Danica Patrick earns season-best 14th-place finish Sunday at Fontana

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Ever since the season-opening Daytona 500 and in each of the four races that have followed, NASCAR media has been able to report the same thing after each race: Danica Patrick enjoyed her best finish thus far of the 2014 Sprint Cup season.

Admittedly, the first two finishes – 40th at Daytona and 36th at Phoenix – weren’t much to write home about.

But Patrick has shown steady progress since then, finishing 21st at Las Vegas, 18th last Sunday at Bristol and yet another season best in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway, where she finished a very respectable 14th.

Patrick, who qualified 27th for the race, might have finished even higher at the end, but a tire issue on Lap 139 caused her to lose ground before rallying back strong for the eventual top-15 showing.

“It seems like some of our most trying weekends end up with our better results,” Patrick said. “We will take it and we will know that there is so much more potential for those weekends where we feel like we are running a lot better.”

It was Patrick’s best Sprint Cup series showing since finishing 14th in last July’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

“We just made little adjustments here and there,” Patrick said. “I don’t think we were extremely fast, but we were fast enough to pick them off and move up and have a steady day.

“It’s nice when you get fortunate and lucky and your best running position on track happens to be the last lap so I will take it – that doesn’t normally happen.”

Now in her second full Sprint Cup season, Sunday’s finish tied her fourth-best overall in her Cup career. Her three best finishes were all last year: eighth in the season-opening Daytona 500 (after starting from the pole), 12th at Martinsville last spring and 13th at Michigan, also in the spring.

With Sunday’s finish, Patrick moved up one position in the season standings to 27th, a far cry from where she was after Daytona (37th) and Phoenix (39th).

What’s more, as hard as it may seem to believe, Patrick is now just two positions behind Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick (25th) and three spots behind fellow teammate Kurt Busch (24th).

Busch, of note, climbed seven places in the rankings after leading the overall SHR contingent with a third-place finish in Sunday’s race.

Patrick is now 94 points behind new series leader Carl Edwards, while Busch is 87 points back and Harvick 89 points out of first.

Team co-owner and leader Tony Stewart finished fifth in the race to climb to 17th in the standings, just 59 points behind Edwards.

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F1 2017 driver review: Sergio Perez

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Sergio Perez

Team: Sahara Force India
Car No.: 11
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Best Finish: P4 (Spain)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 1
Points: 100
Championship Position: 7th

While failing to hit the podium as he did in both 2015 and 2016, Sergio Perez once again finished the year as Formula 1’s leading midfield team driver, but faced a greater fight from within Force India in the shape of Esteban Ocon.

Perez has long been knocking on the door of F1’s top teams should an opportunity come up, and 2017 saw him continue his solid if unspectacular form. The dominance of Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari meant any finish higher than seventh was impressive, something he managed to do on five occasions.

But there were some missed opportunities along the way, most significantly in Baku. Force India had been quick all weekend, with Perez charging to sixth on the grid, and when drama struck at the front, he and teammate Ocon were eyeing a podium finish as a minimum.

Contact between the two forced Perez to retire and prompted Ocon to pit for repairs, leaving the team without the top-three finish it targeted heading into the season. With Lance Stroll taking P3 for Williams and Daniel Ricciardo winning the race, a maiden victory for Force India was not out of the realm of imagination.

Perez and Ocon came to blows on a number of occasions, with the final straw coming in Spa when they twice touched on-track, prompting Force India to introduce team orders. Perez finished the year 13 points clear of Ocon in the final standings, meeting his own pre-season target of 100 points, yet the Frenchman had arguably made the bigger impression at Force India through his first full season in F1.

Force India remains the top underdog in F1 with Perez spearheading its charge, but it is difficult to see either taking the final step to becoming true contenders at the front of the field anytime soon, as solid as their displays have been.

Season High: P4 in Spain after retirements for the ‘big three’.

Season Low: Losing a sure-fire podium, if not a win, in Baku after contact with Ocon.