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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IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.