Categories
News

Johanna Long Returns to NASCAR

After not being in a ride in 2014, @JohannaLong is happy to return to the mix this season.

Long will debut in the unsponsored No. 03 Chevrolet in the NASCAR XFINITY Series on Feb. 21 at Daytona International Speedway for Mike Affarano Motorsports.

In an announcement made on Wednesday, Jan. 28, Long will also compete in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. She will be racing in select races in both series.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to race this season with Mike Affarano Motorsports,” said Long. “In a time when drivers are pressured to bring sponsorship money to teams in order to race, it was great to have my phone ring and be approached because of my talent.”

Long drove part time in the NASCAR XFINITY Series in 2012 and 2013.

“I’m thankful for the opportunity to get back behind the wheel and gain valuable experience with Mike Affarano Motorsports,” said Long.

While Long is familiar with the competition in the XFINITY Series, this will be new territory for Mike Affarano Motorsports. They acquired former Turner Scott Motorsports cars and trucks in the off-season and are transforming them to suit the focus of the organization.

“We are thrilled to have Johanna behind the wheel for 2015,” Affarano stated. “She has such drive and determination that will represent our team well on and off the track, and we know she’s great with attracting sponsors and fans. We’re looking forward to growing and progressing as a company together this season.”

EMAIL ANITA AT anita.goodan@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @Anita_Goodan

Categories
Photos

Best of the 2014 NASCAR Season in Photos

2014 was a special year for NASCAR. With the announcement of the new Chase for the Sprint Cup, to a rookie winning a National Touring Series championship, take a look back at 2014 though the eyes of our photographer, Chris Owens.

EMAIL CHRIS AT chris.owens@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @ChrisOwens62

Categories
Editorial

POPULAR SPEED’s Top-10 Defining Moments of 2014

Staff Report – The freshness of a new calendar year brings with it the dawn of a new NASCAR season.

The 2015 Daytona 500 is 52 days away, which will officially put the 2014 season to bed. Before then, however, the POPULAR SPEED staff revisited the most defining moments of the past year. These are the moments that years from now when the 2014 season is mentioned will quickly come to mind.

There were plenty to choose from. Like the crowning of the first back-to-back Camping World Truck Series champion in Matt Crafton, to the fisticuffs in the Sprint Cup Series garage. There were rule changes, driver musical chairs, and plenty of news to keep the keyboard busy.

Simply put, it was a season for the record books and yields high anticipation for the upcoming season. Here is one last look at 2014 with POPULAR SPEED’s top-10 defining moments:

10: The 3 is Back and on the Pole

Austin Dillon’s promotion to the Sprint Cup Series meant he would bring with him a number he’s run all his life. But it’s one that had not graced a Cup Series track since the death of the driver who made it famous, Dale Earnhardt. Dillon’s first appearance in the No. 3 came during Daytona Speedweeks when he won the pole and led the field to the green flag in the Daytona 500; ironically the last race the number had been used.

9: Dale Dominates Daytona

The Daytona weekend hype might have been around the return of his father’s number, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the 56th running of the Great American Race his show. Fresh off the news that crew chief Steve Letarte would not return following the season, the No. 88 team dominated the rain-delayed race, leading a race-high 54 laps, including the final 18 straight. The victory was the first for Letarte and second for Earnhardt Jr. More importantly, it locked them into the Chase thanks to NASCAR’s new eligibility rules.

8: The Chase Heats Things Up

There never was a clear answer as to why drivers became so hot under the collar more than once in the Chase, but the intensity around the new format made for a great story. Brad Keselowski became the guy everyone loved to hate and late in the 10-week postseason he played the role repeatedly.

From Charlotte to Texas tempers flared, and the crowd ate it up. Keselowski finding himself with his back against the wall when Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, and even Tony Stewart took a shot.

But, as they say, everything is bigger in Texas and with another elimination race looming Keselowski went for a hole at the expense of Jeff Gordon. The post-race theatrics seemed to highlight how stressful the new format was, with a chance at a championship now determined in three-week spurts. Only the strong would survive.

Jeff Gordon celebrates his fifth Brickyard 400 victory in August at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)
Jeff Gordon celebrates his historic fifth Brickyard 400 victory in August at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)

7: Jeff Gordon and the Fountain of Youth

Never has a question been asked more in NASCAR then when is Jeff Gordon going to win his fifth championship? His 2014 resurgence will go down as a top story for many.

At 43 years old, Gordon looked – and often felt – like the younger version of himself. The 24 team came out swinging, showing they could win anywhere at any time while leading the point standings the majority of the season. It didn’t take long before Gordon was penciled in as the championship favorite.

Through 36 races, he collected four wins and a series-high 23 top-10 finishes. It was the most Gordon had compiled since the 2009 season (25) when he finished third in points and the 2007 season (30) when he was second. But the magic ran out for the Hendrick driver in Phoenix when he failed to advance to the Championship 4 by one point.

