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

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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.”

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.