IndyCar shaping up as more competitive in 2014 than 2013, through 10 races

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Sinking my teeth into the statistics is always one of my favorite parts of a post-weekend debrief in the Verizon IndyCar Series, and the analysis after this weekend’s Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston doubleheader is no different.

Here’s some of the cool nuggets and/or trends that have emerged following the weekend’s action around the M.D Anderson Cancer Center Speedway at NRG Park.

The stats reveal one thing: After a ridiculously competitive 2013, 2014 has only carried that over.

  • 16 podium finishers: The three rookies that bagged their first podiums in Houston, Carlos Huertas, Mikhail Aleshin and Jack Hawksworth, upped the number of podium finishers to 16 this year. Through 10 races in 2013, there were 14 podium finishers; that number grew to 20 by the end of the year. The seven full-timers who haven’t yet: Ryan Briscoe, James Hinchcliffe, Justin Wilson, Sebastien Bourdais, Sebastian Saavedra, Takuma Sato and Josef Newgarden. The potential exists at least five of those seven could get one in the final eight races, and beat the 20 mark to hit 21 or more.
  • Number of different winners tracking on par: Through 10 races last year, we had seven different winners. Through 10 this year… we have seven different winners once more. Those who have won in both years: Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Mike Conway, Simon Pagenaud, and Helio Castroneves. New additions for 2014 are Ed Carpenter and Carlos Huertas, replacing Hinchcliffe and Sato. Last year there were 10 different winners in total; the record in a single season is 11.
  • Top-10 finishing droughts: Eight drivers: Scott Dixon, Power, Saavedra, Sato, Conway, Newgarden, Graham Rahal and Luca Filippi didn’t finish in the top 10 in either Houston race. Saavedra hasn’t bagged a top-10 since Round 2 at Long Beach; it’s been since Round 3 for Newgarden at Barber, and Round 4 for Sato at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
  • RHR, Andretti and Power’s qualifying outage: Both Power and Hunter-Reay need to recapture their qualifying magic. In the first five races, both drivers had four top-five starts apiece. Since, Power’s Texas pole is the only combined top-five start between them. The grid spots the last 5 races: Power: 16, 8, 1, 18, 18; RHR’s: 21, 21, 12, 8, 21. Continuing the theme of “bad five-race qualifying stretch,” take a look at Marco Andretti’s last five grid spots: 18, 18, 17, 16, 16.
  • Hinch’s odd stat continues: Hat tip to The Set-Up Sheet’s Steve Wittich who discovered this first, but Hinchcliffe has yet to finish better than he’s started this year, and that dubious stat continued through Houston despite finishes of fifth and 14th. The driver of the No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda has eight top-10 starts in 10 races this year, including five P2 grid spots. Helio Castroneves leads the field with nine top-10 starts in 10 races.
  • Huertas/Kimball no top-10 starts: Huertas and Charlie Kimball are the only two full-time drivers without a top-10 start thus far in 10 races. Huertas has started 12th on two occasions; Kimball’s best is 13th, set in Houston race one.
  • Pagenaud mirrors one streak as two more continue: Pagenaud joins Dixon as the only two drivers to set fastest race lap in back-to-back races. Meanwhile, through 10 races, no polesitter has won a race this year, and no driver has won back-to-back races.
  • First big margin of victory: Pagenaud’s 7.2622-second margin of victory over teammate Aleshin is the first this season in IndyCar north of 1.9 seconds.
  • Two wins, two liveries: Pagenaud’s also won driving two different liveries in the same year, with blue, white and orange on his No. 77 Oculus Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda at the GP of Indy, while now he’s won in orange Oculus colors this weekend. The last driver to do that was Helio Castroneves in 2012 (Shell No. 3 red/yellow St. Petersburg, Penske Truck Rental yellow Edmonton).
  • More cautions: Houston’s two races produced six (race one) and five (race 2) cautions. The six in race one is a season-high thus far; 24 laps for race one is also the most. Unsurprisingly, as a result, these two races produced the lowest winner average speeds this year (70.389 mph race one, 78.981 race 2).
  • Barber, Houston 1 end in common: Barber and Houston share the unfortunate commonality of being two rain/time shortened races, and also the only two races that have ended under yellow.

Danica Patrick to sign off driving career at 2018 Indy 500

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With her full-time career in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series now coming to an end, following the end of the 2017 season this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Danica Patrick is embarking on a new path in 2018 with the two biggest 500-mile races in North America.

Patrick confirmed plans to participate in North America’s most marquee 500-mile races, the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500, during a press conference today in Miami. A team for the Indianapolis 500 has not been determined, and her options for the Daytona 500 are limited to NASCAR teams with three or fewer full-time cars, because a four-car full-time team cannot enter a fifth for the Daytona 500.

Patrick ended her full-time career in IndyCar after 2011 to head to NASCAR. She drove 10 races in 2012 before her first full Cup season in 2013, where she won the pole for that year’s Daytona 500 and ultimately finished eighth.

Her Cup career has seen her finish between 24th and 28th in points with seven career top-10 finishes, all between sixth and 10th place. She ranks 27th heading into this week’s finale too.

It was her IndyCar career though where she first entered the national conversation after a few years of apprenticeship driving for Bobby Rahal’s Barber Dodge and Formula Atlantic teams. A fourth place finish in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 with a number of laps led launched her into the racing stratosphere and helped produce the Indianapolis 500’s biggest rating in years.

Ultimately her best finish in the ‘500 in seven starts was third place in 2009, behind Helio Castroneves and the late Dan Wheldon.

She won at Motegi, 2008, for her first and only win in IndyCar.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 29: Danica Patrick, driver of the #7 Team GoDaddy Dallara Honda, makes a pit stop during the IZOD IndyCar Series Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

A visibly emotional Patrick announced this was the end of her full-time driving career to kick off the press conference, but switched to her future plans once she got through the opening remarks.

Patrick “never thought” she’d do the Indianapolis 500 again but when tossing around future ideas, the concept of running both Daytona and Indianapolis came up.

“I never thought I would do it. I always thought never, but I never said never. Here I am,” she said.

“Out of my mouth came, ‘What about Indy?’ That was really the first sort of idea that got me excited. Let’s do it. I called Haley (Moore, longtime PR rep). What did I just say I would do? She said, ‘Hell yes that’s a good idea.’

“I’m still surprised.”

Patrick will need to participate in the Indianapolis 500 refresher program for drivers that aren’t full-time drivers, so that will provide her a couple hours additional track time before practice opens to the full field in mid-May.

The new 2018 Dallara universal body kit comes into being this year too, and Patrick thinks she has improved as a driver over the last six seasons to be able to come back.

“(Going) 240… it’ll be no problem,” she deadpanned. “It’ll take a bit of adjusting. It’s different for sure. But I think I’m a better driver now. It’ll take a bit of acclimating. Yeah, I would like to get in a car before I get to Indy.”

Patrick said running the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 “could” occur with her same teams she last ran with full-time, Stewart-Haas Racing and Andretti Autosport, respectively. But her options remain open for both.