Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 6 – Dale Jr. delivers a year to remember

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source: Getty Images
Dale Earnhardt Jr. opened what would be a superb 2014 season with a second Daytona 500 win. 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:

This Christmas Day, we come to No. 6 – a very successful 2014 for the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Junior Nation, rejoice. Your hero is a true contender once more.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. turned in a stellar 2013 Chase, but for 2014, a question remained: Could he, crew chief Steve Letarte, and the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team be able to keep and then build upon that momentum?

That question was answered emphatically in the first race of the season, a water-logged Daytona 500 that was ultimately extended into prime time. It was a long, long day, but it had to have been worth it for Earnhardt’s legions of fans after he captured his second victory in the Great American Race.

Also winning out of course was NASCAR, which had rolled out a controversial new Chase format to determine its champion just a few weeks prior. With the new format, regular season wins now meant a spot in the postseason and its biggest star had just punched the first ticket.

But in Victory Lane at Daytona, NASCAR – and the social-media world – got another gift:

Up to this point, Earnhardt had gotten his own Twitter account but had never officially used it.

According to the Associated Press, that didn’t stop him from having more than 235,000 followers before he finally sent out his first tweet.

Now, after a year filled with musings, fan chats, and hilariousness, he’s got more than 830,000 followers on an account whose bio describes him as such: “Retired dealership service mechanic. Former backup fullback for the Mooresville Blue Devils varsity soccer team. Aspiring competition BBQ Pitmaster.”

As for what the perhaps-one-day king of dry rubs and sauces did to follow his Daytona glory, that was pretty good, too. He would sweep both races at Pocono in the summertime, and momentarily jumped back into the points lead at Watkins Glen. Altogether, from his first Pocono win of 2014 on to the end of the regular season, he was never worst than third in the standings.

But after easily going through the Challenger Round in the Chase, Earnhardt’s dream season was put on pause in the Contender Round opener at Kansas. A tire failure and crash there put him in a massive points hole, and he was unable to recover. A 31st-place finish at Talladega two weeks later officially ended his title hopes.

Instead of playing out the string – and the final races of Letarte’s last season as his crew chief – Earnhardt bounced back with one of the sweetest victories of his career at Martinsville Speedway.

For next year, change is coming to Earnhardt’s on-track world. Letarte is off to NBC Sports as it returns to broadcasting the sport. In his place as crew chief on the 88 pit box will be Greg Ives, who led Chase Elliott to this year’s NASCAR Nationwide Series title for JR Motorsports. Earnhardt’s pit crew will also be somewhat different as well.

The question now is about how quickly can Earnhardt get that all-important chemistry going with Ives and the new members of his team.

But after a season to be proud of, he – and Junior Nation – can enter 2015 brimming with confidence even with those changes.

“We’re going to miss Steve, of course … but I hope fans don’t see this as our only opportunity,” Earnhardt said to NBC SportsWorld’s Joe Posnanski earlier this year. “To me, I see no reason why we can’t be in the mix for two or three more years at least. I think that’s realistic, I really do.”

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.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

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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