Danica Patrick’s 2014 Speedweeks an exercise in frustration

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When all was said and done, the 2014 edition of Daytona Speedweeks was nothing to write home about for Danica Patrick.

At what many acknowledge is one of her two strongest tracks – she has frequently run in the top-10 at both Daytona and Talladega since entering NASCAR full-time in 2012, and even in her part-time races before – Patrick was involved in two major wrecks during the week, neither of her own creation.

Patrick was still one of the biggest storylines of the month heading into the week-and-a-half period, thanks largely to the comments offered by Richard Petty. It triggered a measured response from Patrick, a mild backtrack from Petty, and then an impassioned defense from her boss Tony Stewart that led to the rather crazy idea Petty, 76, and Patrick could actually race head-to-head.

On-track, away from the headlines though, Patrick ran better than her results indicated.

Her Sprint Unlimited wreck only occurred after Patrick had actually done a rather stealthy job of weaving through spinning cars in the tri-oval. It was only when she spun on her own in avoidance that she was right in the path of, of all people, her boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Then she and Stenhouse were among the top three in Sprint Cup practice on the Friday after the Budweiser Duel races.

Saturday in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race, Patrick had a good shot to win after starting third in the No. 30 Florida Lottery-sponsored Turner Scott Motorsports Chevrolet. But she didn’t lead and with passing a little harder to achieve, and single-file racing the norm for most of the day, she faded to 19th by the checkered flag.

The Daytona 500 was also a relatively nondescript day at the office. Patrick started from the rear of the field after her pre-qualifying engine change; she methodically moved up to the mid-20s, but never seriously looked like threatening the leaders.

She did lead two laps during a pit stop sequence, but that was thanks to varying in-and-out laps in the field.

Coincidentally, she was struck twice during the race by both of Petty’s Fords. In the opening pit stop sequence, before the six-hour delay, she got hit by Marcos Ambrose while entering her pit stall. It was minor contact but still an interesting nugget.

Of course the bigger incident of contact came when Aric Almirola’s other Richard Petty Motorsports Ford, the No. 43, ricocheted off the Turn 4 SAFER barrier back across the track and collected Patrick on Lap 145. It wasn’t a particularly heavy incident of contact, but the result afterwards was Patrick spinning into the unguarded wall on the outside of the track just before the tri-oval.

“I think more than anything I am just upset because the GoDaddy car felt really good and it was the best car that I had all Speedweeks,” Patrick said. “It seemed like we could catch whoever and it seemed like we could move around, make lanes and just move around and move forward at the end of the day. I felt like everything was going pretty well, so it’s just upsetting. It’s a bummer, but you know that is the excitement of speedway racing that anything can happen, and it was unfortunate that I was on the short end of the accident. But that is the kind of thing that happens, and I appreciate everyone sticking around and watching, and we will go get them at Phoenix.”

You forget how hard some impacts can be that aren’t into SAFER walls, and Patrick’s was one of two of them during the race. In the waning stages, 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne also hit a non-SAFER outside retaining wall on the backstraight.

Patrick’s day mirrored the frustration for the entire Stewart-Haas Racing quartet, who walked away from the Daytona 500 without a single top-10 between them and with several wrecked race cars.

Fuel cell issues hampered Stewart’s race, resigning him to a 35th-place result.

Meanwhile the two SHR new drivers, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, ended only 13th and 21st. Harvick was involved in the final lap crash off Turn 4; Busch faded back despite leading 15 laps in the early stages of the race.

And as for Stenhouse Jr.? He ended a solid seventh. Go figure.

Cooper solidifies PWC GT presence with Callaway Corvette

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC
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Pirelli World Challenge could use a “face” of the series from a driving standpoint, and American Michael Cooper is a good candidate to fill that role for 2018.

Cooper, 27, has won PWC Touring Car, GTS and, most recently the SprintX GT titles within the series and has quickly blossomed into one of the series’ top GT stars.

It’s been a rapid rise for the Syosset, N.Y. native, entering into a world filled with series stars and champions such as Johnny O’Connell, Patrick Long, Alvaro Parente and a host of others.

But under O’Connell’s tutelage, Cooper admirably filled the rather gaping shoes vacated by Andy Pilgrim at Cadillac Racing, steering the Cadillac ATS-V.R to multiple race wins in the last two years – including a sweep of this year’s season finale weekend at Sonoma.

Cooper and Jordan Taylor were the model of consistency in SprintX this year, winning once at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and surviving contact at Circuit of The Americas to take that title.

With Cadillac withdrawing its ATS-V.R program at the end of the year though, Cooper was left a free agent for 2018. Fortunately with one door closed another opened, in the form of the GM-blessed but full Callaway Competition USA effort with its Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R that will come Stateside next year. Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz will be in the team’s two cars for the full season; the car was fully unveiled last week at the PRI Show in Indianapolis.

The Callaway is a proven commodity in Europe but couldn’t run in the U.S. unless the path was cleared by one of GM’s factory programs to end a direct, potential head-to-head competition.

Moving from the Cadillac to the Callaway Corvette should be a natural transition, Cooper said last week.

“It worked out incredibly well that GM decided to allow Calloway to run the car in the United States and it created an opportunity for me that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” he told NBC Sports. “I talked to a lot of other GT teams and at the end of the day, I felt like this was the best direction for me to be competitive next year and to also continue furthering my career with General Motors.”

Indeed Cooper has graduated from the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS to the Cadillac and now to the Callaway Corvette. Cooper hailed the Cadillac team for what they did for his career growth.

“Working with Cadillac Racing has been instrumental in developing my abilities both on and off the track,” he said. “So I’m definitely a much more well-rounded driver now and have a lot of experience in the World Challenge GT field, so I kind of know what to expect going into that first race and going into that first corner in St. Pete.”

As noted, the car’s success in Europe means it’s a well-oiled machine by the time Reeves Callaway has worked with PWC to bring it Stateside next year. And as Cooper explained, discussions had been underway for a bit of time to ensure his presence in this car and team.

“I think the car is going to be extremely capable. It’s already won championships and races in Europe. I think, in bringing it over here, we’re going to hit the ground running straight away,” he said.

“Calloway had wanted me to come drive for them in July or August. We always kept in touch since then, and there was a lot of work trying to put together a program before they decided that they were going to do a fully fledged factory program. So once they made that decision, I think the pieces were kind of in place already, and the conversations had been had to be able to say ‘You’re going to be our guy.’”

December is late for IMSA programs to get finalized, but it’s relatively early for PWC, with the season not starting until mid-March in St. Petersburg. An extensive testing program should follow, as Callaway establishes its U.S. base and infrastructure.

“It’s definitely early for a Pirelli World Challenge program to be announced in December when we start racing in March. So that’s very good,” he said. “But, the team has a lot of work ahead of them in terms of getting infrastructure set up here in the United States, because a lot of their racing program has been in Europe. So, there will be a testing program, but they have to get the infrastructure in place first. But, we’ll be well prepared for St. Pete, I’m certain of it.

“Last year was the first year when I could sit back, kick my feet up, and know what I was doing next year. So, to be able to have everything done and be able to announce it this early on makes my life less stressful and now I can just focus on preparing myself and my team for next year.”