By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Even through the glass windows of the luxury suites at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the loud blast sounded like the explosion of an artillery shell.
In reality, what happened on Lap 232 of Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race was the detonation on the right rear tire on Paul Menard's No. 27 Chevrolet.
The force of the explosion blew the entire wheel assembly off the car and engulfed the crew in black smoke.
The trouble for Menard began with a Lap 194 restart, when the outside line stalled. Menard rammed series champion Jimmie Johnson and in turn was hit from behind, sustaining damage to the rear of his car.
"On that restart, everybody kind of checked up, and we got some right rear damage and had a flat tire," Menard explained. "I guess a bunch of rubber got wrapped up underneath around the axle. Came in a couple of times trying to fix the damage and try to get the rubber off. We didn't get it all, and I guess it just caught fire.
"I didn't really know it until there was a little bit of a spark coming in the car and landed on the window net; thought that was kind of weird. About a lap later they said I was on fire; I lost my brakes, then the damn wheel blew right off."
Menard was unhurt, and several of his crew members narrowly escaped injury from the flying wheel, but the car was done for the night.
Ricky is top rookie
Though Ricky Stenhouse Jr. didn't enjoy as much success as he might have liked in 2014, his performance was strong enough to secure Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors.
Stenhouse, who finished 22nd Sunday, beat out girlfriend Danica Patrick for the recognition as top rookie in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
"It means a lot, looking at all the other names that have won this award," Stenhouse said. "It definitely wasn't the season that we wanted, but we slowly but surely got a little bit better throughout the season. I was proud of what we did, of getting better, qualifying better, having runs up front, leading laps throughout this year. I thought we had a chance at winning some races there, at least being in contention. I was proud of those moments.
"All in all, it was a huge learning experience. Thankful we made it through; it's behind us now. We can move on to next year, look on improving every spot at every track that we can in the final points standings."
The end of several eras
Nine drivers in Sunday's race either raced for the last time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series or for the last time in their current rides.
Ken Schrader, who recently announced his retirement from NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, ran 34th. Mark Martin, in his last race as a substitute for injured Tony Stewart, came home 19th.
Kevin Harvick, in his last race for Richard Childress Racing before moving to Stewart-Haas Racing next year, finished 10th and held third place in the final series standings. Ryan Newman, moving from Stewart-Haas to RCR in 2014, ran 17th.
Juan Pablo Montoya finished 18th in his swan song for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Montoya will drive for Penske Racing in the IndyCar Series next year. Kurt Busch came home 21st in his final race for Furniture Row Racing; Busch, like Harvick, is bound for Stewart-Haas next year.
Jeff Burton rolled home 23rd in his last race for RCR. Dave Blaney was 38th in his final event for Tommy Baldwin Racing.
And Martin Truex Jr. finished his career at Michael Waltrip Racing in style, with a fourth-place result. He'll move on to Furniture Row next year.
"I wish we could have got it figured out a little bit earlier," said Truex, who was strongest at the end of the race. "I just can't thank all these guys enough -- Michael (Waltrip, team owner) and Rob (Kauffman, team owner) and NAPA and Toyota and everybody that has made it possible the last four years to have such a good time, make the Chase and the win at Sonoma this year.
"All the things we did together were special, and (I'm) going to miss these guys and hopefully see them around a lot next year."