Catching up with the NASCAR Next driver
Panel of experts debates the hot topics in NASCAR 1. Now that the season has been completed, what do you think? What stands out about 2014? Alan Cavanna: The Chase and everything surrounding the Chase. It worked out better than expected and I think it's sent the sport in a good direction. Kenny Bruce: It's definitely a long list, some good and some not-so-good. Dale Earnhardt Jr . winning the Daytona 500 , Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger winning for the first time and making the Chase, the excitement of the new format and the intensity that it generated. You had must-win situations for Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick , and they came through. The whole situation surrounding Tony Stewart late in the season will be memorable for all the wrong reasons, unfortunately. But it's become a part of what the '14 season was all about. Zack Albert: So many storylines to choose from and not just with the new-look Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Five guys -- and there for a while, a sixth -- rose to fantastic heights: Kevin Harvick , Brad Keselowski , Joey Logano , Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr . all either enjoyed resurgences or breakout years. The sixth slight nod goes to Jimmie Johnson , who was hot as a firecracker heading into the summer, but wasn't quite up to his usual Chase standards. Cavanna: As a storyteller, I loved the emergence of Brad K. as the "black hat" to some. The only way to really earn that is through great performances. Fans love having someone to hate, and Brad gave them plenty of wins to hate on. Bruce: The more you think about it, the more things slide back into focus, Zack. The Johnson hot streak you mentioned, the post-race altercations at Charlotte and Texas that Alan alluded to. And we haven't even touched Nationwide or Trucks, which had incredible moments as well. A rookie wins the NNS title? The first back-to-back champ in the Truck Series? Albert: I distinctly remember sitting in the Atlanta Motor Speedway media center watching Ryan Blaney and German Quiroga duke it out on the final lap of the trucks' visit to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park . The whole room stopped what they were doing to watch. Between that and the whole aura of Eldora for the second straight year, many great Truck Series memories. Cavanna: I really believe people will be talking about this first Chase, and first championship race, for a long, long time. To have three contenders with three laps to go still racing for a title was unreal. Bruce: Safe to say the season gave us plenty to talk about. But you're probably correct Alan. When it was all over, the new format and the final race seemed to stand above the rest. Albert: Very true. It all played out with a great finish and all four drivers putting in a championship-worthy performance. And whether you love the new Chase or are one of its critics, the bottom line is: Was the racing good? At Homestead and many other tracks week-in and week-out, the answer was yes. Bruce: Now the question is how do they top that, Zack? Albert: Always room for an encore, methinks. 2. Kevin Harvick semi-joked that the Chase format could shorten his career because of the intensity it generated. OK, maybe or maybe not. But will the format adversely impact opportunities for a team to win multiple titles? Will we see more guys in the hunt or domination by those who figure out the best approach? Expect Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus to be better in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup next year, now that they have one year of experience under the format. Cavanna: It's so hard to say because we're dealing with such a small sample size. We all made predictions before knowing how this Chase would work, and we were generally all wrong. Bruce: Generally? How about specifically, Alan? I think I had four different winners in four different Chase brackets and "might" have picked Harvick in one of them. Cavanna: In the end, the most dominant car won. But we also saw how it all came down to one race, and really the final pit stop. That could easily swing a championship, and prevent repeat titles. Albert: The degree of difficulty certainly went up in 2014. But you also have to have the common denominator of performance, year over year, to form a dynasty. Does Harvick have a repeat in him? Absolutely, but some of the new format's nuances can make it tough sledding. It will be interesting to see how teams learn from this first go-round and what the strategies will be for the next Chase episode. Bruce: Listening to post-race comments, Zack, I think you're right. We didn't know what to expect and neither did the teams. I imagine they're already determining what they could have or should have done differently for next year. Albert: Let's hope they can enjoy a little bit of offseason down time before they start number crunching on Chase scenarios. Cavanna: With one Chase to study, I can easily see the No. 48 team planning its strategy for next year. I think teams will take a different approach to ensuring their spot in the final four. Bruce: As far as whether the format favors someone dominating in terms of winning titles, I doubt it. With the elimination races in place, we saw what can happen to even those that were perceived to be the "best" teams. Still, anyone not figuring on Harvick being an early-season favorite should turn in his or her hard card. Cavanna: Once teams "figure it out," I think we could see some teams get good at it. Bruce: Given the format, do we see more "Mark Martin" scenarios? Great drivers who never win a title? Cavanna: That's very possible, Kenny. I feel like every year we'll have a driver who has a Logano-like year, but then just miss it in Homestead. Albert: Not to mention making room for an underdog, a la Newman, in the Championship 4. Bruce: I guess it's a glass half-full or half-empty scenario. Maybe more guys having great seasons that don't win a title, or perhaps the opportunity for more drivers to win it. Albert: Alan's still waiting on his opportunity in a third Penske car. Talk about your Chase bracket buster … Cavanna: My pit crew is stellar! Put me in the race, Captain! 