Instead of significant improvement, 2014 starting off the way 2013 ended for Danica Patrick

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Danica Patrick was supposed to have a much better season in 2014, her sophomore campaign on the Sprint Cup circuit.

But after the first two races, 2014 is starting to look a lot like 2013 for Patrick, unfortunately.

Patrick struggled to a 36th-place finish in Sunday’s The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

While it was a slight improvement from her 40th-place showing (after being involved in a multi-car wreck) in the season-opening Daytona 500 last Sunday, it’s obviously not the kind of start Patrick, crew chief Tony Gibson and Stewart Haas Racing were likely hoping for.

Patrick, who finished 27th in the 2013 final season standings, is now 39th in the Sprint Cup rankings after the first two races, already 77 points behind points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“It’s tough,” Patrick said. “That’s two weeks in a row we’ve had good cars and nothing to show for it. The car was good all day, we just needed track position. I’m starting to think if we didn’t have bad luck, we’d have no luck at all. The GoDaddy guys built me a great car for the second week in a row. I hate it for them, and I hate it for GoDaddy. This is obviously an important race for them (GoDaddy is headquartered in Phoenix). Hopefully, things turn around in Las Vegas.”

Even though Patrick has lived in suburban Phoenix for the last few years, PIR has not been very welcoming to her.

Patrick now has four Sprint Cup starts at the flat one-mile track under her belt, the last three being finishes of 30th or worse.

She finished 17th in her first Cup race there in fall 2012, followed by 39th in spring 2013 (due to a crash), 33rd last fall 2013 (10 laps behind race winner Kevin Harvick) and now 36th (six laps behind the winning Harvick).

She was on pace for a possible top-10 showing in the fall 2012 race, but slammed into the wall on the final lap after being hit from behind by Jeff Burton.

And then as Patrick limped her damaged car down the frontstretch, she was hit from behind by Paul Menard after a big wreck as the checkered flag fell.

On a restart on Lap 171 in Sunday’s race, Patrick was headed into Turn 1 when she tangled with Justin Allgaier, causing her car to spin around against the outside retaining wall.

Both drivers were able to continue after quick damage repairs on pit road, but as she pulled away from her pit stall Patrick told Gibson over the team radio that she smelled smoke inside the car.

About a dozen laps later, Patrick went for a single-car spin and flat-spotted her left rear tire, requiring another visit to pit road.

Granted, we’re only two races into the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule, but Patrick isn’t the only driver having early season struggles. Kurt Busch left Phoenix 30th in the Sprint Cup standings, while Martin Truex Jr. (who started the Daytona 500 on the outside pole) left in 35th place.

Maybe the third race of the season in Las Vegas next Sunday will be the charm for Patrick.

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Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.