Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 15 — Danica Patrick, did she improve in 2014 or not?

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MotorSportsTalk will be counting down the top 20 stories of the 2014 NASCAR season over the month of December.

Here’s what we’ve done so far:

Numbers are the lifeblood of NASCAR.

Among the most significant figures are those that gauge a driver’s overall performance in a season, as well as the gains or losses he or she has made from the previous season.

In her second full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series, Danica Patrick finished one spot lower than her first full-time campaign, 28th in 2014 vs. 27th in 2013.

That would seem like a setback when it comes to numbers.

But a case can be made that Patrick actually showed some improvement in 2014 over the previous season.

While she didn’t have the splashy season opener at Daytona (crashed and finished 40th) in 2014 like she did in 2013, when she won the pole and finished eighth (her only top-10 finish of the season), Patrick did have three top-10 finishes in 2014, including a career-best sixth-place showing at Atlanta.

Crew chief Tony Gibson continued to be an excellent mentor for Patrick, but admittedly, there still was inconsistency in her race-to-race performances.

Plus, restarts continued to be one of Patrick’s biggest problem areas.

“The biggest thing that holds her back is her restarts,” Gibson told ESPN.com after Homestead. “She’s got to really figure out a way to race better and be more aggressive on restarts. … If she can ever figure out how to get her restarts better here, she can hold her position or gain two or three, she will be more successful.”

But there are plenty of indicators still that showed she indeed made progress in 2014 over 2013:

* She had 14 top-20 finishes vs. just nine in 2013.

* She led 15 laps in 2014 vs. just five in 2013.

* She had an average start per race of 22.3 in 2014 vs. 30.1 in 2013.

* She had an average finish per race of 23.7 in 2014 vs. 26.1 in 2013.

* And perhaps the most telling improvement of all was in lead-lap finishes, going from just 12 in 2013 to 19 in 2014.

Yet even with the signs of improvement, Patrick lost Gibson as her crew chief prior to the Texas Chase race, when he was shifted to the same role with veteran and 2004 Sprint Cup champ Kurt Busch. That move is permanent going forward.

Daniel Knost, who was Busch’s crew chief for his first 33 races with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, was then moved atop Patrick’s pit box. Her finishes in the three races with Knost were a mixed bag: 36th (Texas), 22nd (Phoenix) and 18th (Homestead).

There’s also a bit of uncertainty on exactly what Knost’s status is. When he was shifted to Patrick’s team, it was initially announced as an interim role.

But here we are in mid-December and there’s been no announcement of a new crew chief for Patrick for 2015. That could mean Knost may remain in the role to give more time to see how well he and Patrick may jell if they have a full season ahead of them.

No matter who ultimately becomes her crew chief, Patrick feels the improvement she made in 2014 was a good sign of even better things to come in 2015.

Realistically, going into her third full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series, Patrick should be able to finish in the top 25, if not the top 20 in the final 2015 standings.

The higher up she finishes, the more successful a season it will be.

And, of course, earning her first Sprint Cup win would also go a long way towards building momentum and confidence.

But as long as she continues showing improvement and progress, that’s all anyone can ask.

“We did improve this year, and I hope we do better in 2015,” she said late in the 2014 season. “(I’m) looking forward to next year.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

March 28 in Motorsports History: Adrian Fernandez wins Motegi’s first race

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While auto racing is an international sport, oval racing remains uniquely American. 

That almost always has remained the case since the inception of the sport, but in 1998, the citizens of Japan got their first taste of American oval racing.

Having opened the previous year, Twin Ring Motegi was built by Honda in an effort to bring Indy-style racing to the Land of the Rising Sun. 

Adrian Fernandez was the first driver to win at the facility, taking the checkered flag in CART’s inaugural race after shaking off flu earlier that day.

Fernandez held off a hard-charging Al Unser Jr to win by 1.086 seconds. The victory was the second of his career and his first since Toronto in 1996.

Adrian Fernandez celebrates with Al Unser Jr and Gil de Ferran after winning the inaugural race at Motegi. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

The race was also memorable for a violent crash involving Bobby Rahal.

Running third with 15 laps remaining, Rahal’s right front suspension broke in Turn 2, causing his car to hit the outside wall and flip down the backstretch.

Luckily, Rahal walked away from the accident without a scratch.

“The car was on rails through (turns) 1 and 2, and all of a sudden it just got up into the marbles, and it was gone,” Rahal said. “Thank God we’ve got such safe cars.”

The following season, Fernadez went back-to-back and won again at Motegi. The track remained on the CART schedule until 2002.

In 2003, Honda switched their alliance to the Indy Racing Leauge, and Motegi followed suit.

The track continued to host IndyCar racing until 2011 with the final race being held on the facility’s 2.98-mile road course, as the oval sustained damage in the Tōhoku earthquake earlier that year.

Also on this date:

1976: Clay Regazzoni won the United States Grand Prix – West, Formula One’s first race on the Long Beach street circuit. The Grand Prix would become an IndyCar event following the 1983 edition of the race.

1993: Ayrton Senna won his home race, the Grand Prix of Brazil, for the second and final time of his career. The victory was also the 100th in F1 for McLaren.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter