Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 8 – Joey Logano’s breakout season

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Joey Logano scored five wins and a Championship 4 berth in 2014. Photo: Getty Images.

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:

Today, we’re at No. 8 – the long-awaited rise of Joey Logano into the Sprint Cup Series’ elite…

It’s really a shame that the final images of Joey Logano’s 2014 season are in such jarring contrast to the superb year that he had.

With less than 20 laps to go in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Logano and the rest of the Championship 4 all stood a fair shot at taking the title for themselves. Under caution, Logano was brought into the pits from sixth place.

But as the crew changed the left side tires on Logano’s No. 22 Team Penske Ford, the car fell off the jack. Logano returned to the track 22nd after his ill-fated stop.

Unable to suppress his frustration, he was caught beating the steering wheel with his fists. He would finish 16th in the race and settle for fourth in the Sprint Cup championship standings.

It was a bitter ending for sure. But 2014 will still likely be remembered fondly by Logano, crew chief Todd Gordon and their No. 22 team – and they have plenty of reasons to see it that way.

Logano broke into the Chase in style by defeating Jeff Gordon in green-white-checkered at Texas Motor Speedway. He would follow that up with two more wins in the regular season at Richmond (two weeks after Texas) and the Bristol night race.

But like all top-tier competitors do, Logano turned up the proverbial wick at the most important time of the year.

After Penske teammate Brad Keselowski opened the Chase with a win at Chicagoland, Logano followed him into the Contender Round with a win of his own one week later at New Hampshire.

Then, in the Contender opener at Kansas Speedway two weeks later, he became the first to punch his ticket to the Eliminator Round with what would be his last win of 2014.

Things got tense for Logano in that Eliminator Round. He opened with a fifth at Martinsville but in the middle race at Texas, lug nut problems in the pits and a tire failure knocked him back to 26th. Undaunted, he still rallied in Fort Worth to finish 12th with the help of several late cautions.

Trouble threatened him again in the Eliminator finale at Phoenix. There, Logano was penalized for leaving the pits with his gas can still attached to the car and fell a lap down.

But once more, the man formerly known as “Sliced Bread” dug deep and ultimately pulled out a sixth-place finish that sent him to Homestead with a chance at the Cup.

Out of the Championship 4, it was clear that Kevin Harvick (the eventual champion) was the favorite in South Florida. But that didn’t stop him from attempting to play mind games with Logano at the contenders’ press conference in the week leading up to the race.

In hindsight, that may be the biggest sign of how far Logano has come.

In 2012, he lost his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing following big initial hype and years of unfulfilled expectations. His career in Cup was not assured.

Two years later, he was considered such a worthy adversary that his biggest title rival was compelled to try and come after him mentally before the most important race of the season.

It’s taken perhaps longer than expected, but Joey Logano has finally become what many thought he would be: One of the elite drivers in America’s most popular motorsport.

F1 tests: Mercedes innovates with wheel adjustment system

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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.