Never say never: Polarizing, but popular, Danica Patrick back at Indy

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For the third time in the last 12 months, the open-wheel motorsports world has been smacked across the head with unexpected, shock news that definitively qualifies as the proverbial “jaw-dropper” of a story.

Just under one year ago, Nico Rosberg dropped the mic and retired after winning his first and only Formula 1 World Championship. Last April, three days after IndyCar raced at Long Beach and F1 raced in China, Fernando Alonso and McLaren pulled a somewhat bigger surprise by announcing they’d run this year’s Indianapolis 500 with Andretti Autosport.

And now, a driver equal parts popular and polarizing in this country – Danica Patrick – has announced Friday at her last full-time race as a NASCAR Cup Series driver that she’ll sign off her career at North America’s two biggest 500-mile races in Daytona and Indianapolis in 2018.

If such a comeback seems hard to believe, it’s largely because it is.

But the allure of going out at the race that made her name in North America is a tantalizing prospect and gives Patrick, who’ll be 36 next March, one last chance at glory at a race that, it’s easy to forget, she did rather well at.

The pure stats are solid: six top-10 finishes from seven starts, with 29 laps led, are very respectable numbers. More than the results though, Patrick helped lift the revival of the race that had sputtered for a good seven or eight years following the divisive Indy Racing League/CART split of 1996, and lifted the 2005 TV rating to a significantly higher number than it had been since the split.

There’s a nice closing here that could come with a return, as well, depending on the team she selects.

Looking at the Indianapolis 500, it’d only stand to reason Patrick would return to the race with one of the top-line teams that could be considered an Indianapolis favorite.

Perceived ‘big three’ outfits Team Penske (five cars), Chip Ganassi Racing (four) and Andretti Autosport (six) combined to field 15 of the 33 cars themselves last year.

A Ganassi bow is more than possible considering the team will run only two full-time cars next year and will have both the cars and crew (from its Ford GT sports car program) available for extras. The question now about an extra Ganassi car is if this announcement changes the potential idea of Kyle Larson running in 2018.

Meanwhile Michael Andretti’s team can run at least six, with five already confirmed as Stefan Wilson joins that group’s full-season four (Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Alexander Rossi, Zach Veach). However a return here for Patrick is “not in our plans,” an Andretti Autosport spokesperson told NBC Sports.

An extra Penske car is unlikely given that team’s four cars, and a fifth would presumably only be added for Juan Pablo Montoya if circumstances develop that way.

The only other realistic option to consider would be Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, where Patrick made her IndyCar debut and ran with her first two full seasons. The team has significant strength in its engineering department, the defending Indianapolis 500 champion driver in Takuma Sato added in a second car, and recently Graham Rahal made comments saying he’d welcome Patrick back if her plans allowed.

“I mean, Danica I would consider a great friend of our family. Certainly was a big part of the history of our program years and years ago,” Graham Rahal said during IndyCar’s teleconference announcing its 2018 schedule.

“It would always be great to have her back to drive at Indy. But really that’s completely up to her and the decisions that she makes.”

Any of those teams figure to offer a car and an engineering staff with top-10 finishing potential. The question for Patrick is whether she’d acclimate back to IndyCar like a driver with no IndyCar experience (Kurt Busch, Fernando Alonso) or as one with IndyCar experience, but a long time ago (Jacques Villeneuve).

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)

Her six seasons in NASCAR have produced little in terms of on-track results (only seven top-10 finishes, total), but her success there is not quantified solely by the stats.

She’s positively impacted a generation of young female fans, as well as provided beneficial exposure for companies associated with her. It’d be hard, for example, to think about GoDaddy as a company without the relationship they fostered with Patrick. And a year like this year where she experienced turbulence in the sponsorship side served as the exception to her career, not the norm, for a driver used to having built her brand with some good people and companies around her.

The teams she’ll have for Daytona and Indianapolis next year, particularly at the latter, will have to prepare themselves for the inevitable media circus that will follow. But they can also be prepared for good potential performance on-track in both races.

At Indianapolis in particular, Patrick is another early “extra star” that comes beyond the other story lines set to materialize for next May, and her presence will be chronicled heavily.

Next year’s Indianapolis 500 will be the first big oval race with the new 2018 Dallara universal body kit, which features significantly reduced downforce. This new car has both a significantly different aero package, as well as a reduced engine displacement – the 2.2L twin turbocharged V6 engines are a far cry from the 3.5L normally aspirated V8s she last drove in 2011. If she handles the change well, it speaks volumes of her ability through significantly different car transitions in the sport, which she never had to worry about in her 2005 through 2011 tenure.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 22: Danica Patrick, driver of the #7 Team GoDaddy Dallara Honda, talks with the media after qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 on May 22, 2011 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

It could, again, provide a boost in TV ratings after two consecutive years where the number has been down in 2016 and 2017. Alonso’s presence this year was a significant media generator throughout the month – almost to the point of overkill – but it turned out his impact was more important internationally than it was domestically. Alonso’s dalliance with North America though has grown into another major U.S. race start next year in Daytona, for the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Now, Patrick and fellow longtime IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves are the two featured guest attractions this year – and it’ll feel like old times all over again. Both figure to be good not just for TV ratings, but for ticket sales at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway throughout the month.

And for Patrick, it’s a chance to come back to a race that always felt like home. An open-wheel racer in her upbringing and at heart, the competitor in her couldn’t have been satisfied by the years of 20th-odd place finishes with the occasional “solid top-20 finish” serving as a “good day.”

Much has changed since. As of this writing, only nine drivers who raced in the 2011 Indianapolis 500 are still confirmed full-time in IndyCar for 2018 (Graham Rahal, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Marco Andretti, Ed Carpenter, Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Takuma Sato) with a few more from that race to be added.

So it’s a different landscape of a series now, an IndyCar Series that’s really grown with its own drivers over the last several years compared to one where her presence – often through no fault of her own – overshadowed the other stars.

In a final guest starring role, Patrick has one last chance to steal the spotlight in a beneficial ending to her own career, and the Indianapolis 500 as a race… if not the Verizon IndyCar Series as a whole.

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

The story of her new finale in IndyCar’s biggest race has only just begun.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 29: Danica Patrick, driver of the #7 Team GoDaddy Dallara Honda, stands next to the Borg-Warner Trophy prior to the IZOD IndyCar Series Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

NHRA shocker in Houston: John Force fails to qualify for first time since 2008, snaps 221-race streak

Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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Sunday’s eliminations in the 31st annual NHRA SpringNationals at Royal Purple Raceway in suburban Houston  just won’t be the same without John Force.

In one of the most stunning turn of events seen in the last decade-plus in NHRA drag racing, the legendary 16-time Funny Car champion and the sport’s all-time winningest driver on Saturday failed to qualify for Sunday’s main event of the race weekend.

It marks the first time Force, who turns 69 on May 4, failed to qualify for a race since Sept. 13, 2008 in Charlotte race, snapping a string of having made the eliminations in each of the subsequent 221 races until failing to do so Saturday.

“That is hard for me,” Force said after failing to go any faster than 222.29 mph in the four qualifying rounds for the race, two on Friday and the other two on Saturday. “You earn what you get. We didn’t put it in the show. We couldn’t get to half-track.

“We have had a lot of problems all year. At least I got my final shot to get in and I didn’t make it. I will be here tomorrow rooting on Robert, Courtney and Brittany (teammates Robert Hight and daughters Courtney and Brittany Force). I’ll be signing autographs for all the fans. I am sorry to all of you fans that I didn’t make it.”

Saturday’s failure to qualify marked only the 22nd time he’s DNQ’d in his 40-year professional drag racing career. He set a drag racing record by qualifying for 395 consecutive events from 1988 until April 2007.

“I am bummed that the boss didn’t get in. That was quite a streak he had going,” Hight said of hoss and father-in-law. “There is nobody better at rallying a team and leading a comeback than John Force.

“He loves the fight and he will do whatever it takes to get his team back on top. It really isn’t something to worry about because two of our Chevys are No.1 and No. 2 right now.

“We have good combinations and we just have to duplicate one of those set ups for John’s PEAK Funny car. He’ll be back next week in Charlotte.”

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As for the other classes (information courtesy NHRA Media Relations):Leah Pritchett set a new Top Fuel track record during the final qualifying session on Saturday to secure the top spot in Top Fuel heading into Sunday.Hight (Funny Car) and Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) are also No. 1 qualifiers in their respective categories at the fifth of 24 events on the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.

Defending event champion Pritchett raced her Mopar Dodge dragster to a pass of 3.680-seconds at 326.00 mph. This is her first No. 1 qualifier of the season and eighth of her career.

