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.”

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New study surveys drivers’ opinions on crashes, concussions, more

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Auto racing safety has continued to improve through the decades, but the sport remains inherently dangerous, according to a new survey.

At the close of 2018, a new organization called Racing Safety United emerged with the intention of reducing drivers’ risk of being harmed.

RSU is made up of more than 30 members including former NASCAR Cup Series competitor Jerry Nadeau, two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Randy LaJoie, NHRA team owner Don Schumacher and motorsports journalist Dick Berggren.

One of RSU’s first initiatives was to determine what current drivers thought of racing safety. The organization developed a 14-question survey and promoted it on select motorsports websites and forums. 

Participants were given the opportunity to disclose their identity or remain anonymous, and those who provided contact information were entered to win a $500 prize (for anonymous participants, the prize funds would be donated to a motorsports charity). 

More than 140 individuals participated in the survey over the course of 12 months. Below are the results of the survey:

Driver status

The vast majority of survey participants (60%) were amateur racers, while 26% of the participants were classified as Semi-Pro/Professional racers. The remaining 14% consisted of other individuals involved in the sport such as team owners and crew chiefs. 

When asked how frequently they race, 58% of driver respondents averaged 10 or more times per year on track, while 42% averaged 10 times or less.

The top five tracks respondents said they raced most often: Road Atlanta (21 votes), Watkins Glen (17 votes), Virginia International Raceway (16 votes), Mid-Ohio (16 votes), and Road America (13 votes).

Vehicular damage, injuries common

Over a third of respondents said they had been injured while racing, and almost two-thirds sasid they had suffered severe vehicle damage while racing

Driver error was cited as the top cause of vehicle damage (42 mentions), followed by concrete walls (26 mentions), mechanical failures (24 mentions), and other drivers (19 mentions). The study concluded those results indicated a need for better driver training/coaching, energy absorbing walls, and more technical inspections.

Almost a quarter of drivers said they had experienced racing-related concussions, and nearly half the respondents said one or multiple concussions would affect their decision to race in the future. 

Drivers primarily influenced by peers 

Roughly half the drivers said they would consider adopting new safety equipment if influenced by another driver (51 total mentions) and/or if recommended by a sanctioning body (47 total mentions). The study concluded those results indicated a need for drivers to become safety advocates and educate other drivers and for sanctioning bodies to mandate safety equipment. 

Drivers concerned with concrete walls

Approximately three-quarters of the drivers surveyed said they believed certain race tracks were more dangerous than others. Nearly half the drivers surveyed believe that concrete walls were the primary cause of damage to drivers and vehicles. 

Drivers willing to help

Just more than three-quarters of the drivers surveyed said that they would be willing to join a safety alliance to advocate for safer tracks. Two-thirds of drivers said that they also would be willing to contribute to a motorsports safety fund.

Click here for the full results of RSU’s survey

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