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Harvick and heartbreak, an unforgettable season

Here’s a look back at the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season:

Driver of the year

Kevin Harvick and new crew chief Rodney Childers by far had the fastest car all season, even if they were unable to cash in on the wins early in the year to prove it. Still, Harvick ended up with five victories, including the most important of his career – in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which gave him his first series championship.

Harvick led 2,137 laps – 597 more than his nearest competitor, Brad Keselowski – and ended the year with a series-high eight poles. Harvick’s championship is the second for Stewart-Haas Racing in the past four years.

Team of the year

They didn’t come away with the championship but Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Keselowski combined to win 11 of the 36 races this season and both qualified for the Chase. Logano did advance to the final four in the championship race but was beset but problems on pit road that derailed his title bid. Logano ended up fourth in the series standings and Keselowski was fifth.

Race of the year

It’s hard to argue with the season finale, which saw four title contenders battle for the championship based simply on their finish in the Ford 400 at Homestead. The race itself lived up to expectations as all four title contenders ran up front throughout the race. In the final eight laps, Harvick drove to the front on new tires and held off a spirited challenge from Ryan Newman to win the race and the title.

Runner-up race of the year

One new element to the Chase this season was the ability of drivers in each of the three, three-race segments to automatically advance to the next round if they win one of the races.

Making the fall race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway one of the cutoff races was entertaining enough, but the racing itself added even more drama. Keselowski’s victory postponed his elimination from the Chase while Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch all saw their title hopes disappear.

Quote of the year

“The whole retirement thing I think is thrown out there too much, and I’m probably somewhat to blame, but there’s no secret, I’m going to be 43 this year, but, man, if 43 is like this, I can’t wait for 50.” – Jeff Gordon

Gordon had one of his most competitive seasons in years and was in the thick of the championship hunt before missing the cut after the ninth race of the Chase.

Biggest story

Tony Stewart dominated the headlines from start to finish in 2014 but not for any NASCAR accomplishments. Stewart began the year still on the recovery path from a dirt track racing accident in 2013 that left him with two broken bones in his right leg. Stewart was cleared to race two days before the Sprint Unlimited in February at Daytona.

Then in August, Stewart came under investigation by the Ontario County (N.Y.) Sheriff’s Department after a sprint car he was driving in a Aug. 9 race in upstate New York struck and killed driver Kevin Ward Jr., who was walking on the track while the race was under caution. A grand jury ultimately declined to indict Stewart in the incident.

Runner up biggest story

On the track at least, NASCAR’s new Chase format was the talk of the season and it lived up to its expectations. The elimination format brought a whole new level of attention from fans and a spike in competitive juices from the competitors. The winner-takes-all season finale had many skeptics but it proved an exciting exclamation point to the season.

Late breaking story

While not totally unexpected news, the timing of the announcement on Dec. 16 by Sprint that it would not renew its sponsorship of the Cup series after 2016 certainly came as a surprise and will present NASCAR will a big challenge in the coming year.

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