NASCAR: Danica finishes eighth, and moves ahead of Stenhouse in points

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Given some of the hype that’s surrounded her NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career to this point, an eighth-place finish for Danica Patrick would generally and widely be hailed as one of the biggest stories of the day.

Perhaps refreshingly, her run to eighth Sunday in the rain-delayed Coke Zero 400 at Daytona was a relative afterthought.

It also speaks to an increasing level of competitiveness that has seen Patrick rise from also-ran to genuine mid-level contender over the last several weeks, which is a positive step for her career development.

It was a race that featured a first-time winner in Aric Almirola, several rain delays, her own Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch dominating but falling to the wrong place at the wrong time, and of course, two separate “big ones” (one, two).

Although her No. 10 Florida Lottery/GoDaddy Chevrolet sustained minor damage from slithering through the first “big one” on Lap 21, Patrick otherwise ran a clean, consistent race on what’s widely regarded as one of her best tracks, the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway.

The top-10 result was her second eighth place at Daytona, after also ending eighth in 2013 in the race she scored the pole position. She posted her career-best seventh place finish at Kansas in May.

“It’s been a crazy day,” she said, via USA Today. “I can’t believe we finished eighth.”

As a result of her result, Patrick now ranks ahead of boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the Cup points standings. Patrick is 27th, Stenhouse 28th. Patrick also is only three positions behind Busch, the new fourth car at SHR.

Stenhouse’s day was a forgettable one after helping to trigger the first 16-car accident on Lap 21.

Patrick’s actually been on the best run of results thus far in her two-plus year career in Cup. Her last month has seen finishes of 17th (Michigan), 18th (Sonoma), 21st (Kentucky) and now eighth. Her qualifying has been much improved as well, with starts of 16th or better in six of the last nine races.

For reference, Patrick had only seven top-20 finishes the entire 2013 season. She has six already in 18 2014 races, so she’s moving in the right direction.

By contrast, Stenhouse appears to be regressing. Yes, he’s matched his 2013 totals of one top-five and three top-10 finishes and has done so in just 18 races. But since his runner-up finish at Bristol in March, Stenhouse has just three top-20 finishes, and has fallen from 10th to 28th in the points standings.

Yes, Daytona is always a crapshoot, but it was still important for Patrick to take advantage at a track she usually does well at. She did on this Sunday.

Mercedes, Ferrari go conservative on Austrian GP tire picks

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Pirelli has confirmed all 20 Formula 1 drivers’ tire picks for next weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, with most opting to stack up on ultra-softs.

As it does for every grand prix, Pirelli will bring three compounds to Austria next week, electing for the softest possible combination of ultra-soft, super-soft and soft tires.

In the regular pre-race release of each driver’s tire picks, Pirelli revealed that Force India, McLaren and Red Bull have gone down the most aggressive routes, stacking up on the ultra-soft tire.

Title contenders Mercedes and Ferrari have gone down a more conservative route, favoring additional sets of the super-soft compound.

Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen will take seven sets of ultra-softs to Spielberg, while Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas will have eight sets at their disposal through the weekend.

Graham Rahal survives Road America to finish eighth

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Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing faced a roller coaster of a race during the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America on Sunday.

He was a rocket off the initial start, jumping from sixth on the grid up to fourth exiting turn 1, but was almost immediately ordered to surrender a position for blocking. He quickly slipped back to sixth, and then began plummeting down the order as he battled an oversteer condition that saw his car chew through its rear tires more quickly than others.

Forced to abandon the planned three-stop strategy, he and the No. 15 Gehl Honda team switched to a four-stop plan that saw him drop well outside the top ten at times.

However, they kept plugging away and rebounded nicely in the second half of the race to eventually finish in eighth. While he would have liked to finish higher up the order, Rahal knows that he and the team got everything they could out of it.

“The car was a handful today. I knew about five laps in that I didn’t have the pace for a three-stop strategy,” Rahal revealed post-race. “We tried as best we could to work with what we had during the race and overcome it. I would have obviously liked to have finished better, but eighth is about as good as we could do today. We struggled with a very loose race car all weekend and just couldn’t put a dent in the problem. We worked awfully hard but just missed it this weekend.”

The eighth-place finish keeps Rahal in the championship hunt. Rahal now sits seventh in the standings, 11 points behind fifth-place Josef Newgarden and 72 behind championship leader Scott Dixon.

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Ed Jones continues steady run with seventh at Road America

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Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones has made waves in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season with a string of solid performances that belie his rookie status.

And Sunday’s Kohler Grand Prix at Road America was no different.

The 22-year-old battled an oversteering car most of the weekend at Road America, and had to navigate a little carnage late in the race as Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay both fell through the field with front wing problems.

However, Jones weathered all storms to finish an impressive seventh, his fifth finish inside the top 10 this year, and his best finish since his third place at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade MotorOil.

“It was a really tough race,” Jones said of the effort. “We had a loose car yesterday. It was loose, but fast, for qualifying, and today again the car was really loose. I was hanging on the whole race, but the team had some good pit stops and we were able to move up.

“Obviously, the strategy was pretty similar to everyone else. Everyone was aggressive out there. It was hard racing but we came out with a seventh place and we moved up a little bit in the points.”

The seventh-place run sees Jones maintain his position in the top ten in the championship. He currently sits tenth in the standings, three points ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton.

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Vilander replaces Bird at AF Corse for Nurburgring WEC round

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AF Corse has confirmed that Toni Vilander will race the No. 71 Ferrari 488 GTE in next month’s FIA World Endurance Championship round at the Nürburgring in place of Sam Bird, who is tied up with Formula E commitments in New York.

Vilander currently races full-time in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with Risi Competizione, and appeared at the 24 Hours of Le Mans two weeks ago.

The Finn won the WEC GT drivers’ title in 2014 and last raced full-time in the series in 2015, but will return at the Nürburgring in place of Bird, who confirmed on Monday that he would be prioritizing his Formula E commitments on the July 16 weekend.

Vilander is relishing the opportunity to race alongside Davide Rigon in the No. 71 Ferrari, and is eager to bounce back from an early retirement at Le Mans.

“I’m happy to be able to return to the FIA WEC with the 488 GTE of AF Corse team. This is my chance to cancel the disappointment of the 24 Hours of Le Mans as soon as possible,” Vilander said.

“Car number 71 is in the top places of the championship standings, and I will give all I have to achieve the best possible result at Nürburgring, to help Ferrari in the manufacturers’ championship and Davide Rigon in the drivers’ ranking.”