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.”

Inside IndyCar’s iRacing revolution: Oliver Askew, team take it seriously

SimMetric Labs
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No laps have been turned in the NTT IndyCar Series this season, yet rookie Oliver Askew incessantly is analyzing fresh lap data with his Arrow McLaren SP team.

For the past two weeks, Askew has turned hundreds of laps in iRacing at Watkins Glen International and Barber Motorsports Park, and his support team meticulously has scoured the data in real time.

Race engineer Blair Perschbacher, assistant engineer Mike Reggio and strategist Billy Vincent are connected via all the software and timing systems that are on Askew’s real-world No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet. After every run, numbers instantly are crunched, and Askew debriefs with his crew on improving the handling of his car in search of every fraction of a second as he would in real life.

WATCH: IndyCar iRacing Challenge, 2:30 p.m. ET Saturday, NBCSN or streaming here

The only difference is Askew is sitting inside a simulation rig housed by a 45-foot trailer in West Palm Beach, Fla., while each team member is in an Indianapolis area home.

“They basically set up their own timing stands in their living rooms,” Askew told NBCSports.com. “It’s awesome.”

It’s the new reality for IndyCar, which will play host to the second round of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge at 2:30 p.m. Saturday (NBCSN) at virtual Barber Motorsports Park.

Last Saturday, Askew started and finished fifth at Watkins Glen International, where he practiced with the advisement of his team for more than 15 hours in the SimMetric Driver Performance Labs simulator. Despite a relative sim racing newbie, Askew, 23, finished only two spots behind Will Power, who has more than 1,500 starts and 150 victories on iRacing road courses.

Askew already has practiced for more than 10 hours this week in his simulator for Barber, where he hopes to make the podium against a 29-driver field that will include many champions and winners.

“We’re taking this very seriously,” he said. “You can tell by the results at Watkins Glen. You know which drivers have built their sims properly. How much they’ve been practicing. Those are the guys who finish up front.

“I’m still trying to represent everyone. It’s cool we have the same paint scheme. We’re just trying to represent Arrow and our partners the best as possible. We know they’re all watching, and it seems the viewership is going up.”


The Jupiter, Florida, native has found an edge through his friendship with SimMetric Driver Performance Labs, which is based in nearby West Palm Beach, Florida. Askew and SimMetric CEO Greg De Giorgis met last year through mutual friends. Last year, Askew had done a few simulator sessions before winning the 2019 Indy Lights championship (and graduating to the ride with Arrow McLaren SP).

With an official simulator partnership in the Road to Indy program, SimMetric’s CXC Motion Pro II simulator travels in a trailer to racing events around the country, providing drivers with extra preparation time for the real world.

The full-motion simulator includes a motion system developed by drivers and engineers, hyrdaulic brakes and force-feedback steering system. Though at the high end for simulators available to the general public, it retails for much less than the seven-figure simulators used by auto manufacturers with race programs.

“While time in a driving simulator will never fully replace real seat time, sim seat time can go a very long way in supplementing the seat time a driver gets,” De Giorgis told NBCSports.com in an email. “With three added benefits you don’t get in the real car: Significantly lower cost per hour, no risk of bodily harm or damage to the car, and of course, no limitations on time.”

There are some limitations for how much Askew can practice, though. A schedule was set up last week so the team, Askew and De Giorgis (who helps run the simulator and maintain communications with the team) could work together while also maintaining self-isolation with their families.

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The trailer with the simulator is parked indoors at the Riviera Beach, Florida, shop of Extreme Velocity Motorsports, which also has an unofficial affiliation with SimMetric.

“We’re practicing social distancing and making sure the trailer and everything is clean,” Askew said. “We’re taking that very seriously. It’s still a job for me, so I need to get what I can out of it.”

He’s gotten a lot from it despite a lack of experience. The team can compare simulation data from iRacing to real-world historical data from past races and test sessions.

Reggio handles fuel data, and Simpson monitors strategy and timing. While setups are fixed for the iRacing IndyCar Challenge, Perschbacher is able to work with brake bias. “He’s just trying to bend the rules as much as we can,” Askew said. “We’ve done a lot with brake bias. That’s pretty much all we can change.”

Fans also can watch Askew practicing via a YouTube channel provided by De Giorgis, who has chatted with viewers about the car’s laps in real time during the streams that are available by clicking here.

Fans will be able to find a live stream of Askew’s race Saturday by clicking here.


It’s all relatively new to Askew, who doesn’t even have a sim rig at his Indianapolis home. His previous sim experience mainly came on the Chevrolet simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina.

“Honesty, for me personally, I’m a little late to the party,” Askew said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize that. I’m young and they assumed I’ve been doing this. I’ve never even had my own iRacing account before. Guys like (McLaren driver) Lando Norris, (Watkins Glen winner) Sage (Karam), all these guys have been streaming live on Twitch and have been running iRacing for multiple years now.

“ It’s a great way to get fans engaged in the race weekend and get eSports get bigger and bigger every year. Very interesting moving forward. It’s cool that IndyCar has dipped their feet into these waters now. Even once the season starts, I wouldn’t be surprised if we do more of these races.”

If so, he and his team have learned to keep an eye on Power, a real-world ace on road courses. During some practice races Thursday, Askew thought he’d done well by qualifying third, but Power then put a half-second on the field by winning the pole position.

“Will is unbelievably quick and does the same things in real life as well,” said Askew, who did turn the fastest lap in the practice race. “He just pulls it out somehow. That’s where the engineers and our staff in Indy come into play because they’re able to watch his on-board in real time and replay his on board to figure out what he’s doing to get the most of out of his car in the video game.

“It gets the creative juices flowing again. It’s still very different from real life, but I think we’re going to be able to start the season a little more fresh than we would have without this.”

Chris Graythen / Getty Images