Crew chief Tony Gibson reflects on Danica Patrick’s season thus far

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It’s been a rough road for Danica Patrick in her first full season in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. Other than winning the pole and finishing eighth in the season-opening Daytona 500, Patrick has struggled for much of the 16 races since then.

In fact, Patrick has finished in the top 20 just twice since Daytona: 12th at Martinsville and 13th at Michigan three weeks ago.

In the 14 other races, she has finished between 20th and 29th 11 times and three times between 30th and 39th.

But it’s not only Patrick who has born the brunt of the struggles. So, too, has veteran crew chief Tony Gibson, who shifted over to lead Patrick’s team this season after spending the last three four seasons atop the pit box for Ryan Newman.

Gibson was on Tuesday’s weekly NASCAR media teleconference and talked about working with Patrick, returning to his native Daytona Beach for this Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 and where Patrick earned the pole in February, and what the rest of the season holds in store for the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet:

Reflecting back on what Patrick did in February at Daytona: “It was obviously extremely gratifying to go down there and run well (in February). To go to your hometown where I grew up and all your friends and family, and to go there and to do something that is pretty amazing, to make history, to just be a part of that is incredible. It was something that obviously will never be done again, and I feel real fortunate to be a part of that. … It was pretty crazy, too, with all the media and all the hype going into it, and actually the pressure of actually testing well and going down there and repeating and making it happen, it was a huge relief, but it was also very gratifying and probably ranks up there as probably one of the greatest things I’ve accomplished in my career.”

On the gameplan for this weekend’s return to Daytona: “Goals for July are the same as they were in February when we went to Daytona. We want to go down there and we want to make a statement. We want to try to sit on the pole again, obviously, and this time come up (finish) a few spots further up. We felt like we had a shot to win it, ran in the top three or four all day and had a fast car, and it came down to the last lap and kind of got snookered a little bit there at the end. But we felt like we were definitely in contention to win it, so we’re going back there with the same mindset, to try to be the fastest car in qualifying and try to close the deal at the end of this thing.”

On whether the No. 10 team is put under the microscope more so because Danica is the driver: “Yeah, we do, and we knew that going into it. Most of us on the 10 car, most of my guys were with me when we were with Dale Jr. at DEI, and we’ve been through some of the microscope deal with a high-profile driver. So we were kind of used to it. At least we thought we were. But obviously it’s a little bit more than that with Danica. The fan base is a little more spread out. There’s kids and little girls and boys and women and men, and she has a huge fan base now. You’re dealing with a lot of different folks at the racetrack and talking to different people and things like that.”

On how the microscope is different with Patrick than with other drivers you’ve worked with, like Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr., etc.: “It’s a little different than what we’ve experienced in the past. So moving forward you want to please everybody. You want your performance to be good because you don’t want to let your fans down. You don’t want to let her fans down. When you’ve got to look a little girl in the eye and she asks you what happened last week or why didn’t Danica win, it’s pretty hard to come up with an answer that’s going to satisfy a little girl. But it’s crazy. It’s different. But we approach every week the same. We want to go in, and we set goals, and we want to do the best we can every week as a team, and we want to build a stronger team and a relationship with Danica because it’s only going to help us down the road. But the demands to perform and run better and to do things like that seem to be a little higher than they were because of the expectations she puts on herself and that the fans want to see her do good. So that’s a little bit different for us. That’s been a little bit of a struggle for us to get our hands wrapped around and absorbing that and trying to make things — try to justify each thing we do and keep ourselves in check, you know.”

On Danica having better performances and consistency in the last month-plus: “I think we’ve definitely made some gains as a company. We’re nowhere near where we want to be or where we need to be each and every week on every level, from the 39 (Ryan Newman), the 14 (Tony Stewart) or the 10 (Patrick). I mean, our goals are a little bit less than the other two guys, at least the goals we set for ourselves are a little lower but reachable. But we have struggled as a company and with the Gen-6 car, and we’ve worked really hard. We’ve done a lot of testing here lately, and I think the testing that we’ve done has definitely paid off in her performance. Has it taken us from a 15th-place organization to a winning organization? Well, not really. Dover was a good day and it was a good race for the 14 to win it, but they weren’t the dominant car all day. They put themselves in a good position. They were a top-10 car and put themselves in position to win it and did so. But the performances have been better, but our expectations and where we need to be is not there yet.”

