NASCAR: Top drivers of 2014 – No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Season finish: 8th

2014 Season Stats: 4 wins, 12 top-5, 20 top-10, 0 Poles.

What went right: So much went right for Junior in 2014. He started off with a win in the season-opening Daytona 500, the second time in his career he’s captured the Great American Race. To celebrate, he started tweeting in victory lane – and hasn’t stopped since. That expanded fan interaction likely helped Earnhardt win the Most Popular Driver award for the 12th consecutive season. But there was much more: Earnhardt would go on to win four races, the most since he won six in 2004, and he appeared to be a bonafide championship contender until he was eliminated after the Eliminator Round. He wanted so much to win the championship for crew chief Steve Letarte, who enjoyed his final season in that role with Earnhardt and has now moved on to become an analyst for NASCAR on NBC telecasts in 2015. Although he’ll have a new crew chief in Greg Ives in 2015, look for Earnhardt to have another outstanding season – and maybe this time he finally will win that elusive first championship. If Kevin Harvick could win it all after 14 seasons, Junior can do it after 15 seasons, right?

What went wrong: Junior did so much right in 2014 that it’s hard to pinpoint anything significantly wrong. But there’s no overlooking that he faded in the Eliminator Round and was not able to move on to the Champion 4 Round, the one race, winner-take-all battle at Homestead. The pressure didn’t get to him, but he just didn’t get the performances he needed to advance. Sometimes, that’s just the way fate goes and you can’t do anything about it. But if nothing else, Junior saw how exciting and fulfilling this season was, and likely will come back even more inspired in 2015.

2015 Prospectus: Speaking of 2015, even though he’ll have a new crew chief in Greg Ives and several new members of his pit crew, we see no reason why Earnhardt can’t continue on and pick up where he left off in 2014. How well he can build a strong communication base and confidence level with new crew chief Greg Ives will arguably be one of the biggest things.

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Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.