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

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