Top-five most surprising drivers in 2014

Photo by Sarah Glenn/NASCAR via Getty Images
Jeff Gordon leads a pack of cars at Kansas Speedway in October. Our Brandon Caldwell takes a look at the most surprising drivers of 2014 in his latest edition of "Top-five".

By Brandon Caldwell
December 13, 2014



Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.


According to, the dictionary definition of a surprise is “to strike or to occur with a sudden feeling of wonder or astonishment, as through unexpectedness.”

Well that’s what this article is about; five drivers who made you feel that way with the way they raced this year. Now most people would think that this element of surprise as a good thing, for example if a driver surprised you, then it must have been a good thing. But on the contrary, there are two drivers on this list who surprised you the other way, in we thought they would run better than they did, and surprisingly didn’t.

Here’s the list, enjoy.



5) No. 98 Josh Wise

Now most people are probably asking why a driver like Wise is on this list. But I think if you broke down this guy’s season, we didn’t see this one coming at all.

Most fans are probably wondering why a driver who finished 36th in points would be listed, but Wise had a really good season, capped off by being fan voted into the Sprint All-Star race in Charlotte.

Photo by Franklin Romero/
Josh Wise turns laps at Phoenix International Raceway in November.

Wise came to the 98 team after a 2013 season with Front Row Motorsports’ No. 35 car. At the time, it was still uncertain whether or not the reason the 35 car struggled in 2013 was because of Josh Wise, or because of the team itself. We quickly found out the truth.

He began the season with a decent run in the Daytona 500, where he finished a respectable 21st place. But the next top-25 finish for this team is really where fans started to take notice.

It was Bristol, and as we were watching much better teams fall laps down, Wise and the 98 team were on the lead lap, and kept on battling to stay on the lead lap for the majority of the late part of the race. It was very impressive, especially for a team without any sponsorship.

Josh Wise

This was followed three weeks later by a 21st place finish at Darlington, one of the toughest tracks on the circuit. It was clear that this 98 team had a great driver behind the wheel, and a great crew chief in Gene Nead.

The fans were so into this team, that they put together sponsorship from, which is a fan based sponsorship. The fans were so into this team, that they all got together and voted Wise into the Sprint All-Star race, and yours truly was one of the voters. This small team shows social media’s power on the fan base, and that a small team still relates to the fan base in 2014.

We surely didn’t see this coming, and with Wise coming back with this team, in 2015, as first reported here on The Racing Experts, everyone is excited to see what Phil Parsons Racing has in store for 2015. I’m finally sold on Josh Wise, and think he’s one of most talented guys in the garage area. We can only expect more good things in 2015.



4) No. 42 Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson was the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie of the year, and going into the season, we all sort of expected him to win, but I think we all expected a little more competition for the title.

Kyle showed early that he has the tools to win a race, and most people bet he would win before the season ended, which I think shocked a lot of people considering the fact that he is driving a car that hasn’t won on an oval, ever!

There were two to three races over the course of the season that Kyle Larson could have won, and with more experience, probably would have won. That would have been a Chase berth.

Photo by Benjamin Palmer/
Kyle Larson pulls into the garage area at Phoenix International Raceway in March.

I’m not sure if anyone expected Larson to finish ahead of teammate Jamie McMurray in points after only one full season of Nationwide competition before coming to Cup. 

Kyle Larson

But Chip Ganassi made the right move, and Larson is ready for big things in 2015. Look for him to win multiple races in 2015. I know I’m excited for the next big thing in NASCAR; it’s time for everyone to jump on the Kyle Larson bandwagon. But be careful, you’ll be on it for the next 25 years.



3) No. 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Going into 2014, I think the expectations for Dale Earnhardt, Jr were set a lot lower than what we got out of him.

Remember, Junior hadn’t won more than one race in a season since 2004, a full decade of racing without multiple wins, and at the time, we thought he could only win on plate tracks and at Michigan.

Well Dale proved us all wrong in 2014. We went into this season knowing that it was crew chief, Steve Latarte’s final season in the Sprint Cup Series, and I thought that it would hurt his confidence as a driver, and didn’t think at all that he would compete for a championship.

Photo by Benjamin Palmer/
Dale Earnhardt Jr. passes Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at Phoenix International Raceway in March.

