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

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.