Monday December 22nd, 2014

We laughed, we cried, we turned stoplight red when our favorite team found disappointment on the track. And now that all the world’s major racing series have parked themselves for the winter, it’s time to take stock of the year's best moments and celebrate the many events and characters that make motorsports such a rewarding spectacle:

Best race

Three were many worthy nominees, and all were Sprint Cup races. There was the Cheez-it 355 at The Glen, in which A.J. Allmendinger valiantly out-dueled Marcos Ambrose down the stretch for his first checkered flag in nine seasons of Cup racing. But that exciting finish came after a pair of red flags that drew out the race for more than an hour and 20 minutes.

Then there was the fall Talladega event, which is now a Chase transfer race. It saw Brad Keselowski—with the 43rd position on the grid and virtually no friends other than Penske teammate Joey Logano in the traffic ahead—dodge disaster and claw his way to the top of the grid. It ended with Keselowski getting a boost from Logano (who had won two weeks earlier at Kansas) in the form of a push on a late restart to seal the victory and a spot in the next round. It was bottom-of-the-ninth drama, to be certain, and exactly the kind of moment that Brian France & Co. had envisioned when they retooled the Chase.

And it might well have gone down as the race of the year if the Chase's final four at Homestead hadn’t been even more stirring. Here you had four finalists—Logano, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin—racing for the highest stakes, challenging for front row positioning for most of the race and sweating out every pit stop (which, alas, did not always go so well for Hamlin and Logano). In the end there was Harvick, who had the strongest car all day, rallying on a restart to claim the championship. More than just a good race, Homestead was a great showcase for a sports championship, period. But since we don’t offer that prize yet, this one will have to do for now.

Weirdest race

This one’s easy—Richmond. It had been billed as a bit of a Chase taster, one that might offer a whiff of the desperation that was likely to be in evidence in a tweaked and untested playoff format where winning was now everything. Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer and Kyle Larson were just a sampling of the bubble-dwellers who many thought were capable of locking up a playoff spot with a win on the 3/4-miler. As for the year’s other non-winners? Well, they’d be going for broke.

What happened? Keselowski did something he says he almost never does—dominate a race. Jimmie Johnson did something he has certainly never done in public—pass out from exhaustion (in this case, because his in-car ventilation system had been blowing hot air all evening long). And then there was that lonely, half-naked fan who observed most of the race while perched on the Turn 4 catch fence like a red-breasted robin until officials brought out the caution flag with 69 laps to go and removed him. A surreal night, indeed.

Most winsome breakout star

Chris Trotman/Getty Images

In a year that offered many—from Sprint Cup rookie of the year Kyle Larson to 18-year-old Nationwide series champ Chase Elliott to Aussie F1 sensation Daniel Ricciardo—the nod, controversial though it might be, goes to IndyCar’s James Hinchcliffe. Really, he’s more of a party bus driver than a race car driver. The 27-year-old brews his own beer, owns a quartet of pet parakeets and has a dry-witted, laid-back vibe that has gained him a great following on social media. This particular province—what particular pieces of turf are called in his native Canada—is better known as Hinchtown, and there they refer to him by title: The Mayor.

Although 2014 wasn’t Hinch’s best season with Andretti Autosport, he’s had a great three-year run, scoring seven podium finishes—three of them on the top step. Next year he’ll join Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports and fill the seat vacated by Simon Pagenaud, who moves on to Penske. If the season that Pagenaud just had (two wins, one pole and a shot at the series title) is any indication, Hinchcliffe could be in for one heckuva ride. Hinchtownies would be wise to buckle up.

Juiciest beef

Tom Gandolfini/AFP/Getty Images

No question, this was an epic year for feuds in NASCAR—and all thanks to Brad Keselowski. In just the last three months he singlehandedly sparked rows with Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, and Jeff Gordon. (Shoutout to Harvick, an MMA manager by avocation, for pushing that clash from heated argument to all-out fracas.) And Keselowski would claim this prize hands down if it were awarded to the season’s Biggest Heel, which he played to the hilt.

For this meatier category, we had to go a cut above—to those beloved track snobs in F1 where the drama between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg was science fiction strange. As kid racers they forged a bond across a yawning divide. (The biracial Hamilton grew up in an English working class town just north of London, while the Finnish-German Rosberg followed his rich and famous F1 driver dad Kiki all over the world.) As Mercedes teammates they’d forget about all that.

The worst memory belonged to Hamilton, who stopped short of calling Rosberg "soft "and accusing F1 of grooving the schedule—which included a finale in Abu Dhabi worth double the points—for the benefit of Kiki’s kid. Ultimately, the downforce was with Hamilton; in 2014, he notched career bests in laps led (495), poles (seven) and wins (11, the last coming rather easily in Abu Dhabi) on the way to claiming a second driver’s championship to go with the one he won as an F1 sophomore in 2008.

Yes, the saga dragged in parts, but in time it would reinforce a cardinal racing truth—that friendship has no place on the track.

Best supporting cast

Jerry Markland/Getty Images

Who was better than the crew behind the No. 31 Chevy of Ryan Newman? No one that’s who. For the season, Newman led 41 laps, ranked 21st in green-flag passes and did not win a race. His average start-finish was 13.3 to 12.7. For reference on that last stat, Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick’s was 9.1 to 12.9.

But not only did Newman cruise right along and make the Chase, he endured all the way until the final where he trailed Harvick across the start-finish line by just half a second. That margin only becomes narrower once his crew, led by 31-year-old chief Luke Lambert, is properly accounted for. Without their quality work—especially on restarts and pit stops, where their fast toil helped make up a lot of positions on the grid—Newman would not have ended his rookie season at Richard Childress Racing on the highest note of his 15-year career. With a bit more oomph under the hood, this team could soar to even higher heights in 2015.

Best owner

Roger Penske conquered the business world by following his love for racing

This goes without saying, partly because we’ve already said it: Roger Penske didn’t just stand out among his oil-stained counterparts. He was the best owner in sports bar none. He proved as much in the results he earned on the track (22 wins, a Team Penske best) and in Detroit—a downtrodden city that he is determined to rehabilitate.

One thing, we did neglect to mention while submitting Penske for higher office was how supportive the Captain is of his drivers, Keselowski in particular. All Keselowski did was embrace NASCAR’s rebooted cost ethos (#winatallcosts) and suffer the wrath of his fellow drivers for doing so. But all the while Penske remained firmly in his corner and, at one point, said Keselowski's rivals were jealous of his prosperity.

Given that Keselowski won a Cup series-high six races, there could be some truth to that. And to hear Logano, who added a career-high five wins of his own, one man set the tone for all of that success. “He gives us all the tools we need to go out there and win,” he said of Penske. “That’s all you can ask of an owner, right?”

Most handsome couple

Ralph Lauer/AP

With apologies to NASCAR’s Odd Couple (Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus), NASCAR’s It Couple (Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) and the Brickyard’s reigning prom king and queen (Sage Karam and Anna de Ferran, daughter of 2003 Indy 500 winner Gil), there was only one choice for this honor: Graham Rahal and Courtney Force. He is the son of open-wheel legend Bobby Rahal, winner of the 1986 Indy 500. She is the daughter of drag racing king John Force, the winner of just about everything there is to win in NHRA. Both are 25 and making names for themselves in their respective family businesses. This is too big to fail.

It has been ever since the kid racers’ courtship began a year ago after they met on Twitter and then on the set of the Late Show with David Letterman—who is, incidentally, the co-owner of Rahal’s team. But the pressure hasn’t gotten to them, perhaps because it’s so small compared to the kind they face on the job and handle with so much ease. While Rahal reached a podium for a fourth straight year, Force grabbed four checkered flags and finished fourth in the final points standings—two spots behind her famous father.

And then last week, her year got even better. While vacating in Venice with her favorite IndyCar driver, Courtney was surprised by a marriage request. She said yes. A formal announcement quickly followed through the appropriate social media channels. It happened so fast, which is about par for racing’s ranking Power Couple.

Most dumbfounding rant

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

In a sport where competition is ever steep, the only frontrunner you can depend on is Bernie Ecclestone. The F1 impresario is 81 years old and if the sport he oversees, which came of age in 1950, were a child, Ecclestone would be old enough to have fathered it. The fact that F1 is not a child but, in fact, an ever growing sport with a constant need for sustenance, doesn’t stop Ecclestone from thinking that he’s the only one who knows what’s best for it.

Last month, in an interview the magazine Campaign Asia-Pacific, Ecclestone was asked about social media strategy, a key cog in just about every sport’s marketing effort. He said this:

“I’m not interested in tweeting, Facebook and whatever this nonsense is. I tried to find out but in any case I’m too old fashioned. I couldn’t see any value in it. And, I don’t know what the so-called ‘young generation’ of today really wants. What is it?”

The interviewer, presumably after resetting her face, went on to ask Ecclestone if he saw any worth in a young audience. He said, in part, this:

“Now you’re telling me I need to find a channel to get this 15-year-old to watch Formula 1 because somebody wants to put out a new brand in front of them? They are not going to be interested in the slightest bit.

“Young kinds will see the Rolex brand, but are they going to go out and buy one? They can’t afford it. Or our other sponsor, UBS—these kids don’t care about banking. They haven’t got enough money to put in the bloody banks anyway.

“I’d rather get the 70-year-old guy who’s got plenty of cash. So, there’s no point in trying to reach these kids because they won’t buy any of the products here and if marketers are aiming at this audience, then maybe they should advertise with Disney.”

You can practically smell the mothballs coming off of this grumpy old man digression. It’s an opinion that would be right at home in a Renaissance era newsletter, where his un-ironic use of the phrase “so called ‘young generation’” might pass un-snickered at. It is also an opinion that overlooks a core marketing truth about kids these days: They’re more effective and more aggressive about spending their money than their parents are.

What’s more, their access to money only figures to improve as, you know, they grow up and get jobs and such. Perhaps that’s why every other sport on earth hooks into the young early—because they’re the TGV of gravy trains. The stops are few and far between.

Ecclestone? He must not spend much time roaming the malls of Abu Dhabi and Bahrain. If he did, he’d probably come across more than a few kids whose Rolexes are nicer than his.

Shrewdest movers

Tony Stewart-Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy leaves many unanswered questions

NASCAR’s Stewart-Haas Racing team takes this category, but just barely. Their margin of victory might’ve been wider if two of the four drivers in their garage, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch, hadn’t found controversy away from the track: Stewart's tragic dirt track accident that took the life of driver Kevin Ward Jr.; Busch accused of domestic violence by his former girlfriend. SHR's oversight of Danica Patrick and Kevin Harvick, however, is worthy of special commendation.

All Patrick did was post personal bests in top 10s (three), lead a couple of races, and assert herself as a superspeedway demon on the way to her finest season since joining the Sprint Cup series in 2012. Harvick? He was a free agent pickup surrounded by a crew that hadn't really worked together before. When their disjointed chemistry threatened to prevent a deep run in the Chase, which Harvick earned with a pair of wins, Stewart (who was out of title contention) traded his pit crew (with whom he’d won a championship in 2011) for Harvick’s group.

The results—two poles and three wins, including a pair to close out the season—were staggering. One shudders to think how good this franchise could be once it gets its whole act together.

Best case scenarios for 2015

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Think of this section as the part of the awards show that falls just short of primetime stage placement (you know, for categories like sound mixing and makeup and hairstyling), except with a bit more heft. After all, we’re predicting the future here—or, at least, a more perfect vision of it. Among the things that would be in everyone’s best interest to see down the road:

• Chip Ganassi Racing stages an IndyCar comeback. An engine manufacturer switch and the loss of three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti to injury and retirement threw this front running outfit for a loop. But with three-time series champion Scott Dixon anchoring the garage and ’13 Indy champ Tony Kanaan coming on late, Ganassi Racing seems poised to make 2014—a down year for it—look like an aberration.

More Darrell Wallace Jr. on the weekends: A breakout star in NASCAR’s truck series has signed on with Roush-Fenway Racing.

The Chase plays out exactly as it just did, or better. This year, the struggle was real. You saw it in the raw emotion it brought out of racers, emotion you could see and hear. The great thing about the way the format is set up now? That emotion will be there whether Kevin Harvick repeats as champion or not.

Nico Rosberg avenges his second place finish on the F1 podium. If he doesn’t, his rivalry with Hamilton is as milquetoast as a Bears-Packers matchup. What good is an old rivalry if it’s a nail-hammer one?

 • More folks watch racing. A sport is only as good as its disciples. This holiday season, make it your mission to spread the good word: Motorsports have never been better.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.