Ryan Reed (left) and Chris Buescher (right) were just two of several new faces to join NASCAR's top three series in 2014. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)
Ryan Reed (left) and Chris Buescher (right) were just two of several new faces to join NASCAR’s top three series in 2014. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)

 

6: NASCAR’s Youth Invasion

Rarely across all three series does NASCAR see an infusion of young blood like what occurred this season. Darrell Wallace Jr. and Ryan Blaney led the Truck Series while Cole Custer and Erik Jones occasionally showed up and combined for four wins.

Meanwhile, the Nationwide Series was taken over by Chase Elliott with assistance from Ty Dillon, Chris Buescher, and many others. A glimpse of the future was on display each week in these series with the hopes they would follow in the footsteps of Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon into the Sprint Cup Series.

Larson, who won Rookie of the Year honors, and Dillon led the charge, as the Sprint Cup rookie class was the largest it had been in many years.

5: The Arrival of Chase Elliott

The latest deal that came together during the 2013 offseason ended up being the most successful for the Nationwide Series in 2014. JR Motorsports and NAPA put their faith in Chase Elliott, who in turn went out and left little for his competition to accomplish. Elliott reeled off two iconic wins at Texas and Darlington to prove to any of those with doubts that he was the real deal.

He added a third win at Chicago in July, which is where he retook the point lead for the final time. By season’s end he had accumulated 26 top-10s and 16 top-fives, the most of any driver on the season in addition to an 8.0 average finish. Elliott became the first rookie to win the championship and naturally, was also named Rookie of the Year.

Martin Truex, Jr (78) drives around Brian Vickers (55) during qualifying at Daytona in July. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)
Martin Truex, Jr (78) drives around Brian Vickers (55) during qualifying at Daytona in July. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)

4: Qualifying Becomes Complicated

For years, the only simple thing in NASCAR was qualifying. One car had two laps to show their best. Entering 2014, however, NASCAR implemented knockout qualifying in which the track was open to all competitors and consisted of rounds. It stumped the field as it became not only a game of cat and mouse but beat the clock.

Through the first few weeks of the season, some complained the format was unsafe with drivers coasting around the apron trying to cool their engines. That brought the first change with cool boxes being allowed. Other highlights included Truck Series qualifying at Michigan in which all but Ryan Blaney missed getting a timed lap in the final round.

And qualifying at restrictor plate tracks was even more entertaining. Complaints were widespread about not liking the format and hoping NASCAR would do something different. By the time the last plate race of the season rolled around at Talladega in October, NASCAR changed the format again, this time splitting the field into groups. But it didn’t cure everything as some still couldn’t beat the clock and ended up missing the race.

3: Eight Tires Are Better Than Four

With one last race to make the Championship 4, it came down to the final lap in Phoenix. One point separated Ryan Newman from Jeff Gordon when he drove down into Turn 3 and used up Kyle Larson to take the spot. Larson went in the wall and Newman went to Homestead-Miami with a shot at the championship.

The move was a definition of what the Chase is about. How far would a driver go? What would a driver do to be in the Chase, or in Newman’s case, to stay in it? The last lap drama was replayed over and over heading into the season finale and will continue to be recalled when talking about a driver’s Chase desperation and appeared to vindicate NASCAR’s decision.

2: Welcome to the New Chase

The idea of the Chase is still a sore spot among many NASCAR fans, even ten years after its creation. Entering the season, NASCAR took it a step further by overhauling the format and its eligibility rules.

It was the biggest story for the 2014 season, and it was thoroughly discussed each weekend. Every lap and every race felt bigger than ever with the pressure picking up the closer the Chase got. Furthermore, opinions on the Chase strongly flowed, not only from those watching but drivers themselves.

Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano race during the final race of the 2014 season at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)
Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano race during the final race of the 2014 season at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)

1: Homestead

The Chase might have been the biggest story of the season, but its most defining moment will be the winner-take-all season ending event at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Four drivers entered with one leaving the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.

For the first time, points didn’t matter with NASCAR wanting the simplest of equations: the fastest car wins. Going for Game 7 moments and a walk off, NASCAR came as close as it was going to with one of the most exciting events. Filled with highs and lows, all four drivers went to the front with the championship changing hands lap after lap.

In the end, Kevin Harvick drove to the front in the final eight laps to earn his first career championship over second place Ryan Newman. Doing so with a new team and breaking through after finishing third in points three of the previous four seasons.

In all, Homestead had 18 lead changes with 13 cautions, keeping it on par with the most competitive finales in recent history.

Categories
Editorial

Remember When: BACE Motorsports

By Seth Sharp – Dominance and change, two words define the first 13 seasons in Busch Series history.

Over the first six seasons, the series saw Jack Ingram, Sam Ard and Larry Pearson win two championships a piece. Following Pearson’s second title in 1987, a streak started as seven different drivers won titles in a seven-year span. The only owner to win more than one was Bob Labonte, with @Bobby_Labonte and David Green.

