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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 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.”

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Gabby Chaves

Gabby Chaves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver field in the Verizon IndyCar Series. In 15th and the rookie-of-the-year for 2015, was Gabby Chaves.

Gabby Chaves, No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport Honda

  • 2014: Indy Lights champion
  • 2015: 15th Place, Best Finish 9th, Best Start 12th, 0 Top-5, 2 Top-10, 31 Laps Led, 19.3 Avg. Start, 14.4 Avg. Finish

Some drivers finish better than their performances show. Some drivers have performances better than their results show. The latter statement applied to Gabby Chaves in his rookie year, in what was an impressive first season after making the step up from Indy Lights, which deservedly earned him rookie-of-the-year honors.

The best comparison I’d make for Gabby is of Josef Newgarden in 2012 with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, a first-year driver on a single-car, newish team to the series.

Chaves rarely dazzled in qualifying but that wasn’t his fault; he and engineer John Dick worked well together and Chaves recounted multiple times this year that a tweak here or tweak there, the wrong way, on the aero kit would send them down the wrong setup path.

Results in races didn’t measure up either but again that was through almost no fault of his own. The only time Chaves looked truly like a rookie was at St. Pete, when he had several collisions. Otherwise he was ahead of eventual winner James Hinchcliffe at NOLA before getting punted off, reliable through the month of May in Indianapolis, finally able to break through for a ninth place in Detroit race two, overachieving in Texas, 11th at Milwaukee after some great wheel-to-wheel racing with series winners and champions, and then phenomenal at Pocono as he was on course for a first career win or podium before late-race engine issues – his first DNF of the season.

For both Chaves and Herta, you’d love to see them together for another season, and the results and confidence for both parties will grow as a result. Those who’ve seen Newgarden’s rise over four years with Fisher and now CFH will note the long-term stability, and that’s what Chaves could do if he gets the time.

He planted the seed of being a great IndyCar driver, and he became pretty versatile during the year too with additional appearances in the DeltaWing prototype, a short-track midget and one of Herta’s Red Bull Global Rallycross cars. To boot, he’s a smart, great kid who is mature beyond his years, and someone you should be buying stock in now. Anyone who saw Chaves in the Mazda Road to Indy should not have been surprised by his rookie season in the big cars.

Off The Grid: Monza preview (premieres Saturday 10/10 on NBCSN)

F1 Grand Prix of Italy
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Having already taken you behind the scenes in Barcelona, Budapest, Singapore, Melbourne and Silverstone, Will Buxton and Jason Swales now head to one of Formula 1’s most iconic venues for the latest episode of Off The Grid.

Monza has appeared in all but one F1 season since the formation of the world championship in 1950, and is a firm favorite among drivers, teams and fans alike.

However, there is far more to the Italian Grand Prix than meets the eye, as we find out in Saturday’s premiere of Off The Grid: Monza at 9:30am ET (follows Russian GP qualifying).

Having honed his talents in go-karts as a kid, Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo is now trying to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of racers. But can he teach Will or Jason a thing or two?

We also catch up with Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and get a feel for life on the road as he takes us for a tour of his lavish bus in which he travels in for the European F1 races.

Have you ever wondered just how the suits F1 drivers wear are made? We go behind the scenes at Alpine Stars’ factory in Italy and find out.

Off The Grid: Monza premieres on Saturday at 9:30am ET on NBCSN following Russian GP qualifying.