3. OK, we know how 2014 shook out. What’s the outlook for 2015? And by the way, the Daytona 500 is less than 100 days away. Our experts think Kyle Larson makes the postseason next year -- and he may even be a title contender. Albert: Wow. Let me dust off my dart set and start throwing. Bruce: Daytona's rising. That much we know. As for anything else? Lawn Darts, Zack. Go big or go home. Cavanna: The emergence of Kyle Larson will be fun to watch. As long as his team continues to improve, I think he's a lock for the Chase, and a deep run. Albert: A very safe bet that he'll visit Victory Lane on the Sprint Cup side in 2015, probably more than once. Bruce: At least he still has his crew chief, which is more than his teammate can say. Cavanna: I also think some drivers will look at Larson's 2014 season and be even more motivated to get that win. Remember, if Larson had just one regular-season win, it could've been him taking a title in Homestead. No driver will want to be saying "what if" after having a great Chase but not being in it. Bruce: Actually, I think the crew chief movement will play a bigger role in '15. A lot of guys on the box seem to be on the move -- McMurray and Earnhardt Jr. will have new guys in place, we're still waiting to see what unfolds over at Joe Gibbs Racing. Kahne and Kenny Francis are no longer together. Maybe the season-opening question should be, can change top the tried-and-true? Cavanna: Kenseth switched teams and won seven races (in '13); Harvick switched and won a championship. What's next for Carl Edwards ? Albert: Plenty of movement, even though this silly season seems to be sprinkled with less hilarity. I'll be very interested to see if Team Penske can keep it up after a banner season, and how Hendrick Motorsports regroups after going 0-for-4 on title-eligible drivers at Homestead last weekend. Will also be watching to see if Chase Elliott takes those first steps into Sprint Cup, as hinted. Cavanna: We haven't even mentioned the 2015 rules package. The no-ride height made for a big change this season. Next year will be another adjustment, hopefully for the better. Bruce: If that's the case, Alan, then we should probably play close attention to next month's anticipated test at Charlotte. I seem to recall one team being ahead of everyone at that point a year ago ... and look where they ended up. Albert: Who knew that simulated races in December would mean so much? Cavanna: I'm filling out my Chase bracket based on next month's test. MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView
Panel of experts debates the hot topics in NASCAR RELATED: Follow your picks in the Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota 1. After 35 races, nine Chase battles and three rounds of elimination, we're down to just four drivers battling it out for the championship. Gentlemen, in the succinct words of Mr. Albert, "Who ya' got?" Zack Albert: Without trying to overthink, I'm going with Kevin Harvick just based on how solid his team's performance has been, everywhere they've unloaded. Alan Cavanna: I'm sticking with my pick from the NASCAR.com Preview Show . Joey Logano is winning the championship on Sunday. Kenny Bruce: If I were wagering, and just for the record I'm not (yet), I'd go against Kevin Harvick , the favorite of most folks, simply because I like to bet the upsets. I'd go with Ryan Newman , who said Wednesday that it's not a big deal, he only has to beat three other guys right? Who also happen to be among the best in the series. The smart money is on Harvick, though, and I think it's his to lose. I think Joey Logano is equally strong, but Harvick's riding a dominant Phoenix victory, so that's got to be worth something. Don't want to dismiss Denny Hamlin , but I think he and Newman will need the race of a lifetime, or troubles for Logano/Harvick, to walk off with the title. Cavanna: Harvick is the safe pick. He's got all the speed and performance. But I'm thinking yellow flags and restarts toward the end. That's where I think Logano will separate himself from the field. Albert: Nice plug, by the way, Alan. I think Hamlin is a strong second favorite -- he prevailed here last season and has had a rock-solid pit crew all year long. Cavanna: I've heard strong cases for everyone but Newman this week. And Newman's made it clear he doesn't really care what everyone else is saying. Bruce: Hamlin's pit crew has certainly gained him plenty of track position this year, Zack. But I think the rule changes in the offseason pretty much negated any success, or problems, teams had here in the past. 2. Now that we've nearly completed the first Chase under the new guidelines, what, if anything, would you change about the format for 2015? Albert: This is above my pay grade, but given the keys to the postseason system, I'd like to see the rotation of tracks shaken up a bit. Probably still best that we're in the warm-weather climes of sunny South Florida for the finale, but I'd be open to shifting up the 10 races. Bruce: As much as I agree with those who think one season is too soon to start tinkering, I do have an opinion. Of course. I like the win and you're in, then win and you advance aspects. I like that points can keep you going, too. A nice mix. My biggest issue with the format? I think the "must be in top 30 in points to be eligible" is way, way, way too loose. Who fights for 30th place? Who even runs back there? Make it top 20 for those with or without wins. There are usually some pretty decent teams battling around that neck of the woods and I think it would put a little pressure on those teams to step it up. As it stands, you can just show up and be in the top 30. Cavanna: I'd love to see some sort of reward for winning during the Chase that comes into play during Homestead. I fully understand why the rules are the way they are. "Make everyone equal, first one to the finish is the champ," no doing math during the race. BUT, fans are able to deal with that stuff the rest of the year. I think they can handle it during the finale. Harvick and Logano won in the playoff, and while they've been rewarded handsomely, they should be separated from Newman and Hamlin if only by a point or two Bruce: I like your thinking, Alan. Maybe if a Chase driver wins a Chase race, he is locked in final? That would give us a heck of a field. But I haven't thought about the potential problems there. Still ... sounds good on the surface. Cavanna: That's one step further that I thought, Kenny. Not a bad idea. Bruce: I'm putting it in the suggestion box now, Alan. Albert: And is a Chase field of 16 too many or too few? All interesting points, but believe it might be best to let this new format simmer for a while, rather than keep throwing too many tweaks at it in its infancy. Bruce: Agreed, Zack. Pretty easy to say, "Well, you should have done this" after only one year. But who knows how different it might play out in future years if left alone. Cavanna: Good call, Zack. The best thing that can be done is to leave it alone. A change we can all agree on. 3. After Chase drivers dominated the first two rounds, non-Chase drivers took two of the three Eliminator Round wins. Which driver outside the four qualifiers stands the best chance to end the season with a victory? Cavanna: Safe money is on Jimmie Johnson . He and Chad Knaus were down here testing a few weeks ago, said they learned something that helped them dominate Texas. I see it helping here. A not-so-longshot has to be Kyle Larson . This track rewards those who run as wide as possible. That's got Larson written all over it. Bruce: The list of potential winners sure got a lot deeper when we booted Brad Keselowski , Jeff Gordon , Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth to the side last week at Phoenix. I wouldn't be surprised to see Brad or Jeff win this week. If everyone on the outside is still in 2014 mode and not looking ahead to '15, I think Gordon's the guy. I picked him to win the title, missed it there, so I'm hoping to look less wrong with a win by the 24 team. Albert: I'm with you there. Wouldn't be surprised at all to see Keselowski in Victory Lane come Sunday, especially with the Blue Deuce's or White Deuce's (or whichever color is it this week) performance this season on 1.5-mile tracks. Even though they're not in the title hunt, it would be a fairly convincing exclamation point. Cavanna: "Very wrong" is a great way to describe my Chase grid. Bruce: Sounds like a book title: My Very Wrong Chase Grid. We keep mentioning Larson, Alan, and I'm as guilty as anyone. While I think it would be a great story, I think they've leveled off for now. Cavanna: I don't know, guys. This seems like a great environment for someone (cough ... 24) to get some revenge on the (No.) 2 car. Little on the line for those guys now. Bruce: Revenge? Surely not. Maybe NASCAR should have a "payback" race before Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 . The Settle Your Score 150 perhaps? Albert: Or the Eco-Boot, where your rivals are efficiently punted out of the way. Cavanna: Winner gets a spot in the Chase? Ha! Bruce: Maybe someday Alan. But remember, we agreed to leave the Chase unchanged. For now at least. Cavanna: Deal! Bruce: Eco-Boot. Love it Zack. Albert: Where the rivalries have drivers shaking in their Eco-Boots. MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation
Driver finishes 21 points shy of Matt Crafton in 2014 standings HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Midway through the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series finale, a wrench was thrown into Ryan Blaney 's plans for a long-shot title bid. So his team reacted by throwing a wrench into his truck. Blaney responded with a near-seamless charge back to the front in the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway , rallying from a broken shifter for his 12th top-five finish of the year. His fifth-place effort wasn't quite enough to overcome Matt Crafton 's ninth-place run on the way to his second consecutive championship; Blaney wound up 21 points off the top in the final standings. "We didn't finish the year like we wanted to, but we've got to look at the positive side," the 20-year-old Blaney said. "We had a good year and we were in the hunt, and that's all we can look at." The roundabout way to fifth place wasn't without its adventures. When Blaney tried to leave his pit stall during the fourth of seven caution periods shortly after the race's midpoint, the shifter level snapped off, forcing his No. 29 Ford to stall. Once the word spread about the parts failure, his in-truck camera focused in as Blaney held up the broken lever. His Brad Keselowski Racing crew was able to inspect the damage on the SprintVision big screen behind their pit stall. "Luckily, I guess the camera paid off because we had him hold up the piece so we could tell where it broke, how far," said Chad Kendrick, Blaney's crew chief. "We know what it looks like, and we knew depending on where it broke what we needed to do to try to help him out. So we knew how much nub was left and what the size was, so our plan was to try to change it, but we knew we'd lose a ton of track position -- maybe even a lap -- doing it. Then he said he would deal with it, and he did a great job dealing with it, but I don't know how he did that." During the next caution period, they handed Blaney vise-grips, which he fiddled with for almost a full lap under yellow to rig a makeshift lever. Satisfied with his repair, Blaney methodically marched back into contention for the lead, eventually going three-wide up front with Sprint Cup star Kyle Busch and race winner Darrell Wallace Jr . with 15 laps remaining. But Blaney's truck was better suited to longer green-flag runs, and he wound up shuffled back to the bottom of the top five amidst the hard-nosed racing. "It took off a lot better than I thought it was going to at the end for about five or six laps, and then it fell off the way it did," Blaney said. "Took off good, showed some promise, and shame it wasn't a five-lap shootout deal at the end. Just couldn't get it." Blaney and Kendrick debriefed on pit road afterward, eventually joined by their team owner. Keselowski peered into the cockpit to inspect the make-do shifter before congratulating both driver and crew chief on a solid campaign. Kendrick shrugged at the final standings while the fireworks went off in Victory Lane, but he expressed optimism about BKR's outlook while acknowledging Crafton's historic achievement. "You know, a top-five, I can't hold my head down too low," Kendrick said. "We wanted to win the championship. The first thing we had to do was outrun the 88 (Crafton) and we did that all night, but we needed him to have bad luck and it didn't happen. Hats off to those guys -- they ran good all year. We'll come back next year and the team will look a little different, but we'll be back here and try to get Ford some more victories." MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
First K&N Pro Series East victory for NASCAR Next driver comes in front of influential eyes
NASCAR Illustrated's Steven Levine sits down to catch up with NASCAR Next driver, Jesse Little .
NASCAR Illustrated's Steven Levine sits down with NASCAR Nationwide Series rookie Chad Boat to discuss his early racing career, his family's racing legacy and a deal with his mother to continue his education.
Crew chief scuttles notion of friction after Texas victory RELATED: Play NASCAR Fantasy Live " Sign up for RaceView today Fresh off a win atop the pit box for Jimmie Johnson , one of the first questions crew chief Chad Knaus got was about his future with Johnson and the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 team. Knaus quickly squashed talk of him leaving. "I don't foresee a change with the 48 car from a driver or crew chief standpoint in the near future," Knaus said at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday night. "I don't foresee that happening." Johnson also touched on any concerns of friction between him and Knaus after the Texas win. "You guys ask me questions in here about us raising hell with one another on the radio, but that's part of the process," Johnson said in his post-race victory press conference. "That's one thing that has been good about us. We've always been able to be honest with one another and say tough things. Sure, you might not want to hear it, it might sting a little bit. But it's what has kept us together for all these years." Johnson and Knaus have teamed up for six Sprint Cup Series championships and 68 wins (two of Johnson's 70 wins came while Knaus was suspended at the start of the 2006 season), but the partnership has had its moments, including a testy exchange during the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway last month and the infamous "milk and cookies" meeting organized by team owner Rick Hendrick after the 2005 season. Johnson was eliminated from the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup following the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway . The following week at Martinsville Speedway , Johnson said he had no desire to make a change. "When Chad decides he's had enough of being the guy on the box, it'll be his decision to step down. As far as I'm concerned, we've made it 13 years with this thing, and I want to see it go as long as it can. … This is really more of a timeframe when Chad says someday, 'I've put in my time here as crew chief, and I need to slow down a little bit.' " This year has been a bit uneven for Johnson and Knaus. They have four wins, but have not dominated in the fashion that was their trademark in recent years. Johnson will have his fewest top-fives since 2006 and is on pace to lead his lowest total of laps in three seasons. Following three wins in a four-race stretch in late May to mid-June, Johnson went 18 races without a win, one of his lengthier dry spells between visting Victory Lane. Knaus admitted following the Texas triumph that the winless streak had his confidence low. "I hate losing more than I enjoy winning. Obviously going through this stretch has been difficult. We've looked for answers. Haven't found them. We've lifted every stone to try to figure out how to get the 48 car to run a little bit better throughout the course of the season. I think we got blinded a little bit by our own just misguidance. "It was difficult. My confidence was definitely low. I know Jimmie's was definitely low. You know, look, winning cures a lot of things, but the proof is in how we react beyond this point, how we go to Phoenix, how we produce there, how we go to Homestead, how we race there. Those will be the true tales of where we're at." MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule