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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Ocon picks up maiden F1 point in Australia, finishes as top rookie

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Esteban Ocon picked up his first point in Formula 1 during his maiden outing for Force India in Australia on Sunday, finishing the race 10th and as the top rookie.

Ocon made his F1 debut in Belgium last year with the backmarker Manor team, completing the final nine rounds of the season before moving into a seat with Force India for 2017.

Embarking on his first full season of F1 (and therefore still a rookie) in 2017, Ocon qualified 14th in Australia on Saturday before spending much of the race battling with Fernando Alonso and Nico Hulkenberg, the trio going three-wide down the main straight at one point.

Ocon was able to come out on top, clinching the final point on offer in Melbourne by finishing P10 to complete a double-points finish for Force India after Sergio Perez ended up seventh.

“Very happy with today. It’s been a tough weekend but a great reward at the end,” Ocon told NBCSN after the race.

“Fighting with Alonso made things difficult. It was side by side. Then I had the better pace with him. It’s so much harder to overtake, but I made the pass and got the point.

“I’m learning all the time. It’s good what we’ve done here. This is good for the team. We hope we can score many more for the championship.”

Ocon emerged as the top rookie in Melbourne, with Antonio Giovinazzi and Stoffel Vandoorne finishing 12th and 13th respectively. Williams’ Lance Stroll – making his first start in F1 – retired due to a brake disc issue.

F1 Paddock Pass: Australian Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

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And so, the 2017 Formula 1 season is officially underway with the Australian Grand Prix. Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari are on top, having beat Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes both on strategy and on pace to kick off this new era in the sport’s history.

A recap of the day from the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne occurs below in the latest edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series, Paddock Pass, as F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales go into the paddock to run down the stories of the day.

MORE: Full Australian Grand Prix event replay; Mosaic replay

The podium saw Vettel ahead of Hamilton, with Mercedes’ new driver Valtteri Bottas coming third on debut for the team.

Other interviews that occurred during NBCSN’s post-race coverage on F1 Extra included with Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen, who came fourth and fifth respectively, with Force India’s Esteban Ocon who scored his first career point, and with McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, who doggedly dragged his McLaren Honda into a potential points-paying finish before a late-race retirement.

Paddock Pass is in three parts and can be viewed below.

Haas’ sophomore F1 season starts badly with double DNF in Australia

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The Haas Formula 1 team’s sophomore campaign got off to a bad start on Sunday as drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen were both forced to retire from the Australian Grand Prix.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas took his eponymous operation into F1 last year, making its debut in Australia 12 months ago.

Grosjean scored a memorable sixth-place finish on that day in Melbourne, and looked poised to repeat the result in 2017 after qualifying sixth on Saturday.

A poor start was Grosjean drop to seventh, but he managed to hold position through the opening stint of the race ahead of the pit stop cycle.

However, Grosjean had no chance to wield some strategic genius as Haas did last year, with a water leak forcing him to retire while inside the top 10.

“I suddenly lost a lot of power. I told the guys, then the next thing I knew I had to slow down the car,” Grosjean explained.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result, but again, right now I’m hot and we’re all disappointed to lose a seventh-place position, but the car was there in qualifying in P6. The start wasn’t ideal, so we need to improve that. I felt I was faster than the Williams, so there’s huge potential in the car.

“I guess the key for us is to keep the momentum and get the consistency we didn’t have last year, where I’d be fifth in Bahrain then 19th in China. I really want to improve on that and get more consistency in terms of results. If we do that, then I’m sure there are going to be plenty of races where we can score good points.”

Grosjean’s new teammate for 2017, Kevin Magnussen, suffered an early setback when he clashed with Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson on the first lap, and ultimately retired due to a suspension issue stemming from the incident.

“I had Ericsson on the outside and I understeered into the side of him, which was unfortunate. I lost my front wing and damaged the car a little bit,” Magnussen said.

“We changed the front wing and then I went for a long test session to feel the car and learn a bit more about it, which was good. It feels good and the car is fast.

“That’s the really positive thing from this weekend. The car is there. We just have to make it finish and score points.”

Team principal Guenther Steiner added: “Not the race we wished for, or we expected. With Romain it looks like we had a water leak. We don’t know yet where that came from.

“Obviously, Kevin’s race was destroyed in the third corner after the contact with Ericsson. He then ended up later with a suspension failure, which we still have to investigate why.

“The good thing we take out of here is that the car seems to be fast. We need to work on a few parts and, hopefully, we can get back strong again in China in two weeks.”

Sam Posey previews 2017 with ‘The Winds of Change’ (VIDEO)

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As the 2017 kicks off from Australia, our resident poet laureate Sam Posey has penned his latest essay on what’s to come ahead of the new year.

Here’s a look ahead to the new season, with Posey’s “The Winds of Change” looking at the vast transformation in the sport that occurred over the winter, from the change in ownership, to the change in cars, to the change in the lineups… and to the change in the pecking order.

An archive of Posey’s 2016 essays are linked here.