Danica contends again at Daytona until last-lap wreck

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It would appear that the Daytona 500 wasn’t a fluke after all for Danica Patrick.

Back in the February season-opener, the Sprint Cup rookie was a threat to win on the final lap before settling for an eighth-place finish. And tonight’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona brought more confirmation that she has a firm grip on restrictor-plate racing, as she rose as high as second and stayed in the lead pack in the race’s second half.

Unfortunately for her, a potential Top-10 run was scratched in the final moments as she and David Gilliland made contact. Patrick was turned around and a multi-car crash in the tri-oval began as Jimmie Johnson took the checkered flag just ahead.

After the incident, Patrick explained that she was looking to follow Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the finish.

“Junior and I had a good run through the middle and then up high around [Turn] 4,” said Patrick, who was credited with an 14th place finish. “It felt like I ran just along the wall but it could have been me that came down in front of the No. 38 [Gilliland].

“It definitely wasn’t what I was trying to do at all. I was just following the No. 88 [Earnhardt]. So, if that’s what happened, then I definitely apologize. I lost spots doing it.”

Patrick fell back in tonight’s early stages but caught a break that enabled her to get into the Top 10 by pitting just before a caution came out on Lap 71. She moved into the Top 5 after another set of yellow-flag stops around Lap 100, and at Lap 108, she was running right behind Johnson.

Following through on her intent to be more aggressive in her Daytona return, Patrick hooked onto the back of Earnhardt during the green-white-checkered finish (which she started from ninth position). She found herself sliding across the finish line in the end, but that didn’t cause her to second-guess her decision, however.

When the checkered flag is looming, it’s every driver for themselves, after all.

“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do on those last laps,” she said.

MRTI: Keith Donegan earns Mazda Shootout Scholarship

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Dublin, Ireland’s Keith Donegan claimed a $200K scholarship from Mazda after emerging victorious at the second annual Mazda Road to Indy Shootout. The 20-year-old Donegan earned an at-large nomination for the scholarship based on his performance at this year’s Formula Ford Festival, in which he finished second in the final, and emerged from a pack of 17 drivers from across the globe to claim the scholarship.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” said an emotional Donegan, who earlier in his career actually spent two years away from racing as he focused on academics. “The weekend was really good and I enjoyed it. I have to say a huge thanks to Mazda and Cooper Tires and everyone at the Mazda Road to Indy. I enjoyed every moment. Throughout the weekend we were consistent and I kept the small things in check. I didn’t make any stupid mistakes and kept my head cool and that really paid off in the end.”

The two-day shootout was held at the Bondurant Racing School in Arizona and saw the nominated drivers tackle the school’s 1.6-mile circuit in Formula Mazda race cars before facing on and off-track assessments. Donegan was selected by a panel of judges that included former driver and current Verizon IndyCar Series TV analyst Scott Goodyear, Mazda drivers Tom Long, Andrew Carbonell, and Jonathan Bomarito, as well as Victor Franzoni – the current champion of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires – and Oliver Askew, the current champion of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.

Donegan was humbled to be in the presence of drivers who have won scholarships and championships previously, and added that he is grateful to have the opportunity to continue his racing career.

“You see all these champions here today that will go on to great things in the future and I’m sure the names you see here today aren’t going to disappear,” Donegan added. “They will be back up there and I’m sure I will be racing them again some day. It is an unbelievable opportunity to be given and for Mazda to provide that for any young driver. It just gives that bit of motivation that you need because the [U.S.] is where you need to go to become a professional these days. It is such a boost to my career.”

Donegan is now slated to join the 2018 USF2000 championship, with further announcements regarding the team with whom he’ll be racing to come in the future.

Follow @KyleMLavigne