Dale Jr. still NASCAR’s best hope for gaining mainstream fans

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Earlier this month on its website, Forbes released a story that will be in its Sept. 23 issue on Danica Patrick’s impact on NASCAR so far in her first full-time season of Sprint Cup racing. As you’d expect from that particular magazine, there’s a lot written about Patrick – and NASCAR as a whole – from the business and marketing perspectives.

It’s a well-written story from the author, Kurt Badenhausen. But the headline could be something more than a few race fans will take issue with: “A Winning Danica Patrick Is NASCAR’s Biggest Hope To Restart Growth.”

With all due respect to Forbes, if Patrick is indeed NASCAR’s biggest hope to return to its not-too-distant salad days, they’re going to have to hope for a little while longer.

Restrictor-plate racing notwithstanding, Patrick is not a regular contender for victory. At most tracks, she’s still just trying to gain experience. In time, she could be something pretty good in Cup, but there’s still a ways to go before she gets to that point. Let’s see where she stands around mid-season next year.

So if Patrick’s not NASCAR biggest hope, then who is it?

Come on. Who else could it be?

A winning Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains NASCAR’s best opportunity to augment their diehard base with the casual and mainstream fan. Unfortunately for the series, its biggest star – while competitive enough to run in the Top 10 most weeks – hasn’t been doing a lot of winning lately, with just two victories in the last seven seasons.

But while Earnhardt has cooled off a bit after starting 2013 strong, he’s still in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. And he has the opportunity to make a statement when it truly counts.

That’s the beauty of the playoffs in all of sports. You may be having an iffy year by some standards (maybe even your own), but if you can still make the post-season, you have the chance to catch fire at the right time.

One minute, you’re an afterthought. The next, you’re a champion.

And should Dale Jr. become a champion this fall, NASCAR would indeed reap the benefits. While he has been unable to win regularly, he remains the most popular driver in the sport by a considerable margin.

And more importantly, if you walked out on the street and asked any Tom, Dick and Jane if they knew of any NASCAR drivers, he’s still likely to be one of, if not the first name to tumble out of their mouths.

Should Patrick improve by a noticeable margin in the next year or two, perhaps Forbes’ assertion will come true eventually. But at this point and time, Earnhardt is the one NASCAR executives should be crossing their fingers for to do well.

Toro Rosso at crossroads after Kvyat’s point, Hartley’s strong debut

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In a weekend with something to prove at Circuit of The Americas, Daniil Kvyat rose to the occasion with what he called “his best race of the season for sure” at the United States Grand Prix.

But it may not be enough for the Russian to have saved his seat at Scuderia Toro Rosso for the three final races this year.

Meanwhile, New Zealander Brendon Hartley capped off his roller-coaster debut weekend in Formula 1 with a solid 13th place finish after starting from the rear of the grid, learning as the race went on and bringing home his Toro Rosso chassis to the flag.

Toro Rosso faces a dilemma of three drivers available but only two seats to fill for the final three Grands Prix, with the Mexican Grand Prix coming up just next week.

Frenchman Pierre Gasly will be back after missing Austin due to his Super Formula commitments at Suzuka in Japan, but ultimately that went for naught as the races were canceled due to a typhoon.

Kvyat qualified 12th, was promoted to 11th by way of grid penalties and ended 10th, scoring a point for only the third race this year and first time since coming ninth in the Spanish Grand Prix back in May.

It was a weekend where he would have been expected to outdo Hartley, and did so, but not by a massive margin. And he was already coming in with a track time disadvantage, losing out in FP1 as Indonesian Formula 2 driver Sean Gelael ran in his chassis.

As it was, he rated his weekend performance highly and didn’t do his chances of staying in the car any harm.

Speaking to NBCSN after the race, Kvyat said, “Yeah, it was a perfect race. I did everything well. Brought the points home. It was close with (Felipe) Massa.

“We had some energy release issues on the engine. But it was a massive weekend. It was great. I really enjoyed myself. It was a good job by the team to keep it together with very limited running.

Hartley built up confidence throughout the weekend as he learned the car, the Pirelli tires and how an F1 race races versus an endurance race that he’d been used to doing for several years.

Having coming into the weekend with no expectations and just taking the race session-by-session, he felt good at the end of it.

“There’s so many little things to reflect on,” he told NBCSN. “I’ll put the eyes at rest and process it all. I did the standing start and it wasn’t the best… it’s been a long time.

“But yeah, (you’re learning) in terms of following in traffic, what 20 laps on these tires means, how much you can push it. I’m pretty satisfied. The pace was pretty strong. I made the mistake of getting passed by (Lance) Stroll. I couldn’t pass him back. Lots of challenges. I hope I can get another shot at it.

“Up until this moment… I didn’t want to know. I just wanted to do the job. I’m really relaxed. Now there might be some conversations.”

Toro Rosso figures to reveal its Mexican Grand Prix driver lineup early this week.