Jimmie Johnson happy for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ‘awesome start’ in 2014

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Jimmie Johnson has seen a big change in Dale Earnhardt Jr. this season, particularly in confidence.

When things weren’t going so well for Earnhardt in his early tenure at Hendrick Motorsports, Johnson would notice who Junior would withdraw and quietly lament his lack of success, particularly wins.

“I feel that and we are all guilty of it, when things aren’t rolling well and you go multiple races without winning or seasons whatever it might be,” Johnson said. “I think a lot of people look within and kind of shut down and get quiet. I certainly feel like Junior is in that category and maybe more so than a lot of people.

“Just guessing that pressure from fans, pressure that he puts on himself, pressure of his father’s success – a lot of those elements weigh on him heavy and heavier than what a lot of other drivers deal with. Getting to know him so well now, being in the same shop, I could see that effect on him and I have always tried to lighten things up and try to help keep him open and having fun.”

But Junior isn’t withdrawn or quiet any longer, much of which Johnson credits to Steve Letarte, Earnhardt’s crew chief.

“Steve Letarte is greatly responsible for keeping him open and having fun,” Johnson said. “When stuff is not right, Steve does a nice job of, ‘Hey this sucked, let’s move on and do something different.’ That has worked very well for him and has kept his confidence high.”

Johnson said his HMS teammate is as excited and confident as he’s ever seen him, especially after winning the season-opening Daytona 500 and finishing runner-up last week at Phoenix.

“The last couple of races certainly show where his confidence is and what comes with it,” Johnson said. “I can say that throughout all of last year, and even into part of the season the year before were when things really started turning around for him. That success leads to confidence.

“That circle started and they have been building ever since and we have all seen it in his stats and performance. This year he is off to an awesome start.”

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Neuville wins Rally Australia; Ogier takes FIA WRC title

Sebastien Ogier. Photo: Getty Images
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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) Belgium’s Thierry Neuville won Rally Australia by 22.5 seconds on Sunday as torrential rain added drama to the last day of the last race of the World Rally Championship season.

Neuville entered the final day with an almost 20 second advantage after inheriting the rally lead Saturday when his Hyundai teammate, defending champion Andreas Mikkelsen crashed and was forced to retire for the day.

His lead was halved by Jari-Matti Latvala early Sunday as monsoon-like rain made conditions treacherous on muddy forest stages on the New South Wales coast. The rain stopped on the short Wedding Bells stage where Neuville was almost 5 seconds quicker than his rivals, stretching his lead to 14.7 seconds entering the last stage.

COFFS HARBOUR, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 17: Thierry Neuville of Belgium and Nicolas Gilsoul of Belgium compete in their Hyundai Motorsport WRT Hyundai i20 coupe WRC during Day One of the WRC Australia on November 17, 2017 in COFFS HARBOUR, Australia. (Photo by Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images)

That stage was full of incident. The driver’s door on Neuville’s Hyundai i20 coupe swung open in the middle of the stage and Neuville had to slam it closed as he approached a corner.

Latvala’s Toyota then crashed seconds from the end of the stage, allowing Estonia’s Ott Tanak, in a Ford, to take second place overall and New Zealalnd’s Haydon Paddon, in a Hyundai, to sneak into third.

Sebastian Ogier was fourth after winning the final, power stage but the Frenchman had already clinched his fifth world title before Rally Australia began. Neuville’s win was his fourth of the season, two more than Ogier, and was enough to give him second place in world drivers’ standings for the third time in five years.

Ogier owed his drivers’ title to his consistency: he retired only once and finished no worse than fifth all season.

Neuville admitted the last day was touch and go as the rain made some stages perilous, forcing the cancellation of the second to last stage.

“That was a hell of a ride,” Neuville said. “Really, really tricky conditions.

“I kept the car on the road but it was close sometimes. I knew I could make a difference but I had to be clever. You lose grip, you lose control and the car doesn’t respond to your input.”