On the plusses of Patrick getting in as much testing as possible: “Yeah, it’s huge. Any time that we can get to go do a test at the right racetrack on the right tire, even if you’re not on the right tire, but to be at that racetrack that you’re going to compete on is huge. Any lap behind the wheel of this Gen-6 car for her is a plus. You know, it’s definitely been a plus for the seat time side of it. The tests that we have done have been huge, and the biggest thing that’s really helped her is having the data from the other two drivers, the EFI data from the other two drivers as far as breaking traces and throttle traces and steering traces and those things that we really — that we can sit down and look at, and she can talk to Stewart or Newman and they can help her if she’s struggling and they can kind of go to some of these racetracks where she hasn’t been. Some of these tracks she’s never been to in any kind of car. Having those two guys at a test when we go has been huge for us. And it shows. I know it doesn’t make us run top 10, but it makes us run 15th to 20th. That has been huge for her. That’s been the biggest thing I’d say for us is going to those tests and being able to do that, and if we could do it more, we would, and we go to VIR, we go to Road Atlanta, we go to Nashville, we go to Greenville Pickens, we go anywhere we can go to make laps and learn.  And a lot of these tracks we have — even when we go to Nashville, all of our drivers have been there and the Hendrick guys have been there obviously, so we have a lot of data we can look at that helps her on the driving side as well as on the setup side, too.”

On how excited the team is to return to Daytona, particularly after what Danica and the team did in February down there: “Yeah, you can feel the excitement in the shop. The guys are just rubbing and detailing and they’re pumped up and they’re excited. We have our trophy from Daytona for the pole down here, and so that stuff we bring out — we brought it out this week just to remind everybody of what we can do when we get down there. It’s a little bit of a morale booster. The vibe is different. When we get ready to go here, everybody gets jacked up, and we know we can go here and we can do really well.”

On the team’s chances returning to Daytona: “I think it’s obviously a track that we feel like we can win at. I feel like that’s right in Danica’s wheelhouse there. She likes the drafting. She likes the high speeds, and I think most of that comes from the IndyCar side of it. So yeah, it’s exciting for us. We went to Daytona — and before when she was running the Nationwide car, she was really good at the restrictor plate stuff with the drafting and the air and that kind of deal. So we were pretty excited for going into this year, and then when we went to Daytona and tested, we knew that we were going to be fairly strong down there. So it’s exciting for us, and we’re working really hard. We work hard every week, but when it comes to the restrictor plate racing, especially going to Daytona, we go all out. We put every little thing we can into those cars, because we know that that’s a track that we can win at and we can really do some damage, on the good side.”

Grosjean: ‘Unbelievable’ to score Haas’ best F1 qualifying result in Australia

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Romain Grosjean hailed Haas’ Formula 1 qualifying performance in Australia as “unbelievable” after picking up its best Saturday result since joining the grid.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas took his eponymous operation into F1 last year, with Grosjean leading its charge through its debut campaign.

Haas enters its sophomore year in 2017 looking to build on its eighth-place finish in the constructors’ championship, and made a strong start in Australia on Saturday.

While new driver Kevin Magnussen dropped out in Q1 following an error on his hot lap, Grosjean was able to take Haas into Q3 before securing sixth place on the grid for Sunday’s season-opener.

The result marks Haas’ best qualifying result to date in F1, beating Grosjean’s run to P7 ahead of the Brazilian Grand Prix last November.

“It was quite an unbelievable qualifying session for us. It’s a shame that we didn’t get Kevin there, but the car is looking good, even better than what we’ve seen recently,” Grosjean said after the session.

“We’ve made some good progress over the weekend. There’s a lot more we can understand and analyze but, generally, it’s a great start for us.

“It’s always good to start with a strong qualifying session. It tells you that if you keep improving the car, you could be in a good place very soon. If that’s our baseline, and you can fight between sixth and 10th position, where it’s so tight, it would be great to be there most of the time and enjoy some good times.

“Tomorrow’s start is a big unknown. We’ve been practicing and some have been good, others not so much. Hopefully, we’ll get the first one right tomorrow.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Daniel Ricciardo frustrated to crash out of home F1 qualifying

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Daniel Ricciardo made no secret of his frustration after crash out of Formula 1 qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix, resigning himself to a 10th-place start for his home race on Sunday.

