Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 13 – Chase Elliott wins final Nationwide Series championship at record age

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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:

For No. 13, we focus on a very special young man who became the youngest champion in NASCAR history, as well as the final champion under the Nationwide Series banner, Chase Elliott….

Chase Elliott must have set some type of record for a start-up success story.

It wasn’t until late in 2013 that Elliott was given the opportunity to drive for a brand new NASCAR Nationwide Series team out of the JR Motorsports stable.

Everything was new, from the driver to the crew chief to the team members and even the sponsor, NAPA Auto Parts, which had previously been a Sprint Cup fixture for Michael Waltrip Racing teams.

When Rick Hendrick joined co-team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a partner in the team, things started moving fast, faster and fastest.

And by the time the 2014 season ended, Elliott – son of incoming Class of 2015 NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott – had gone from unknown startup to Nationwide Series champ.

To say it was a tremendous season for the 18-year-old, who only graduated high school in May, is an understatement.

As I said in the story about Elliott winning the championship, “If he’s this good at 18, what will Chase Elliott be like 10 years from now?”

MORE: Chase Elliott becomes youngest NASCAR champion, captures final Nationwide Series crown

Elliott clinched the championship a week before the end of the season, doing so with a fifth-place finish in Nov. 8 race at Phoenix International Raceway.

In doing so, he became the youngest champion in NASCAR history on any of the three pro levels, Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Trucks.

And in another historic first – or make that historic last – Elliott became the final champion of the Nationwide Series. The series will be rebranded for 2015 as the Xfinity Series

Elliott had nothing short of a phenomenal season in his rookie NNS campaign. In 33 starts, he earned three wins, 16 top-five and 26 top-10 showings. He led 390 laps and had an outstanding starting average per race of 8.3 and an equally outstanding finishing average per race of 8.0.

Given the way he dominated through much of 2014, it would not be a surprise to see Elliott become the first driver in NASCAR history to end one season with a final championship under the previous sponsor’s banner, and then win the first championship under the new sponsor’s banner.

Elliott is so good that many called for him to be promoted to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for 2015. But frankly, there’s no room at the Hendrick Motorsports inn, with it maxed out at its four-team limit.

Ditto for HMS satellite team, Stewart-Haas Racing, which also is at its four-team max.

Hendrick reportedly has a plan in place to bring Elliott to the Sprint Car ranks, perhaps as early as 2016. But if all his drivers and the SHR drivers remain in place, where would Elliott fit?

He might not have to go anywhere if JR Motorsports adds a Sprint Cup team specifically to give Elliott his chance. But with Hendrick a minority owner of JRM, that could be a stumbling block unless Hendrick divests himself of ownership or shifts it to someone else.

Bill Elliott, who won the Winston Cup championship in 1988, and his son – who wasn’t even born when his father was the Cup champ – now become the fifth father-son combination to have won NASCAR championships:

* Ned Jarrett won two Sprint Cup championships, while son Dale won one title.

* Lee Petty won three Cup titles, son Richard won a record-tying seven.

* David Pearson won three Cup crowns, son Larry two Nationwide Series titles.

* The late Dale Earnhardt won a record-tying seven Cup titles, son Dale Jr. won two NNS crowns.

And now the Elliott’s join the illustrious list.

Now, Chase Elliott will have to adapt to some changes for 2015. He’ll be racing for a new series championship, and with a new crew chief. Greg Ives, who led Elliott to the NNS title, has replaced Steve Letarte as crew chief for Earnhardt in the Sprint Cup Series.

Letarte has moved on to become a TV analyst for NASCAR on NBC.

NASCAR veteran Ernie Cope will be Elliott’s Xfinity Series crew chief in 2015.

The future looks so bright for the younger Elliott. So much so that when he does finally reach the Sprint Cup ranks, potentially in 2016, he could very well become the first – and perhaps only one ever – to be a Chase who wins the Chase (or two or three or more). It’s likely only a matter of time.

Hendrick probably summed up Elliott’s rise to the championship the best:

“A year ago, we were just trying to figure out what to do,” Hendrick said after Saturday’s race. “… Man, what a young man. What a racer he is. It’s just really neat to be a part of history.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds