Record-breaking year: 2014 NASCAR season off to flying start
There is no question about it — we are three races into the 2014 season and every week there seems to be a new record of some kind. Daytona brought us the return of the No. 3 and it won the pole position. At Phoenix a couple weeks ago, we had a new track record. Then this past weekend at Las Vegas, not only did we break the track record, but we broke the record for the race speed — 154.6 mph was the average speed for the 400 miles at Las Vegas.
Last week, I talked to you about how everyone was having fun. I am thinking this week the word is fast. Maybe Kevin Harvick’s sponsor sums it up the best because they have freaky fast on the side of his car and, guess what? Kevin is freaky fast. I’ve said it before that these are the fastest cars in the history of our sport. They have to be, or we wouldn’t be breaking all these records, right?
As I say over and over again, downforce is a driver’s best friend and NASCAR keeps tweaking the rules to give them more of it. Downforce is security. Security gives you the confidence to haul that car down in the corner and get underneath someone. If you take the downforce away, then these drivers would struggle to drive these cars.
Two weeks ago, Kevin dominated at Phoenix, but that is only a small part of the story. There was some incredible racing all the way back through the field. Then Sunday, we didn’t see anyone dominate at Las Vegas. Ten different drivers led that race at one point or another. All through the field there was some really wild racing going on.
I saw drivers going three- and four-wide at times. They were bumping and grinding on each other coming off of Turn 4. Obviously, some teams have very quickly gotten a handle on the new no-ride height rule. Trust me, it is different. Obviously, the Penske cars, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and we should add Kevin Harvick in the No. 4 car is the ones that have really gotten a jump on it ahead of the rest of the field.
We are three races in and it’s been a blazingly fast start to the season. That No. 88 car is definitely leading the way there. Do you realize that right now Dale Jr.’s average finish is 1.6? If he can pull off another Top 2 finish this weekend at Bristol, he joins very, very rare air. He’ll be sharing air with Richard Petty.
Only Richard Petty, in the entire history of our sport, has started the season with four straight Top 2 finishes. He did it back in 1974. So Dale Jr. is doing things that he has never done before. Collectively, these teams are doing things with these cars they have never done before.
Obviously, the driver that had the best weekend of all at Las Vegas was, hands down, Brad Keselowski. He sat on the outside pole for the Cup race. He held off Kyle Busch and won the Nationwide race. Then he won Sunday as Dale Jr. ran out of gas coming to the line. I’ve said this before but he and his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, are the Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus of the future.
The chemistry and level of trust these two have with each other is what championships are made of. I love the way they believe in each other. If you get a chance, listen to their radio communication during a race. It’s like two friends having a conversation. There’s a trust and belief in each other.
Brad will be the first one to tell you that last year was a miserable year for him. He started the season off on the wrong foot and got in hot water with NASCAR for comments he made to the media. He was our defending champion and missed the Chase. He just seemed to struggle all year both on and off the track.
Well, there is that old cliche you hear us use a lot — "My, what a difference a year makes." We’re only three races into the 2014 season and Brad’s season is already completely different. He’s already got a pole and outside pole under his belt. He has a Nationwide win and a NASCAR Sprint Cup win. As if it couldn’t get any better than that, he also knows this year, with the win Sunday at Las Vegas, he will be in the 2014 Chase. Gone are all the questions of will he or won’t he be able to make the Chase. That’s a lot of pressure off his and this team’s shoulders, again only three weeks into our season.
I think we also saw Sunday where the new rule changes for 2014, once again, have put the emphasis on winning. Dale Jr. already has his win from Daytona. He, like Brad, knows he’ll be in the Chase. When it came down to the end of the race, Dale Jr. knew they were going to be just a bit short on fuel. Crew chief Steve Letarte had warned him about it. Dale tried to save where he could.
The over-riding mentality was trying to win the race. A gamble when you can’t win is a bad gamble. However, a gamble where there is even a chance it might pay off, when the risk is worth the reward, is a gamble worth taking. The No. 88 tried it. Sure, they failed but they failed going for the win. You can’t ask more of that from your favorite driver and team.
I was also very happy for Paul Menard and crew chief Slugger Labbe on Sunday. They started in the middle of the field. They raced their way to the front. They led some laps and came home with a great third-place finish. Even better than all that, Paul got to get out of Las Vegas and get home for the birth of his child.
I speak from personal experience that it’s the most important thing a man can do. You can win a race and win a trophy. That’s one thing because that’s your job. The best trophy you will ever hold is that little baby.
So three races in and it’s been an awesome start to the season. The changes to the car, the Chase and the changes to qualifying have really made things exciting in our sport again. Oh, and speaking of qualifying, trust me, if you want to see an absolute madhouse and you want to see a bunch of drivers who don’t have a friggin clue about what is going on, be sure to tune in for qualifying from Bristol on FOX Sports 1.
So we’ve had three races — three different pole winners and three different race winners. These fast cars are headed to the world’s fastest half-mile racetrack. Again, like it says on Kevin Harvick’s car — look for this weekend at Bristol to be freaky fast.