Motorsports: 2014 in review

Kevin Harvick's first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship was among the highs of 2014

The highs

• Kevin Harvick won his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship under a new Chase playoff format that featured elimination rounds, paring the initial 16-driver Chase field to only four at the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Harvick won that last race to capture the title and he had five wins overall in his first year with the Stewart-Haas Racing team. Many drivers and officials said the knockout-style playoff sharply boosted the intensity and excitement of the Chase.

• Junior Nation had reason to cheer again as Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the season-opening and rain-delayed Daytona 500, the first of four Cup races he would win during the season. That equaled the number of wins Earnhardt had earned in the previous nine years combined. Earnhardt's popularity never wavered during that span, however, and if you needed proof, check out the YouTube clips of fans watching the last laps of the Daytona 500 on television at home and their unrestrained joy when he took the checkered flag.

• Darrell Wallace Jr. and Chase Elliott showed why they're two of NASCAR's most promising young drivers. Elliott, at 18, won the NASCAR Nationwide Series title, becoming the youngest champion in history in NASCAR's three national series (the other one is NASCAR's Camping World Truck Series). Wallace, 21, won four races in the truck series, including a repeat victory in Martinsville, Va., where he had won a year earlier to become the first African American driver to win in one of NASCAR's national series in nearly 50 years.

The lows

• Three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart, while competing in a non-NASCAR sprint-car race on a dirt track in upstate New York, struck and killed a 20-year-old fellow driver, Kevin Ward Jr., who was on foot. Ward had climbed from his car after it crashed following close racing with Stewart on Aug. 9. While walking on the track and gesturing at Stewart, Ward was hit by Stewart as Stewart circled back around. The incident was captured on an amateur video that went viral. A grand jury, after deliberating for less than one hour, did not bring charges against Stewart. After going into seclusion for three weeks, Stewart returned to racing a changed man, saying he was consumed by grief over a tragedy he called "100% an accident."

• Even by NASCAR standards, the Nov. 2 brawl at Texas Motor Speedway was beyond the pale. When Brad Keselowski made a daring move for the lead near the race's end, he cut a tire on Jeff Gordon's car, causing Gordon to spin and finish 29th, a crucial blow to Gordon's Chase title hopes. After the race ended, an irate Gordon approached Keselowski and soon fists were flying between the drivers, their crews and other drivers' crews. NASCAR suspended four crew members from the teams for Gordon and his teammate Kasey Kahne.

• In Formula One's worst accident in two decades, Jules Bianchi suffered severe head injuries during the Japanese Grand Prix at the Suzuka track. The 25-year-old French driver was injured when his car careened off the track at high speed, and in heavy rain, and struck a safety hoisting tractor that was clearing another car from an earlier crash.

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