The 1993 season marked the debut on BACE Motorsports, a one car operation owned by Bill Baumgardner, who was the founder of Staff America which sponsored the car. The season started off on as bad of a note as could be, as Jack Sprague finished 44th at Daytona after blowing an engine, only 24 laps into the race. The misfortune in the team’s debut defined the season as Sprague and BACE parted ways after only 22 races. Sprague had three top-10s, including a season-high fourth at Dover in his final start with the team.

Rising Winston Cup star @ErnieIrvan and Randy Lajoie drove the No. 74 to two top-10s in two races following Sprague’s departure. The team tapped ASA champion Johnny Benson Jr. to drive the car for the remainder of the season. Benson attempted the final three races and following his first start with the team was offered a ride for the 1994 and 1995 seasons.

Benson experienced growing pains during the first 15 races of his rookie campaign. He finished fourth twice but did not finish any higher than 12th in the other races. Then something clicked as Benson and BACE took off and never looked back on the competition. He picked up back-to-back third place finishes at Milwaukee and South Boston but after blowing an engine at Talladega, Benson went on a tear as he finished inside the top-13 in nine of the final 10 races including his first career win at Dover. His strong finish helped Benson to a sixth place finish in points as well as the Rookie of the Year honors.

The consistency Benson found at the end of 1994 made the following season a breeze. After winning his second career race, he found himself on top of the points standings after only four races. Benson led the standings for 22 of the final 23 weeks before clinching the series title at Rockingham with one race remaining on the schedule.

Benson ended the season with two wins, 12 top-fives, 19 top-10s and only one DNF. He finished a remarkable 404 points ahead of runner-up Chad Little, the second highest margin of victory in series history. Benson’s success in the Busch Series earned him an opportunity to replace @Mw55 (Michael Waltrip) and drive the No. 30 Pennzoil car in the Winston Cup Series. This opened the door for LaJoie to take over the No. 74 and give himself an opportunity to bring BACE back-to-back titles.

Lajoie’s started right where Benson left off as consistency led LaJoie to the top of the standings following the third race. After a few tough weeks found LaJoie in the garage early, he heated up, winning two of three races including a string of six straight top-six finishes. The season turned out to be a head-to-head battle between LaJoie and former champion David Green as they checked out on the series.

LaJoie edged out Green for the title by 29 points, thanks to six straight top-10s to finish the season. He finished 650 points ahead of @Team_Onion (Todd Bodine), who finished third in the standings. He won five races, had 11 top-fives and 20 top-10s.

Baumgardner entered the 1997 season looking to become the first owner to win three straight titles after he joined Howard Thomas and David Pearson as the only owners to win two in a row.

LaJoie put an exclamation point on his first championship by winning the 1997 opener at Daytona. His success continued throughout the season, going through a few dominating stretches including winning three of five races during the summer months. A win at Milwaukee put him back on top of the standings, and he never looked back, leading the standings for the final 13 weeks while securing his second straight title.

Baumgardner became the first (and to this day, only) owner to win three consecutive championships in the Busch Series. Rick Hendrick is the only owner to win at least three straight titles at the Cup level, doing it twice.

EMAIL SETH AT seth.sharp@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW SETH ON TWITTER: @NASCARMemories

Categories
XFINITY

Nationwide Series 2014 Year in Quotes

The 2014 Nationwide Series had a different complexion than years past.

It started with a crop of new drivers in various places, led by the high-profile arrival of Chase Elliott. And these drivers dominated most of the headlines, along with the Sprint Cup Series invaders as per the norm. But the season never lacked in storylines.

Overall there were five new winners, three of which were rookies. A rookie also won the championship for the first time in series history while JR Motorsports finished 1-2 in points. And lest we forget, the moments we thought we couldn’t possibly have heard right.

Daytona: “I never locked bumper. There’s a camera on that 22 car. I never locked bumpers,” @JamesBuescher

Implemented before the season, the Truck and Nationwide Series can no longer tandem draft per NASCAR rules. It’s a judgment call made by officials if they feel a driver is pushing the car in front of them for too long. They nabbed Buescher in the season-opening event, which he adamantly fought over the radio and claimed he was made an example of.

Phoenix: “This is my first time winning a rain-shortened one. Welcome to the tent,” @KyleBusch

The race might have been called 32 laps from the finish, but it wouldn’t have changed the winner. Busch had already racked up 155 laps led when the rain came, and he was awarded his third straight Phoenix win.

Las Vegas: “I stepped on the gas, and it felt like I was holding a parachute, the way those guys went by me,” Kyle Busch

As the leader on the final restart of the Boyd Gaming 300, Busch wasn’t able to run away and hide for his second win of the season. Instead, the green flag dropped and he went backward in the outside lane as Brad @Keselowski and others went by.

Bristol: “I was not going to be as nice as I was last year,” @KyleLarsonRacin

In a repeat performance from 2013, Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson found themselves racing for the win. A year ago Larson came up a foot short and admitted that if he had gotten to Busch’s back bumper, he was not going to let the opportunity slip away.

California: “I never noticed a TV screen in the middle of (Turns) 1 and 2. I saw my face and next to it, it said, ‘five second-place finishes in the Nationwide Series’ and I was like, ‘I am not getting another one,’” Kyle Larson

A week later the story was same, only this time Larson was able to close the deal. Able to do so after finding a piece of motivation of his past defeats, which were posted on a big screen TV by the racing surface.

Texas: “I like the sound of that! That’s good!” @ChaseElliott

It took the youngest Elliott just six starts to find Victory Lane after only signing the deal with JR Motorsports to run the 2014 season in January. Elliott charged past Sprint Cup Series stars and teammates @DaleJr and @KevinHarvick throughout the night, including the race-winning pass that allowed him to be called a Nationwide Series winner for the first time in his career.

Chase Elliott celebrates with his dad, Bill Elliott and mom, Cindy following his win at Darlington Raceway. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)
Chase Elliott celebrates with his dad, Bill Elliott and mom, Cindy following his win at Darlington Raceway. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)

Darlington: “His personality, I like to call him the New Elvis. He’s the full package, man. He just has it all. The sky’s the limit with that kid,” Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Win number two came a week later, in his first try at another track. The much tougher Darlington Raceway was no match for Elliott, who went from sixth to first in the final two laps.

Richmond: “You can only block a guy so many laps before he is going to move you and once he moves you it is kind of up to fate at that point what is going to happen,” @DriverRyanReed

It wasn’t the easiest of seasons for rookies @dylankracing (Dylan Kwasniewski) or Ryan Reed. The two got together in Richmond when the 31 of Kwasniewski went around off the bumper of Reed’s No. 16.

Trevor Bayne races his AdvoCare Ford during the Aaron's 312 at Talladega Superspeedway. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)
Trevor Bayne races his AdvoCare Ford during the Aaron’s 312 at Talladega Superspeedway. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)

Talladega: ‘It’s unfortunate when you’re a victim of stupidity,” @BScottRacing

The nature of restrictor plate racing struck a few times in the Aaron’s 312, including on Lap 60, which took out ten drivers. The wreck was triggered when @TBayne21 tagged from behind Scott.

Iowa: “I just couldn’t be happier right now. I got a lot of crap from people on Twitter wanting to know why I don’t have a full-time ride, but I’d rather be part-time in this car than full-time in a lot of other ones, and this is exactly why,” @SamHornish

After nearly winning the 2013 Nationwide Series championship, Hornish lost his ride at Penske. Joe Gibbs Racing picked him up on a part-time basis in the No. 54 and in his second start he dominated for his first win.

Charlotte: “I don’t know how to answer that question. I don’t know. I know probably wasn’t exciting for the fans but I’m sure Hendrick engine guys appreciate it,” Kyle Larson

His first win in California was followed by a big slide through the grass as he held the steering wheel out the window. But after Larson won for the second time in Charlotte, he didn’t celebrate at all and went straight to Victory Lane. It left many wondering why.

Trevor Bayne and Brian Scott race during the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Dover International Speedway. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)
Trevor Bayne and Brian Scott race during the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Dover International Speedway. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)

Dover: “I wish I could relate confidence to speed, but it doesn’t ever seem to work that way,” Trevor Bayne

It was a steady start for Bayne in 2014 but when the weather started to get hotter, the No. 6 got faster. In the six week stretch leading up to his second place finish in Dover, a week after he was announced to go full-time Cup racing in 2015, Bayne finished no worse than 11th.

Michigan: “I just lost it. I got to start driving smarter; this is all my fault … Just got to drive smarter. I’ve done this a bunch of times; I should know not to do it, and I just lost it under him, got a little aero loose, and that’s what happens,” Dylan Kwasniewski

Coming off a championship in the K&N Pro Series East, Kwasniewski was hailed as the next great thing to come through the racing ranks. But his rookie campaign was full of learning curves and rough days, including Michigan in which his No. 31 again headed home with damage.

Road America: “I tried to give this race away three times today, I was fully embarrassed and not focused enough, but RCR gives you great equipment, and my team did not give up on me. This is such a great feeling after all the years of trying, we did it. I am so happy I don’t even know how to put it into words,” @Brendan62

After going 98 starts without winning a race, Gaughan finally pulled into Victory Lane for the first time at Road America. He did so after numerous adventures throughout the day, such as going off course twice and having to make unscheduled stops to clean the grille.

Kentucky: “We’ve got the bad end of the deal three weeks in a row, and I don’t know what it takes to get respect around here,” Trevor Bayne

Bayne went through a rough stretch entering the summer months, getting caught up in other messes. At Kentucky, he finished 15th after running top-10 but being tagged when Chase Elliott got sideways while racing underneath him.

Kasey Kahne and Regan Smith cross the line in a photo-finish during the Subway Firecracker 250 at Daytona. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)
Kasey Kahne and Regan Smith cross the line in a photo-finish during the Subway Firecracker 250 at Daytona. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)

Daytona: “I’m disappointed for the team, I’m disappointed for my guys, and selfishly I’m disappointed. But, for JR Motorsports, I’m happy. A 1-2 finish is great. It’s a weird mix of emotions right now,” @ReganSmith

Smith started the year with a win at Daytona and none as one of the best restrictor plate racers in the series, was in prime contention to grab another one. He came up short, however, to @KaseyKahne driving the team’s No. 5 car in a photo finish.

New Hampshire: “Well hell of a Saturday,” Brad Keselowski

On his way to becoming the first driver to sweep the weekend at New Hampshire, Keselowski also led both Sprint Cup Series practice sessions and won the pole for the Nationwide Series race. He would lead 152 laps on his way to his second win of the season.

Chicago: “I’d trade this check in a heartbeat for the trophy and the win,” Brian Scott

Having come so close a few times, Brian Scott entered 2014 still looking for his first career Nationwide Series win. After qualifying for the Dash 4 Cash program, Scott outran his competition with sixth place finish to take home the $100,000 prize.

Indianapolis: “I knew I had to clear him getting off into the corner, and whether it meant hitting the wall I was going for it. I don’t hold back. When I have an opportunity I try to give it all I’ve got, and I’d rather hit the wall and say you know what, I gave it all I got, then feel like I didn’t give it enough,” @TyDillon

Dillon earned his first career Truck Series win by chasing down and passing Kyle Busch at Atlanta. On the big stage of Indianapolis, Dillon again got the best of Busch late in the Lilly Diabetes 250 for his first career Nationwide Series win.

Iowa: “I had my shot at it,” @Mc_Driver (Michael McDowell)

McDowell, like Hornish, is another driver that no longer has a full-time ride in NASCAR. Every so often, however, he gets a chance behind the wheel of a very fast Joe Gibbs Racing machine. McDowell gave winner Brad Keselowski a run for his money in the last five laps but couldn’t hold him off for the win.

Watkins Glen: “For two guys doing pirouettes in the bus stop, that’s pretty cool. And it just shows you these races are never over. You can’t quit. Just because you’re in the grass backwards doesn’t mean your race is done,” @MarcosAmbrose

Never having won on an oval in his NASCAR career, Ambrose provided plenty of highlights on the road courses. He picked up his fifth and for now final, Nationwide Series win after spinning on Lap 6 with Kyle Busch. The two, however, came back to finish first and second.

Mid-Ohio: “I don’t know for the life of me how the 60 made it on fuel because nobody else in the field was even near that fuel mileage,” Regan Smith on @Chris_Buescher

The end of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 saw a variety of strategies. Some gambled on fuel mileage and came up short, other didn’t take a chance. But Chris Buescher and his team went for it even though they were supposed to be two laps short. Buescher pitted for the final time on Lap 52 of the 90 lap race.

A fan records the final restart between Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney during the Food City 300 at Bristol. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)
A fan records the final restart between Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney during the Food City 300 at Bristol. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)

Bristol: “The leader is always at the biggest disadvantage. The 22 was five mph faster than me by the first double stripe. I didn’t go because I didn’t want to go, but everybody behind me is trying to go. It’s stupid. One of these days I’m going to lock all four down and stack the whole field up,” Kyle Busch

Dominating at Bristol is second nature to Busch and did it once more in August. Busch led a race-high 161 laps but was bested on a final restart with seven laps to go by @RyanBlaney22. Afterward Busch voiced displeasure with the way restarts, and the rules have been playing out.

Atlanta: “I asked, ‘Are we all right?’ He said, ‘We’re going to smash them tomorrow night,’” crew chief Ernie Cope

Kevin Harvick might not have practiced well leading into the Great Clips 300, but he wasn’t worried. And he told his crew chief that they would be just fine, which turned out to be correct as Harvick led 159 laps on his way to the victory.

Richmond: “I’m pretty pumped about being back in Victory Lane at Richmond – it’s been a while if you think about it,” Kyle Busch

As the winningest driver in the series, there is not a whole lot that Busch hasn’t done. Leading every lap of a race is already on his resume, but at Richmond he did so again to win for the first time since Dover.

Chicago: “Suck to not be in Victory Lane where we should be,” Kyle Busch

A week later Busch looked poised to go back-to-back as he led 141 of 200. But late race pit strategy doomed him as he fell to third.

Kentucky: “There are great race teams and great young race car drivers, but the old dog still has something left,” Brendan Gaughan

Road America was Gaughan’s first win in 98 attempts, but it only took 13 starts to get win number two. Gaughan powered by Chase Elliott and Ty Dillon in a three-wide move going into Turn 1 that sealed the deal.

Joey Logano races Chase Elliott during the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Dover. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)
Joey Logano races Chase Elliott during the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Dover. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)

Dover: “I know I didn’t win, I remember that part. That was pretty similar,” @JoeyLogano

While Busch made it a clean sweep of Nationwide Series win at Dover on the season, the fourth time that has occurred since 2010, the driver who accomplished the feat a year ago was left in the dust. It looked very familiar to the driver who normally battles him but finished second.

Kansas: “We fought with it. It’s kind of what we anticipated for the day and at this point – obviously disappointed. It’s been a long year,” Regan Smith

The Nationwide Series championship was still in reach for Smith as the season started to wind down, though he would need some help and the elimination of mistakes. Crashing during practice at Kansas and having to go to a backup car didn’t help matters.

Charlotte: “My restarts are some of the worst you can have. I think I would know how to restart a race at this point. That is 100 percent pitiful, in all honesty,” Chase Elliott

As he closed in on the Nationwide Series title, Elliott was also determined to get back to Victory Lane. He ran up front at Charlotte throughout the night, but never had a car that was capable of staying there. And Elliott claimed the driver didn’t help the cause.

Texas: “I can’t believe it. I’m just real proud of Kyle. We got off to a rough start in this (Nationwide Series); it took us almost five years to win a race. So we really appreciate this,” Joe Gibbs

Another win for Busch wasn’t newsworthy at Texas, which was his seventh at the facility, but it was for Joe Gibbs. The victory was the 100th career for the organization.

Phoenix: “I wasn’t sure if it was OK to do a burnout lap or not. But I did one anyway because I was too excited not to,” Chase Elliott

In what will be remembered as an incredible rookie season, Elliott capped it off by clinching the championship a week early. In addition to his three wins, finishing ahead of teammate Regan Smith at Phoenix allowed Elliott to celebrate finally.

Matt Kenseth celebrates following his win in the Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)
Matt Kenseth celebrates following his win in the Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. (Photo: Chris Owens/PopularSpeed.com)

Homestead-Miami: “It’s been a long time since I’ve won a race in anything,” @MattKenseth

To bring down the 2014 season, Matt Kenseth returned to Victory Lane in the series and for the first time since his win in the Sprint Cup Series at New Hampshire in September of 2013.

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

Categories
XFINITY

JR Motorsports Was Primed For Career Year

EXCLUSIVE By Kelly Crandall – It feels like it took 100 years to get on the big stage at Homestead-Miami.

In reality, it was only ten for @DaleJr. and JR Motorsports. But those were ten long years, made up of all the ups and downs a roller coaster could throw their way when the decision was made to get on board. Looking back, Earnhardt Jr. admits they just wanted to go racing when they showed up at the same facility with inferior equipment, a used car and a pit box that could barely fit one, let alone, two people.

Nowadays JR Motorsports is living the good life, with nothing but the best to go around. And last month it was capped off with the official crowning of being the new Nationwide Series champions with rookie superstar @ChaseElliott.

It is not a party for one, however. The career year extended from first to second where @ReganSmith finished as he and Elliott won a combined four races, were the only drivers to finish all 33 races, and earned the most top-10s.

“That’s something we’re very, very proud of and I felt like going into the year we had a real good shot at doing that,” Earnhardt Jr. told POPULAR SPEED on possessing two of the three spots on the podium.

“The feeling is not really of surprise but of satisfaction because we were able to accomplish what we felt like we could do; we could realize our potential this year.”

Though Smith ended up disappointed with being runner-up, a byproduct of being hard on himself and holding high stands Earnhardt Jr. reveals, there was plenty to marvel in. From the opening shot Smith fired at Daytona he and Elliott raised the bar for Nationwide Series competition and forged a strong teammate relationship.

“I felt like at the start of the year we should 1-2,” said Earnhardt Jr. “I really did.

“I was looking at the competition across the board, and I just felt like we were positioned to succeed, and it was really just a matter of minimizing our mistakes. Not getting ourselves in wrecks and when the car is not exactly right not getting in over your head and running into something. Neither one of them really did that all year.”

Whether it was the full-time No. 7 and No. 9 teams or a third car that was run (this year with six drivers and victorious five times), JR Motorsports stood above all. The addition of @KevinHarvick and Ernie Cope brought fresh ideas, wins and a morale booster in the shop.

For Earnhardt Jr., they kept the team relevant. Fresh blood rejuvenated everyone, especially the teams of Smith and Elliott who they pushed to strive harder. The same results were possible for all in the same equipment.

“I couldn’t imagine it going any better,” Earnhardt said.

Harvick did more for JR Motorsports than just put the car in Victory Lane. More than once Earnhardt Jr. offered high praise and appreciation for his ability to elevate the performance side of the program, but Harvick also has business sense.

Quickly the offering of Harvick, Earnhardt Jr., and Kelley Earnhardt Miller attracted numerous new partnership opportunities as well as connected the company to ones that Harvick had already established such as Hunt Brothers Pizza. For Earnhardt Jr., the new Sprint Cup Series champion was a big asset to have, and now a championship validates their presence.

“I definitely feel like it raises our credibility and our value as a partner. We had a lot of drivers very interested in driving our cars we just don’t have enough cars,” Earnhardt Jr. chuckled. “We’ve got a lot of great partners and for the first time in a long time we’re funded the way we want to be to be able to go out and compete.

“We’re as healthy as we can be, in my mind, to compete in the Nationwide Series and we’ve done it on a bit of a short budget over the years and made it work.”

In 2005, Navy was the only partner willing to shell out the cash and put their name on the car. In September JR Motorsports bought a shop, moved into it in January and sent Mark McFarland racing by the start of the 2006 season. A labor of love as its been called took years and a rotation of drivers to figure out what they were doing.

Ron Fellows took them to Victory Lane for the first time in 2008, the same year they brought in Brad @Keselowski who then not only made winning a regular thing but gave them their first sniff of championship contention. But the roller coaster didn’t get any easier following Keselowski’s departure, until now and the accomplishment that has them as one of the best Nationwide Series only teams.

“Lost a little here and made some money here, but we’re as healthy as I’ve seen us in a while,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I think these wins and these championships are something that as an owner you have to capitalize on and continue to sort of grow your brand and invite new business and invite new partners.”

That covers those who want to be a part of the company as well as those on the track who not only lived up to Earnhardt Jr.’s expectations, but finally have JR Motorsports at the peak of their ride and primed for the future.

“The partnerships that you make and create are what’s important for the long-term health of the team,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Drivers will come and go; crew chiefs will come and go but the partners are the ones that really forge the future of the team.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

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Wallace Granted Release from Joe Gibbs Racing

By Kelly Crandall – Darrell @BubbaWallace has been released from his contract with Joe Gibbs Racing, which he had requested.

As first reported by Jim Utter and the Charlotte Observer, Wallace asked Gibbs to be released from his contract in order to pursue other opportunities. Monday morning Joe Gibbs Racing confirmed he had been granted the release.

Wallace has been hoping to land a full-time ride in the XFINITY Series in 2015, which Gibbs has been unable to secure for the 21-year-old. Since 2012, Wallace has run six career XFINITY races with a career-best seventh twice.

The reported leading destination for Wallace is Roush Fenway Racing. Their driver lineup for next season consists of sophomores @Chris_Buescher, @driverRyanReed and incoming veteran @Elliott_Sadler.

Though nothing had been finalized, the hope was for Wallace to run a limited schedule of 10 XFINITY races in the upcoming season for Gibbs. He just completed his second full season in the Camping World Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports where he finished third in points and earned four victories.

Earlier this season, Wallace stated that he was in talks of running full-time XFINITY with Joe Gibbs and hinted that Coke could have been a potential sponsor. As the offseason began, Wallace acknowledged it was still a work in progress to find him both an open seat and open races in the series with Joe Gibbs Racing.

The Alabama native had been tied to the organization since signing a driver development deal when he was a teenager.

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

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Rhodes Gets Limited Schedule with JR Motorsports

By Stephanie Adair – It was announced Friday that 2014 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Series champion @benrhodes will drive part-time in the Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports in the upcoming 2015 season.

He is scheduled to compete in 10 races, piloting the No. 88 Chevy with Alpha Energy Solutions Inc. as his sponsor. Sprint Cup Series drivers @DaleJr, @KevinHarvick and @KaseyKahne, will drive in the remainder of the full-time 33-race schedule for the team.

“Ben is one of the rising talents in NASCAR,” JR Motorsports general manager Kelley Earnhardt Miller said. “As a company, JRM takes pride in cultivating young drivers, and together with Alpha Energy Solutions, we’re thrilled to give Ben a platform to further develop his skills at the next level. I’m excited to see what this coming year will bring for him and the 88 team.”

Aforementioned, Rhodes captured the K&N Pro Series East championship in his rookie season, after posting five wins, 11 top-fives, and an average finish of 5.8. The 17-year old Louisville, KY native also made four NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts for Turner Scott Motorsports this year. He grabbed one top-five and three top-10s.

Rhodes’ upcoming 10-race schedule is comprised of starts at three short tracks, three intermediate tracks, and all three road courses visited by the Nationwide Series. This includes starts at Chicagoland Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Dover International Speedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway, and both events at Iowa Speedway. In addition, former Hendrick Motorsports engineer Dave Elenz has been appointed as the new crew chief for the team.

“I’m thrilled to be joining one of the top teams in NASCAR for the 2015 season,” Rhodes said. “It’s been my goal to compete in NASCAR’s top tiers, and this is a tremendous opportunity with JR Motorsports and Alpha Energy Solutions to race in the XFINITY Series.

“I couldn’t think of a better group of people to surround myself with to continue my growth in the sport. I am looking forward to working with crew chief Dave Elenz, driving the No. 88 Chevrolet with Dale Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne, as well as sharing the track with my teammates Chase Elliott and Regan Smith.”

EMAIL STEPHANIE AT stephanie.adair@popularspeed.com

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Joe Gibbs Racing Shuffles XFINITY, Cup Crew Chiefs

By Tyler Piccotti – Joe Gibbs Racing announced the 2015 crew chief assignments for its three NASCAR XFINITY Series and four Sprint Cup Series teams on Thursday, and the addition of Carl Edwards has led to wholesale changes in both divisions.

Darian Grubb, who helped guide @DennyHamlin to the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, will sit atop the box for Edwards and the newly-formed No. 19 team next season. Grubb has been replaced by Dave Rogers, who won 13 races with the No. 18 team of @KyleBusch over the last five full seasons.

Busch will be paired with a familiar face in former Nationwide Series crew chief Adam Stevens. Stevens joins the Cup ranks after four extremely successful seasons in which he helped orchestrate 31 victories in 124 starts.

The only constant is Jason Ratcliff, who will remain with @MattKenseth and the No. 20 Sprint Cup team.

Here is a full listing of the assignments:

Sprint Cup Series

Jason Ratcliff, No. 20 Toyota of Matt Kenseth
Dave Rogers, No. 11 Toyota of Denny Hamlin
Darian Grubb, No. 19 Toyota of Carl Edwards
Adam Stevens, No. 18 Toyota of Kyle Busch

XFINITY Series

Eric Phillips, No. 18 Toyota driven by Daniel Suarez
Chris Gayle, No. 54 Toyota driven by multiple drivers
Mike Wheeler, No. 20 Toyota driven by multiple drivers

“With the expansion of our NASCAR Sprint Cup Series operations to four teams next year with the addition of Carl Edwards, we have been able to take a step back and evaluate each of our teams and make decisions that we feel are best for our organization long term,” Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs said.

“Like Jason and Dave previously, Adam (Stevens) has clearly proven that he is ready to move into the Cup Series and we feel that his familiarity with Kyle (Busch) provides the opportunity for us to make that move now. We think pairing Dave (Rogers) with Denny (Hamlin) and Darian (Grubb) with Carl (Edwards) will also make each team stronger heading into next season. Jason (Ratcliff) and Matt (Kenseth) came together quickly and we felt it was in the best interest of the 20 team to keep it as is.”

Wheeler has been a member of the organization since 2002 and had served as the race engineer for Hamlin’s No. 11 Sprint Cup car since 2005. Gayle was crew chief of Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 Nationwide car the past two seasons, while Phillips joins the organization after previously winning a Camping World Truck Series Owner’s Championship with Kyle Busch Motorsports.

“The XFINITY Series has been very important to us at Joe Gibbs Racing. Not only from a driver development standpoint, but also in the development of crew chiefs and other team members that eventually make their way into our Cup programs.

“Mike Wheeler has been a vital part of our success with Denny on the Cup side and we’re excited that he will have a chance to be a crew chief. It is a similar transition to the one we made with Chris Gayle a couple of years ago, and Chris will remain with us, but move over to the 54 Toyota with Kyle. We’re also excited to have Eric Phillips join our operations from KBM to work with Daniel Suarez next season.”

EMAIL TYLER AT tyler.piccotti@popularspeed.com

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JR Motorsports Finalizes Crew Chief Lineup

By Chris Owens – With the departure of Greg Ives from @ChaseElliott’s championship winning team, JR Motorsports has announced the addition of two new crew chiefs to their organization.

Dave Elenz and Jason Burdett will move to JR Motorsports in 2015 to work along side of veteran crew chief, Ernie Cope, who will become Elliott’s crew chief for the 2015 season. Both Elenz and Burdett come to JR Motorsports after having spent time at Hendrick Motorsports.

Elenz will serve as crew chief of the No. 88 team with drivers Dale Earnhardt, Jr, Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne, as well as several other drivers throughout the upcoming season.

Burdett will take over as crew chief of @ReganSmith’s runner-up team that was formerly run by Ryan Pemberton. Pemberton will return to his original spot within the organization as director of competition after having served both roles this season.

“This group gives us an exciting mix of proven experience, future potential, and new opportunities for everyone involved,” said @DaleJr. “Ernie is one of the best crew chiefs in the business, and yet he’s rarely had the opportunity to compete for a championship. Now he gets that chance with Chase Elliott.

“Bringing in Dave Elenz and Jason Burdett gives us the opportunity to call up some of the best talent at Hendrick Motorsports and give them a shot at taking the next step in their careers. That is the sort of foundation on which we built this company, and I’m excited to continue that with two individuals who I feel will have successful careers as crew chiefs in this sport.”

Coming to JR Motorsports via Hendrick Motorsports, both Elenz and Burdett have spent time on Earnhardt Jr’s Sprint Cup team. With a championship under his belt on @JimmieJohnson’s 2013 team, Elenz has worked with Jasper Motorsports, Ginn Racing, and Red Bull Racing to name a few.

“I’m really excited to have the opportunity to work with JR Motorsports,” Elenz said. “They’ve had a lot of success in recent years. I look forward to learning from those successes. To be able to work with the talented drivers we have in the 88 car next year is pretty unbelievable. I know we’ll be competing for wins each and every week with those drivers.”

Jason Burdett spent the last four years as car chief on Earnhardt Jr’s Sprint Cup team. Previously, he worked for Robert Yates Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing. At MWR, Burdett was Dale Jarrett’s crew chief during the majority of the 2007 season.

“There is a lot of excitement surrounding JR Motorsports right now, and I’m thankful to be part of it,” Burdett said. “I’m grateful to Kelley, Dale Jr. and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports who I’ve learned from over the years. Being able to take this next step with JR Motorsports is a privilege. I’m looking forward to working with Regan and the entire group next year.”

EMAIL CHRIS AT chris.owens@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @ChrisOwens62