“We’ve been developing our confidence the last couple of races,” Pritchett stated. “To be able to put it on the track is phenomenal. We know we need to be exceptional because our competition is exceptional.”

Pritchett will line up against Terry Brian in round one of eliminations on Sunday. Defending world champion Brittany Force locked-in the No. 2 spot after a 3.701 at 313.80 in her Monster Energy dragster. Tony Schumacher is seeded third and will face William Litton.

Hight’s final qualifying pass of 3.894 at 317.27 in his Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro took him to the top of the Funny Car category. This is his first No. 1 qualifier of the season, second at Houston and 58th of his career.

“This is going to be a new ball game tomorrow,” Hight said. “With fresh asphalt and the sun being out; these cars are going to spin. It’s definitely going to be fun. Two of our Chevy’s are one and two (in Funny Car) which shows we have good combinations.”

Hight will face-off against Todd Simpson Sunday morning in the first round. Teammate Courtney Force sits in the No. 2 position with a pass of 3.911 at 295.14 in her Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro and two-time world champion Matt Hagan rounds out the top three.

Anderson, four-time Pro Stock world champion, remained atop the field Saturday with his pass of 6.492 at 213.00 in his Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro from the first qualifying session on Friday. He notched his third consecutive No. 1 qualifier of the season and is seeking his first victory of the year.

“I haven’t had great Sunday’s yet,” Anderson stated. “I know I’m going to break through one of these days though. The weather is going to be great again tomorrow. I feel good about it, I’m excited and so far it’s just been a great weekend.”

Anderson will race Steve Graham in the first round of eliminations. Jeg Coughlin Jr. qualified in the No. 2 position with a pass of 6.504 at 212.36 in his JEGS.com/Elite Performance Chevrolet Camaro and Tanner Gray is third.

Eliminations at the NHRA SpringNationals begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday at Royal Purple Raceway.

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SUNDAY’S FIRST-ROUND PAIRINGS FOR ELIMINATIONS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett, 3.680 seconds, 326.00 mph vs. 16. Terry Brian, 4.275, 284.62; 2. Brittany Force, 3.701, 320.20 vs. 15. Terry Haddock, 4.081, 287.17; 3. Tony Schumacher, 3.703, 322.73 vs. 14. Bill Litton, 3.927, 306.60; 4. Billy Torrence, 3.737, 317.87 vs. 13. Kebin Kinsley, 3.819, 313.51; 5. Antron Brown, 3.740, 324.98 vs. 12. Terry McMillen, 3.783, 314.31; 6. Clay Millican, 3.746, 315.78 vs. 11. Mike Salinas, 3.766, 313.73; 7. Doug Kalitta, 3.748, 320.05 vs. 10. Richie Crampton, 3.766, 316.23; 8. Scott Palmer, 3.754, 318.17 vs. 9. Steve Torrence, 3.759, 313.88. Did Not Qualify: 17. Terry Totten, 4.636, 216.34.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.894, 317.27 vs. 16. Todd Simpson, Dodge Charger, 4.318, 288.33; 2. Courtney Force, Camaro, 3.911, 313.58 vs. 15. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Camry, 4.151, 283.49; 3. Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.913, 311.85 vs. 14. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.077, 305.77; 4. Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.918, 317.42 vs. 13. Richard Townsend, Camry, 4.026, 308.99; 5. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 3.918, 301.94 vs. 12. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.017, 307.51; 6. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 3.925, 311.41 vs. 11. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.994, 311.34; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.926, 313.00 vs. 10. J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.989, 313.37; 8. Jonnie Lindberg, Camry, 3.927, 316.52 vs. 9. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 3.938, 314.09. Did Not Qualify: 17. Jim Campbell, 4.341, 273.05; 18. John Force, 4.625, 222.29.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, Chevy Camaro, 6.492, 213.00 vs. 16. Steve Graham, Camaro, 6.775, 205.60; 2. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.504, 212.36 vs. 15. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 6.621, 208.65; 3. Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.507, 211.99 vs. 14. John Gaydosh Jr, Chevrolet Camaro, 6.592, 210.93; 4. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.513, 212.29 vs. 13. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.548, 210.67; 5. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.518, 211.99 vs. 12. Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.545, 210.50; 6. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.525, 212.79 vs. 11. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.532, 212.73; 7. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.527, 212.29 vs. 10. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.532, 211.79; 8. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.528, 211.93 vs. 9. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.530, 211.33.