This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.
Harvick made history Sunday by winning his first Sprint Cup Championship under NASCAR's new elimination format with a victory Homestead-Miami Speedway. The driver won in Phoenix to advance with his championship hopes intact and pulled off consecutive victories the following week to seal the deal. Harvick's Stewart-Haas Racing team had no parts that had been raced prior to this season, and that contributed to some of the team's early mechanical issues, but that didn't prevent them from fielding one of the fastest cars every single week. It was an amazing season from a new team.
The new Chase format that the world just witnessed lived up to all the hype. Emotions of the competitors raced ever higher, and the final four contenders were all consistently at the front of the field in the finale as well. It couldn't have been scripted any better. You had the young Joey Logano who was felled not by his lack of experience, but by an error on pit road. Then Denny Hamlin appeared to be the fastest of the contenders only to fade after making the wrong strategy call in the final laps. Lastly, underdog Ryan Newman, winless all season, likely needed to win to be champion and nearly did just that. Emotions ran high, arguably the best team all season walked away with the Cup, and people are talking more about NASCAR now than in recent seasons.
Kevin Harvick - Harvick pulled off the Phoenix win to put himself in position to fight for the title in Miami, and then scored the ultimate win when it mattered most. The victory in Miami earned him his first championship in the series after arguably being the most fitting candidate all the season. Prior to last week's championship-winning race the No. 4 tallied an impressive four wins, 13 top-5s, and 19 top-10s. He added one more notch to each of those totals with the stellar effort in the finale. Harvick and his team built everything from scratch this season, and consistently fielded the fastest car each week despite that challenge. There is no question that Harvick deserves the 2014 title.
Ryan Newman - Despite not winning in 2014, Newman survived to the title-decider in Miami. He entered last weekend as the underdog that many argued shouldn't even be there. The fact remained that he was there, and he wasn't going to go away either. Throughout most of the race distance Newman was running fourth among the Chase hopefuls, but a two-tire stop in the closing stages put him firmly in contention to score the upset win. The No. 31 didn't have the grip in the closing laps of Harvick's four tires, but he drove the car for all it was worth, narrowly coming up short. He scored four top-5s and 15 top-10s to get to that position, and was one of the most consistent drivers in the field throughout the season.
Denny Hamlin - After an inconsistent start to the 2014 season Hamlin started scoring results just when he needed to. He made it to the final round of the championship despite not starting all 35 prior races, and took a record of one win, seven top-5s, and 17 top-10s all the way to Miami. For much of the race it looked like the championship would be Hamlin's to lose. He was among the fastest from the green flag, and often pulled to the front of the Chase hopefuls. When all was said and done, a gutsy call not to pit before a slew of late restarts proved to be his downfall. The car did not have the grip to contend in the closing laps and Hamlin lost touch of the Cup.
Jeff Gordon - It would be difficult to close the 2014 season without talking about Gordon. The veteran driver pieced together his best season in recent memory, and only failed to remain in championship contention to the end by a single point. That point could have been extra disappointing considering how well Gordon ran in Miami, too. He led 161 of the race's 266 laps, but lost touch with the lead after deciding to pit before the second-to-last restart. Gordon's season was spectacular with four victories, 14 top-5s, and an astonishing 23 top-10s. Before Daytona, Gordon said he would consider retirement if he were to win this season's championship. The good news may be that he didn't, and will be back again in 2015.
Kyle Busch - Busch was the victim of a rear axle failure when he attempted to leave his pit box early in Sunday's championship finale. The car simply lost drive as he exited, and was forced to the garage to see if the team could make the repairs required to get him back on track. The past season was a decent one for Busch, but consistency continued to plague his chances of winning a Sprint Cup championship. He scored one win, nine top-5s, and 15 top-10s this year en route to an appearance in the Chase, but didn't have the top finishes in the knock-out format to survive to the finale in contention. Busch has matured in recent seasons, but continues to be taken down by on-track trouble.
Carl Edwards - Edwards was the first major player to encounter a problem on Sunday. The No. 99 driver, who has such a strong record at Miami, found himself in the wall with significant right-side damage. He was forced to pit to make repairs, but his afternoon was essentially over. It was a disappointing end of an era with Roush Fenway Racing for the veteran. He moves to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2015, and will hope to emulate the success Matt Kenseth had when he made the same move. His final season with Roush produced two wins, seven top-5s, 14 top-10s and an appearance in the new Chase format. Edwards will continue to search for that first Sprint Cup with Gibbs in the seasons to come.
Greg Biffle - A lost right-front tire sent Biffle hard into the wall in Miami. It was a representative end to what has been a largely disappointing season for the No. 16 team. Life in 2014 was no different for much of the Roush organization. Biffle's zero wins, three top-5s, and 11 top-10s were just barely enough to earn a spot in the Chase, but the team did not have the speed to continue forward. Biffle struggled for nearly the entire season, and was eliminated in the first round of cuts. The team has to come back stronger in 2015, which will be difficult without veteran Edwards in the garage to help advance equipment development amongst all of the RFR teams.
A.J. Allmendinger - Allmendinger and his JTG Daugherty Racing team defied all the odds to make it into the 2014 Chase. Unfortunately, contact with the wall in Miami made their last race of an otherwise top season a small disappointment. Allmendinger won a hard-fought battle with Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen International to earn the honor, his first victory in the series. In fact, the entire season was a memorable one for Allmendinger. In addition to the win he added another top-5 and five top-10s to his tally, and was one of the better deep fantasy picks on certain weeks. This team and driver have a lot to be proud of this season, and Miami's finish shouldn't dent their pride.
Marcos Ambrose - Ambrose's Sprint Cup career didn't end the way he had hoped. He went winless in 2014, failing to make the Chase, and lost a tire that sent him into the wall from the 17th position in Sunday's finale. Ambrose scored three top-5s and seven top-10s in his final season in the series, but will take two wins with him to Australia to take on the V8 Supercars with a new entry fielded by Penske Racing. The Tasmanian was a colorful addition to the Sprint Cup driver corps, and was able to race with the best of them, even when the racing was on an oval. Sam Hornish Jr. will take the wheel of the No. 9 in 2015, a long overdue return.
Joey Logano - Logano bagged five wins, 16 top-5s, and 22 top-10s to push himself into the championship finale in Miami, but things didn't go as planned. The No. 22 had never been in that position before, and some questioned whether he had the experience to become champion. It wasn't the driver's experience that eliminated him from contention, though. The car fell off of the jack on a late pit stop that put him deep in the field as others made two-tire stops or stayed out. The mistake torpedoed Logano's hopes late in the race after he did well to race around the top-5 for most of the afternoon. Still, it was a strong season for the team, and more chances will certainly be in their future.