Dale Earnhardt Jr. may have found missing piece to solving Sprint Cup championship puzzle

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For Dale Earnhardt Jr. to become a true championship threat, critics have said for a number of years that he’d have to learn how to master 1.5-mile tracks – particularly since five of the 10 Chase for the Sprint Cup races are on tracks of that distance.

If what he’s done thus far this season is any indication – including his showing in Saturday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway – we may very well start anointing Earnhardt as indeed a true championship threat this season.

In five 1.5-mile races thus far this season, Earnhardt has now recorded three top-fives, including Saturday’s fifth-place finish.

Even better, Earnhardt has recorded a win, three top-fives and two other top-10s in his last seven starts.

It was a true team effort to get Junior that kind of finish, particularly since he started 27th.

“The pit crew did an amazing job tonight,” Earnhardt told TNT after the race. “They were gaining me a number of spots for me every stop.

“Even when we were taking four tires, we were beating a lot of guys off pit road. They’re a great group and deserve a lot of credit.”

Much like the first top-10 finish of his career last week at Sonoma, Earnhardt was a bit surprised at his finish at Kentucky (although he did earn a fourth-place showing there in 2012).

“It was way better today, a lot more fun to drive,” Earnhardt said. “This place is a bit of a handful for me. I don’t know if I have it figured out just yet. I don’t really know exactly what I’m looking for and how I need the car to drive.

“Steve (crew chief Steve Letarte)  and the guys did a good job having to deal with me and putting a good car under me this weekend. It was a lot of fun in the race. Strategy was great in the race. Steve’s fuel strategy gave us a lot of good track position.”

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F1 tests: Mercedes innovates with wheel adjustment system

Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images
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MONTMELÓ, Spain — Veteran Kimi Raikkonen set the fastest time on the second day of Formula One preseason testing on Thursday, but Mercedes still garnered more attention by introducing an innovative wheel adjustment system.

On-board footage showed defending champion Lewis Hamilton pulling the steering wheel back and forth on the front straight to apparently change the angle of the front wheels on his Mercedes car.

The team stayed tight-lipped about the car’s new feature but guaranteed it was “safe” and “legal.”

“I probably won’t shed a great deal more light than what you saw on the TV but yeah we have a system in the car, it’s a novel idea,” team technical director James Allison told F1 TV. ”We’ve got a name for it, it’s called DAS, if you’re interested, and it just introduces an extra dimension for the steering, for the driver, which we hope will be useful during the year. But precisely how we use it and why we use it, that’s something we will keep to ourselves.”

Allison said governing body FIA knew in advance that the team was introducing the new system.

“It’s something we’ve been talking to them (about) for some time,” he said. “The rules are pretty clear about what’s permitted on steering systems and we’re pretty confident that it matches those requirements. I’m pleased we got it on the car, it seems to be useful, and we’ll see over the coming days how it benefits us.”

Hamilton said he was still trying to get used to the system, but praised the team for coming up with the innovation.

“I’ve only had one morning on (it, so) I don’t really have a lot to talk about with it. We’re trying to get on top of it, understand it, but safety-wise no problem today and the FIA are OK with the project.

“For me it’s really encouraging to see that my team is continuing to innovate and stay ahead of the game, and I think that’s down to the great minds in the team and so hopefully that’ll work to our benefit.”

Hamilton led the time charts on Wednesday but was only ninth-fastest on Thursday.

MORE: Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas fastest in Day 1 of F1 practice
MORE: Sergio Perez fastest early on Day 2 of F1 Practice

The 40-year-old Raikkonen, who has a chance this season to break the record for most race starts in F1, was fastest with a time of 1 minute, 17.091 seconds in his Alfa Romea. He was 0.2 seconds quicker than Sergio Pérez with Racing Point. Daniel Ricciardo of Renault was third.

Raikkonen caused a red flag near the end of the afternoon session when his car stopped on the track with an apparent mechanical issue. The Finnish driver had spun earlier in the session, as did Valtteri Bottas of Mercedes, Romain Grosjean of Haas and Pierre Gasly of Alpha Tauri, formerly known as Toro Rosso.

Grosjean had the most laps among the 13 drivers who went to the track on Thursday, with 158.

Bottas was the slowest driver of the day, while Sebastian Vettel was sixth-fastest with Ferrari.

Pérez had set the quickest time in the morning session. The Mexican driver had been third fastest on Wednesday, behind Hamilton and Bottas.

Drivers will be back on the track on Friday to close out the first week of testing. Teams will have another three days to test next week.

Preseason testing has been reduced from eight to six days to help compensate for the record 22 races on the calendar, including a new Vietnam Grand Prix and the return of the Dutch GP. Midseason testing also has been eliminated.

The season opens on March 15 at the Australian GP.

The Barcelona-Catalunya track will host the Spanish GP on May 10.