The season he had was magnificent, and other than some bad luck, he would have competed for the championship in Homestead. The man could have quit in the final round, but went out and capped off a four win season with a win at Martinsville Speedway, as place he hasn’t won at ever before.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a very surprising season because in the year he turned 40, he had his best season in a decade in a time when most people are on the downward turn of their career, and Junior hit on something. But with a new car chief, and a new crew chief in 2015, maybe expectations should come back down for 2015. We’ll see.



2) No. 43 Aric Almirola

Aric Almirola is next on this list. Aric went into 2015 with more funding and more expectations in 2014. The sponsor, Smithfield, stepped up their sponsorship and expected to make the Chase.

A new crew chief, Trent Owens came up from the Nationwide Series, where he previously worked, and did a very good job for Almirola.

Photo by Benjamin Palmer/
Aric Almirola turns laps at Phoenix International Raceway.

The team’s greatest feat of the season came in the July Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. The race was run on Sunday afternoon due to rain, and rain played a part again in deciding the winner of the race. Many drivers were shuffling back and forth early on in the event, knowing more rain was on the way, that could hamper the finish at the end of the race.

Aric Almirola

Some people liked to discredit Almirola’s win at Daytona because it was rain shortened. But I look at it as not much different than the race ending under caution on the final lap. Drivers knew the rain was coming and it was Almirola and Trent Owens who put themselves in the position to win when the caution flew.

This win propelled them into the Chase. And once the playoffs started, they were looked at as an underdog to advancing. If it weren’t for some bad luck, much like Dale Earnhardt Jr. above, Aric Almirola would have undoubtedly moved on into the next round of the playoffs, and who knows how far he could have gone?

No one saw a Chase berth for Almirola coming, because I’m not sure how many people had him on their list of winners to start the season. Aric Almirola’s Chase berth, and win at the July Daytona race was a surprise to many. We’ll see if he can repeat in 2015.



1) No. 47 A.J. Allmendinger

I remember going to the July 4th Daytona race in 2012. As a frequent visitor to the track, this race felt no different than any other Daytona race that I had been to. But boy did that change quickly. As I got to my seat, I sat down and a “special announcement” by Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s Executive Vice President shocked me, and everyone I was with. He came on the Jumbotron and said that driver A.J. Allmendinger had been suspended indefinitely by NASCAR for using a banned substance. 

Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images
A.J. Allmendinger celebrates his first career win at Watkins Glen International with a burnout in August.

It was a short time later I remember seeing the plane carrying Sam Hornish, Jr from Charlotte, North Carolina to Daytona Beach Airport land just about 20 minutes before the race was supposed to start. That point right there was the lowest point in A.J. Allmendinger’s career. And I wasn’t sure if he would ever recover from that.

Later on that year, Allmendinger was cleared to go racing by NASCAR. He passed all of the protocols and resumed his racing career. The first guy to give him a call was James Finch, of Phoenix Racing.

Photo by Benjamin Palmer/
A.J. Allmendinger salutes the crowd before the March Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway.

One top-25 finish in four races didn’t seem to do too much for Allmendinger’s career. Finally 2012 had ended, and a new light would hopefully be spread for A.J. Allmendinger in 2013.

Three top-20 finishes in his first 5 races of 2013 proved that A.J. was back, and this time, he was for real, destined to put what happened in 2012 in his rear view mirror for good. After those runs with Finch’s team, he got a call from Jodi and Tad Geschickter, co-owners of JTG/Daugherty Racing, to come drive their independent # 47 Toyota for a few races in preparation for 2014. Six top-20 finishes in 9 races, including a tenth place finish at Watkin’s Glen, as well as, two road course victories in the Nationwide Series for Roger Penske showed that Allmendinger had what it took to win, at least on a road course.

When NASCAR announced the new “one win-and-you’re-in” format for the Chase in 2014, JTG/Daugherty Racing took a chance with Allmendinger, hoping that his road course expertise would pay off in the form of a Chase berth. 

A new association with Richard Childress Racing and a switch from Toyota to Chevrolet for 2015 had everything pointing in the right direction for the team.   

One again, Watkins Glen was where it was at for Allmendinger. He went on to win the tricky road course race, and give himself and the team their first ever Chase berth.

There was, and still is a lot of skepticism on whether or not A.J. Allmendinger can get the job done in NASCAR, and whether or not he can be a viable Chase contender for years to come, so this is why A.J. Allmendinger’s 2014 Chase berth, with a small single-car operation was the biggest surprise of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. 

Who was the biggest surprise of 2014?
Josh Wise
Kyle Larson
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Aric Almirola
A.J. Allmendinger
Someone else
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