laps, the No. 31 team entered the top-10. However, he fell outside of the top-15 late in the going and opted to use strategy to get up front. On the final restart of the day, Newman’s Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet was in fifth-place. But on old tires – multiple cars roared right past him. On the final lap, he was set to be just one position out of the Chase in a tie with Gordon. Gordon would have won the tie-breaker since he had a better top finish in the Eliminator Round. Yet with a bold move in Turn 3, Newman drove it in hard and got into the side of rookie Kyle Larson – putting him in the wall and giving Childress a shot at winning his first Cup Series championship since 1994.
"That was about as clean as I could race," said Newman. "I wasn't proud of it."
Gordon was notably disappointed after finishing second at Phoenix. Had he not been involved in an on-track incident with Brad Keselowski at Texas, the four-time champion likely would have advanced to Homestead. Matt Kenseth also fell short on Sunday. After finishing third, he was just three points behind Newman for third in points. Keselowski finished fourth, and came up eight points behind Newman with Carl Edwards finishing 15th – 15 points behind the No. 31 team.
“It makes last week that much even tougher to swallow, but that's all right,” said Gordon. “We put in a great effort at Martinsville, great effort here, and it just wasn't enough. Some things are out of our control, and I felt like we did a great job putting all the effort into the things that we could control.”
The race had a record 12 cautions on the day – surpassing the previous track record of 11. With eight lead changes during Sunday’s 312-mile spectacle, it was the fewest amount of passes for the lead at the track since 1998.
Going into Homestead, there will be a first-time Sprint Cup Series champion. This will be the first time someone will take home their first title since 2006, when Jimmie Johnson captured his first of six crowns.
Joseph Wolkin can be found on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR.