Wednesday, Sep 28

2014 was rough for Martin Truex, Jr. On and off the track, Truex and long-time girlfriend Sherry Pollex experienced plenty of trials and tribulations. However, the struggles of Pollex’s diagnosis of Stage III ovarian cancer have shown their true faith and persevere.

Following her surgery on Aug. 15, Truex had to miss part of the weekend at Michigan. With plenty of support from their NASCAR family, the two have continued to spearhead the Martin Truex, Jr. Foundation, which assists children with pediatric cancer. But with the struggles, Truex and his Furniture Row Racing team have grown closer together.

In his first year with the Denver, Co.-based organization, he earned a best finish of fourth at Kansas in October, and tallied up five top fives. The results, however, didn’t show Truex’s speed, especially late in the year. Leading just one lap on the season, he failed to carry over the success that he had in 2013 with Michael Waltrip Racing. But he was lacking chemistry with crew chief Todd Berrier, who hasn’t been in Victory Lane since 2007.

Finishing 24th in points in 2014 – the lowest mark in Truex’s nine full-time seasons in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series – he had an average finish of 20.2. Entering the season he expected to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup after his impressive 2013 season, and former FRR driver Kurt Busch made it into NASCAR’s version of the playoffs for the first time in the team’s history that year.

After Pollex’s diagnosis, Truex began performing much better. With six top-15 finishes in the final 13 races, compared to eight in the first 23 events, the New Jersey-native showed the team’s potential for the 2015 season.

For the new season, he will begin working with former lead race engineer for the team, Cole Pearn. It is expected that Truex will return to his 2013 form in the new season. The new rules package should go into his favor, which is slightly similar to the setup that he ran during his rookie year in 2007.

Expect Truex and Pearn to have some struggles at the start of the year. The continuing alliance with Richard Childress Racing should play into this one-car team’s favor, but this is a contract year for Truex. He will likely receive an offer to return to the team if he makes the Chase for the Sprint Cup, or at least comes close to making it, which could help build them into a top-tier organization. Having a consistent driver for just the second time in the team’s history is going to be a pivotal factor in their success, especially at the short tracks, which could be a place where they enter the winner’s circle. 

2014 was a dream come true for the No. 47 team. AJ Allmendinger had joined the organization on a part-time basis in the season prior, and he was set to contend for them full-time. Not only did he run well, but thanks to an alliance with Richard Childress Racing – Allmendinger was able to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in his eighth season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Highlighted by a victory at Watkins Glen in an intense duel with road course ace Marcos Ambrose, Allmendinger’s season was quite impressive. In his first season working with crew chief Brian Burns, not only did he win his first career race, but he also gave the team, crew chief and most crew members their first career Sprint Cup Series triumph.

Although the team’s top story was the win at a road course, Allmendinger did something that the team had not accomplished since 2012 at Martinsville. He earned their first top-10 finish in a non-plate race in 43 events with an eighth-place result at Fontana. Earning five top 10s on the year doesn’t seem astonishing, but entering the season – Allmendinger’s goal was to move the team from a 30th-place organization into the top 20.

Not only was the No. 47 Chevrolet averaging a finish just near 20th-place, but he led over 25 laps in two races.

Inconsistency plagued the small team throughout the season with 11 finishes of 25th or worse. However, Allmendinger became the leader that he was destined for. Being in a smaller environment compared to what he was once within at Team Penske or Team Red Bull, the California-native finished on the lead lap 19 times, which is equivalent to Bobby Labonte’s results with the team in 2012 and 2013.

For the 2015 season, Allmendinger will continue to work with Burns. The two are signed through 2016, and they have potential to become consistent contenders for the near future. Although it might not be the largest organization, the team has steadily come together.

Aspirations were set on making this a multi-car team several years ago, but now they have begun to set their sights on making the No. 47 car a top-tier one. Allmendinger is proving he is worthwhile, and the team should improve in 2015. As their alliance with RCR continues, things could go well with the new aerodynamic package that is set to go in place as Allmendinger is a mechanical driver, which is where his talent will come into play once again like the road courses. 

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.

2015 Preview:

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. 

2014 can be summed up in one phrase for Chip Ganassi’s organization: the best of the rest. After missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup with Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray, they finished 17th and 18th in points, respectively. However, the sub-par finish in the standings certainly does not show the progress this Chevrolet team made in 2014.

After Juan Pablo Montoya announced he was leaving Ganassi for Team Penske’s IndyCar Series team, there were multiple candidates to replace the vacant seat. While plenty of veteran drivers were available, Ganassi selected Larson to pilot the No. 42 car with backing from Target. Although plenty of media members, including myself, had plenty of doubts of Larson’s capabilities in a Sprint Cup Series ride considering he wasn’t able to win a Nationwide Series race in his rookie year in that division, he proved us all wrong in 2014.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year was on pace to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and would have finished the year inside of the top-13 in points if it weren’t for the new format. However, that cannot take away from his impressive results, which included a runner-up finish at Auto Club Speedway during the fifth race of the season. He had another second-place finish at Loudon in the fall, but failed to win a race in his first year. With eight top-fives and 17 top-10s, Larson was the strongest Rookie of the Year since Denny Hamlin in 2006.

Getting adjusted to the Cup Series was tough for Larson. But compared to the large rookie class in 2014, he did rather well. Austin Dillon, who brought back the No. 3 car for Richard Childress Racing, entered the season as the favorite to win Rookie of the Year after taking over Kevin Harvick’s ride. Moreover, Larson and crew chief Chris Heroy clicked better than expected, which led to him leading 53 laps, including a season-high of 20 at Chicagoland Speedway in the summer.

McMurray showed just as much, if not more speed than Larson, throughout the 36-race season. The 13-year Sprint Cup Series veteran had seven top-fives and 13 top-10s in 2014, but he led 368 laps. With a best finish of third at Charlotte in October, the No. 1 team was not able to get the job done. They had plenty of speed, and had a solid shot at winning multiple races in 2014, yet his car just lost the handle to it late in events.

A common pattern from McMurray’s cars over the course of the year saw this team start our poorly in a race, then start running top-five laps times, but they fell off in the last 50 or so laps. This was shown at Martinsville, Bristol, Kansas, Chicago and Charlotte. But McMurray just couldn’t seal the deal, and that gave him an average finish of 16.2 on the year.

Crew chief Keith Rodden clearly made a difference for this team. Moving over from Hendrick Motorsports, he took the job at Ganassi after McMurray struggled in 2013 with just nine top-10s. After the team swapped to Hendrick Motorsports engines in 2013, they didn’t have the right aerodynamic package to go along with the upgrade in horse power. However, Rodden brought experience from Hendrick, which ended up being a key difference maker in McMurray’s season.

2015 Preview:

There is a lot of change going on at Ganassi. Target has opted to put an end to their funding of Tony Kanaan’s IndyCar ride and instead – they are enumerating their money to Larson’s program. This will evidently give a boost to the Cup Series team as a whole, especially since they’ll be receiving a few extra bucks to develop more competitive cars.

The team lost LiftMaster to Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 team, but that’s not all they lost to Hendrick.

After rumors had Kenny Francis moving away from the pit box in 2015, Hendrick recently announced that Rodden will take over as Kahne’s crew chief. The change could have been drastic for the No. 1 team, but Ganassi has signed formed Robert Yates Racing developmental driver Matt McCall to become McMurray’s crew chief. McCall has been racing at the short track level for the past few years, but he became an engineer within Richard Childress Racing.

Although this will be McMurray’s third crew chief in as many years, he is looking to build on the momentum he had from the 2014 season. He’s expected to have one of his strongest years since he joined the team, yet he’s going to have to get a victory early in the year in order to build more confidence, which he was fortunate to have with Heroy.

As for Larson, there is nothing stopping him from getting at least one or two wins in 2015. The soon-to-be father is moving into a new house, and his prestige is on the rise. There won’t be any major changes to his team, and if he makes the Chase, he should be a top contender for the championship.

Hendrick Motorsports’ season could be described in one word – disappointment. None of their four cars made the final round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup after entering the season with high expectations. However, in the midst of some tough luck throughout the year, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jimmie Johnson were able to record eight wins between the two.

Earnhardt, Jr. started off 2014 with a bang – winning his second career Daytona 500. The momentum carried over throughout the first half of the year, and he was able to sweep the Pocono races. For the first time since 2004, he had a multi-win season, which was a key to the mindset of the No. 88 team.

Working with Steve Letarte for the final year, the two were deemed for success. Earning 12 top fives and 20 top 10s on the year, he was on track to contend with teammate Jeff Gordon for a championship. However, with three consecutive finishes of 20th or worse in the midst of the Chase, Earnhardt, Jr. missed the cut for the third round. Although he came back to win the next race at Martinsville, the disappointment of not finishing in the top five in points for the second straight year was immense.

The chemistry between the two finally paid off in 2014, but it wasn’t enough for them to win a championship. Earnhardt, Jr.’s No. 88 Chevrolet led at least one lap in 17 events this year, which tallied up to a total of 383 laps led – the most for him since his first year at Hendrick. But inconsistency prior to the Chase destroyed the momentum that he had as the competition began to catch up with Hendrick’s pure speed.

As for Johnson, 2014 was one he would love to forget. Or maybe not.

Finishing a career-low 11th in points, the six-time champion had the worst year in 13 full-time seasons in NASCAR. Although he scored four wins like Earnhardt, Johnson’s luck deteriorated over the course of 2014. What seemed like his usual summer drought became more than that. Spanning Daytona in July to Watkins Glen in mid-August, he had five finishes of 14th or worse.

His luck changed just in time for the Chase, yet the speed that the No. 48 team had earlier in the season was not seen in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. Besides leading 21 laps at Michigan, Johnson failed to run up front spanning Bristol until Charlotte. The stretch of races eliminated him from the Chase at the same time as the No. 88 team. Johnson scored a win in dominating fashion at Texas late in the year, which helped him become the seventh driver in the sport’s history to do so. But that was the lone bright spot of his Chase efforts.

Throughout the season, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus experienced plenty of drama. The two have worked together since 2002, and they have been able to overcome all types of adversity. However, Johnson was adamant to reporters asking about a possibility that Knaus would oversee another driver’s car in 2015. Hendrick had plenty of reasons to find a new crew chief for Johnson, but the win at Texas showed they still have what it takes to be successful given the right circumstances. 

2015 Preview:

The 2015 rules package should provide Hendrick Motorsports with multiple advantages. As the largest and most successful team in the sport, they have more resources to help out with the only testing coming from the Goodyear tire tests. However, Earnhardt will have a new crew chief in Greg Ives, which could create a rough start for the No. 88 team.

With the no testing policy going into place for the new season, the duo will have limited time to gel at the intermediate tracks. However, with a similar personality to Letarte, Ives and Earnhardt should click very well. After having one of the best seasons of his career, he’s expected to run inside of the top 10 on a consistent basis; picking up from where he left off in 2014.

As for Johnson, he will be a championship contender once again. Although this past season didn’t go as planned, the No. 48 team showed they have what it takes to win. Knaus is always ahead of the competition when a new package is released, which should give them an advantage in 2015. Besides the new rule’s package, the two have a great incentive to win, and that’s to prove people wrong like they have in the past.

Johnson had career-lows in top fives and top 10s and average finish in 2014, but 2015 should see more success for the Lowe’s team. He ended the year on a high note, and Hendrick is deemed for success with their 2015 lineup. 


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