With most of the night’s superlatives garnered by six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, perhaps the most adrenaline-inducing moment of Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 came from a tire on pit road.
On the 232nd lap, the right rear of Paul Menard’s Chevrolet started ejecting sparks and small, flaming bits of rubber. By the time the car reached the No. 27 team’s pit stall, the right rear tire was fully engulfed in flames.
Seconds later the tire exploded, unleashing a shower of debris and clouds of black smoke.
Rear-tire changer Aaron Smith, who was just a mere feet away from the explosion, walked away spooked but unscathed.
“I’m fine, but if I had been in front of [the wheel] like I normally am, it would have killed me,” Smith said. “It blew the axle out, the hub off, everything.
“It about blew the glasses off my face.”
Smith’s job would typically have been to change the flaming tire, and he rushed into position as the car pulled into the stall. But the fire was so hot that the wheel was softened and began bending in half. It was at that point that Smith thought it would be wiser to wait to change the tire until the fire was put out by his fellow crew members with extinguishers.
Before the race had ended, Menard’s crew had already placed the car in the team’s hauler. Evidence of the carnage was all over the vehicle, from char marks on the wheel well to a frosty white coating left over from the fire extinguishers.
“That’s the worst ordeal I’ve been through on a racetrack, and I’ve been doing this for 16 years,” Smith said.
“I’ve been in three or four fires, but this one is the worst. There were parts flying everywhere.”
Smith, who has been with Richard Childress Racing since 2003, said the fire started when rubber from the cut tire wrapped around the rear end housing.
The crew cleared most of it away during a previous pit stop, but the remaining rubber created so much friction that it combusted.
Despite entering Sunday’s race mathematically viable at third in the point standings, Kevin Harvick was largely a championship afterthought as Matt Kenseth jockeyed for position in case Johnson encountered trouble.
But after clinching third place in the Sprint Cup standings with a 10th-place finish at Homestead, Harvick was seen with a grin on his face.
“I’m happy with everything that we have been able to accomplish as a group,” Harvick said.
“We had a great year knowing what the circumstances were and we have won a lot of races — a lot of the marquee races.”
The third-place standings finish ties Harvick’s career high, also accomplished in 2010 and 2011, and he finished the year with four wins and nine top-five finishes.
Harvick has finished in the top 10 in seven of the past eight Sprint Cup standings.
The greatest driver to never win a NASCAR championship treated Sunday’s season finale as if it were the last race of his career.
Mark Martin currently has no plans to race next year. If he follows through, it will end a career that began with his 1981 Cup debut and covered 40 victories and five runner-up finishes in the championship standings.
“For nearly 40 years I have measured myself against the best stock car drivers of the era,” he tweeted early Sunday. “It’s been [(hashtag] 1HellOfaRide.”
Martin has not used the word retirement in discussing his future plans, but he said he’s turned down every driving offer brought to him for 2014 and just needs some time away right now.