Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy has some 2014 memories that just might take a while to fade.
1. Something to smile about – finally – for Tony Stewart
No matter what the points system was, for Tony Stewart, Sunday was a much-needed dose of medicine for a 2014 season where the hits just kept on coming. Stewart got off to a slow start to the season as a driver, coming off surgery and rehab for a badly broken leg last fall. In August, Stewart was involved in a fatal crash at Canandaigua Speedway in upstate New York which deeply affected him, and for the first time in his career, the three-time Sprint Cup Champion went winless. So to see Stewart enjoying the championship celebration with driver and longtime friend Kevin Harvick was one of the brightest moments of the season.
2. Future’s so bright
Everywhere you look in NASCAR these days, there are young, talented drivers among the ranks: Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, Justin Allgaier and Cole Whitt in Cup; Chase Elliott, Ty Dillon and Chris Buescher in Nationwide; and Darrell Wallace, Jr., Ben Kennedy, Erik Jones and Tyler Reddick in trucks, just to name a few. Watching youngsters develop is always a special part of the sport. Like the champions before them, they all started somewhere with big dreams and big shoes to fill. In a few years, they’ll be the heroes themselves, and it’s fun to watch them blossom. They’re exciting to watch on track because the thrill of the hunt hasn’t yet worn off, they are still gracious and still just happy to be recognized by race fans. There is an exceptional group of young talent in the sport right now, and they’ll be around for a long time yet.
3. Exceeding expectations
Some drivers are simply expected to win in Sprint Cup racing. Some even get chastised for winning too much. For race fans, seeing their driver take the checkers first is always a satisfying feeling. For most fans, that’s probably something they take for granted. But for some teams, their drivers and their fans, it’s not a done deal that they’ll see Victory Lane from the inside. For a mid-tier team like Richard Petty Motorsports, it happens maybe once a year. For others, the small teams parked on the backside of the garage most weeks, it’s a long shot at best. Money buys speed, and the smaller teams have less money. It’s simple math. But sometimes someone defies the odds and reminds us that it’s about the drivers, too, and no driver worth his salt ever stops trying to pass one more car, gain one more spot. For Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger, that one spot was the one they needed to unlock the gate to Victory Lane, and the celebrations were epic, filled with real excitement and gratitude. They’re why the small teams keep showing up and keep trying.
4. Burning bright
One thing the new Chase did (though possibly for the wrong reasons) was reignite the passion in the drivers, many of whom showed more desire and personality than they have in recent years. That’s something the sport does need – passion from the drivers for winning. That’s why the youngsters are fun to watch and why some of the veterans are so polarizing. This season stripped some of the sponsor-driven blandness away and left us with raw emotion. Perhaps it’s time for some of those sponsors to take a deep breath and let go of the reins for a while. Letting the drivers be themselves all the time could only make the sport better.
5. That game seven moment
Oh, NASCAR, you silly fools. You never needed to try and create the moment. For, you see, it was already there. It’s just not where you think it should be. No, what makes a game seven special and exciting isn’t the big play, which may or may not happen as the contest evolves. The moment that makes every race special isn’t when the checkers wave or when two cars make contact, but rather in the one shining, perfect moment when anything could happen. It’s when the pace car drops to pit road and the field pours off turn 4, engines grumbling in frustrated protest, every driver waiting to be set free to race. In that moment, anything can happen, anyone can win, and everyone can be reminded of why they came in the first place and why they stayed. It’s not about a win, a crash, a fight or even a championship. Those things pale in comparison to the moment when everyone watching rises as one, believing that the possibilities are endless. It’s the moment everything comes together. The moment is there, every week. Nobody needs to make it happen. NASCAR never needed to try to create it. It’s there. It’s what makes the sport like no other. May it never fade.
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