Ricciardo entered the Melbourne weekend aiming to become the first Australian to finish on the podium at his home race since the event became part of the F1 world championship in 1985.

Despite struggling with the setup on his RB13 car on Friday, Ricciardo looked poised to claim a top-five grid slot for Sunday’s race, only to lose control of his car at Turn 14 in Q3 and end the session in the wall.

“That was a tough one today. I don’t crash into the barriers often and the last place I want to do that is at home,” Ricciardo said after the session.

“But I feel I crashed for the right reason, as I was basically pushing and trying to find the limit and these things happen, so let’s say I’m not disappointed by the approach, it was just more of a frustrating outcome, starting 10th instead of being under the top five.”

Ever the optimist, Ricciardo said the difficult qualifying will only serve as greater motivation to fight back up the order and give his home fans a result to celebrate on Sunday.

“I knew the crowds would have also preferred to see me further up the grid and it would have been nice to put on a better performance than that but tomorrow is where the points are,” Ricciardo said.

“It’s a chance to create a bigger headline if I have a good race so that’s what will motivate me to do better tomorrow. I made it a bit more difficult for myself but it’s going to be alright.

“To get a good start in the race will be the key. I saved a set of ultra-softs in Q2, I know that not everyone in front of me has, so maybe that gives me a chance.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Valtteri Bottas disappointed with P3 start for Mercedes F1 debut

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Valtteri Bottas came away from qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix feeling disappointed despite securing third place on the grid for his first Formula 1 race as a Mercedes driver.

Bottas joined Mercedes over the winter following world champion Nico Rosberg’s decision to retire from racing, and made his first official race weekend appearance for the Silver Arrows on Friday.

The ex-Williams driver made a splash in qualifying by running teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel close, but was left to settle for third on the grid after finishing three-tenths of a second off the pole time.

“Third position is not ideal. In general I’m not happy with the result,” Bottas admitted after qualifying.

“But what I’m really happy about and proud about [is] what the team has done again with this car. I only saw a very small part of the preparation with the new car and the new era of Formula 1, and it’s really nice to see that all the work has paid off and we’re fighting at the very front.

“It seems to be very close this year, especially here. Myself I didn’t get any perfect laps in, so not that satisfied.

“Tomorrow’s the day that matters. It seems like in the race starts we’ve been quite strong. If we can keep that form I had in practice, and have a nice and clean race and get some really good points.”

Bottas’ best finish in Australia currently stands at fifth place in 2014 with Williams, with the Finn never qualifying any higher than sixth at Albert Park in his four previous attempts.

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Vettel: Front-row grid slot for Australia proof of Ferrari’s progress

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Sebastian Vettel believes that his charge to second place on the grid for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix acts as proof of the progress Ferrari’s Formula 1 operation has made over the winter.

Vettel arrived in Australia as one of the favorites to take pole following an impressive showing in pre-season testing, prompting three-time champion Lewis Hamilton to name Ferrari as the leading team.

Hamilton rallied in qualifying to take pole position for Mercedes, beating Vettel by two-tenths of a second, but the Ferrari driver managed to fend off Valtteri Bottas in the second Silver Arrow and clinch a front-row berth.

The result marked Ferrari’s best qualifying result since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix – Vettel’s and Ferrari’s last pole and victory in F1 – and the German was encouraged by the result.

“I think we have a good car. I think we are working well as a team,” Vettel said.

“Things are improving. Obviously it’s nice to see that things are working, the car is working. I had a mixed day yesterday, but the confidence in the car was there from testing and I think we showed that again today.”

Vettel conceded that he felt his final lap in qualifying could have been faster, but doubts it would have been enough to catch pole-sitter Hamilton.

“In the end I was not entirely happy with my lap. I was pretty happy with the end, maybe not so much with the opening of the lap where we lost a bit too much,” Vettel said.

“But I think Lewis did a very good lap. I would have loved to, but I don’t think pole was up for grabs. Tomorrow I think we can do something in the race. The car feels good, we’ve improved it so the pace should be much better than it was yesterday when we had practice.

“It’s been a big winter for us, lots of change we’ve gone through as a team in the last 12 months, and for the better. I think the team is getting stronger.

“Obviously everyone is pushing very hard and it’s not so easy to come here with a long journey to get to Australia, but I think people are fired up and we are motivated for tomorrow.

“I think it’s the first good opportunity.”