The Sprint Cup season is over, and it’s hard to let it go.
The new Chase format gave new reason to religiously follow each of the final 10 races, while Homestead-Miami Speedway provided the perfect setting to finish off the year. After all, it’s tough to beat 80-degree weather in mid-November.
This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not goes the distance, delivering the drivers who ended the racing year right and those who could use some time to clear their heads, because believe it or not, Daytona is right around the corner. (Just 10 weeks away)
Kevin Harvick proved the old adage “you have to lose some before you win some” true.
Before claiming his first-ever Sprint Cup Series championship Sunday, he came up short on several occasions. Between 2010 and 2013, Harvick rounded out the year in third place three different times. Last season, he came into Homestead title eligible but never threatened eventual titlist Jimmie Johnson.
But in that span, he also apparently learned how to finish things right.
After a 33rd at Martinsville Speedway, Harvick faced the harsh reality of Chase elimination barring a victory. But instead of giving up, he buckled down, maintaining the elite form that helped to make him a constant headliner in 2014. Coming up just short of Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway didn’t crush the No. 4 team’s morale as Harvick went on to get the win he so badly needed the following week at Phoenix International Raceway. The only thing better than that is what Harvick received after a near-flawless race in the season finale: another one. An average finish of 1.33 over the final three races and a championship trophy make this HOT designation an easy call.
Maybe Ryan Newman can learn from that proverb and Harvick’s ability to make it happen. A close runner-up finish to the first-time champion at Homestead-Miami meant that Newman locked up second in the final standings, the closest he’s ever come to hoisting the Sprint Cup trophy for himself.
Newman survived early rounds of the Chase using the same driving style that put him into the 16-driver field despite lacking a win. Then, he perfected it over the final six races, top-10’ing the field to death in order to give himself a chance. Newman’s average finish (7.17) over that span was better than Harvick or any other driver in the series.
OK, Hamlin was better, but he messed it up. The only thing keeping Hamlin out of the HOT category and from joining the shortlist of Cup champions was a decision not to pit during the closing laps. Hamlin stayed out when the other three hopefuls were pitting, going against the grain when others got fresh rubber. The end result left the No. 11 Toyota a sitting duck, unable to recover when Harvick was finally able to clear traffic with less than 10 laps remaining.
Before that, Hamlin stayed out front and ahead of the No. 4 Chevrolet for much of the race, leading 48 of the final 107 laps. But in the end, this event can only be chalked up as another close call. Similar to 2010, Hamlin had a chance to make something historic happen and fell short the in season’s most crucial moments.
Logano never led at Homestead, but he was never far from the point. His championship hopes were eventually undone because of multiple pit errors, most noticeably a jackman misstep that put the No. 22 Ford on the ground without tires on pit road late in the race.
Despite the late mishap, Logano put together an excellent Chase and set career highs in multiple categories, including: wins (five), top 5s (16), top 10s (22), laps led (993), final rank (fourth), average start (9.8), average finish (11.3) and lead-lap finishes (30). That’s a pretty impressive portfolio.
Hendrick Motorsports has gone without putting a driver in the final standings’ top 5 only twice since the beginning of the 2001 season. This year was one of them. It would have been impossible to fathom such an outcome at the dawn of the Chase, given the organization’s grasp on the new rules package and NASCAR’s Gen-6 chassis models, but it happened.
While Jeff Gordon (sixth in points) and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (eighth) at least regained some of the form that landed them in the Chase over the final stretch run, Jimmie Johnson (11th) and Kasey Kahne (15th) weren’t doing their parts.
Johnson bombed out of the Chase following finishes of 40th, 17th and 24th in the Contender Round and wasn’t impressive enough thereafter – despite a victory at Texas Motor Speedway – to warrant a major jump in Hot or Not. All things considered, this was Johnson’s worst postseason ever. His final position in the standings was lower than his previous career worst, a sixth in 2011.
Kahne scraped through the Challenger Round before a second round exit that looked much more impressive than Johnson’s. But only one top the 10 over the final 11 races isn’t getting the job done at HMS, and finishes of 40th, 38th and 21st in three of the final four races are plain awful.
Outside of Aric Almirola (discussed in depth last week) and Kahne, Kyle Busch wasn’t Chase-worthy over the final six races, either. Busch compiled just two top 10s and a 22.17 average finish over that span.
Among the season’s worst performers were Roush Fenway Racing, but is there really a reason to discuss its failures any more than have already been examined in Hot or Not throughout the year? Other than RFR, there were some who never caught on to the winning-means-everything mentality that led other drivers into the postseason.
Tony Stewart finished 43rd at Homestead, putting an end to arguably the worst season of his NSCS career. Coming off a broken leg, Stewart wasn’t able to make an immediate impact on the Chase grid before tragedy and legal investigations kept him out of action for three races. He wasn’t able to find Victory Lane in Atlanta or Richmond, missing the Chase entirely, and then continued his winless ways over the final 10 weeks of the season. Long story short, Stewart was held without a win this season for the first time ever since joining the Cup Series in 1999.
From an owner’s perspective, Stewart should be very pleased, landing two cars (including the eventual champion) in the Chase and elevating Danica Patrick to new heights. But from a driver’s perspective, this year was a complete disaster.
Marcos Ambrose continued to regress following victories in 2011 and ’12, missing the Chase after failing to win at either road course. He was also unable to improve on ovals and floundered into the offseason. The end result came early: a September announcement that he would be leaving the series for a return to Australia’s V8 Supercars. Richard Petty Motorsports will go with Sam Hornish, Jr. in 2015.
Michael Waltrip Racing underperformed following a mass exodus of manpower and sponsorship in the wake of the 2013 Spingate investigation. Neither Clint Bowyer nor Brian Vickers was able to crack the Chase lineup and both were non-factors during the season’s closing stages.
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