Danica Patrick now at a crossroads, as fourth fiddle at SHR in 2014

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Stewart-Haas Racing’s newest driver for 2013 entered the NASCAR world as its media darling, its most discussed and highly scrutinized driver, and one of its most marketable stars.

A year later, and Danica Patrick will be reduced to a near afterthought in the SHR stable in 2014.

It’s been a fascinating evolution because for the first time in her career, she’s not the story, and that’s purely down to the results she and the No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet team are or are not producing on the track.

Objectively speaking, she’s getting the right amount of attention now as the rest of her male counterparts who are consistently finishing races in the 25th to 30th place range on average – little at best.

That’s no knock on her. It was always going to be an uphill struggle in her first year and the results have been understandably difficult to procure in such a competitive field and with Patrick at a several-year disadvantage to her peers in this level of stock car racing. She has only five top-20 finishes in 24 starts this year, and six top-25 starts.

Patrick was brought into SHR as much as for her marketing ability as her driving ability, which is no secret to any casual or serious observer of the sport.

But for 2014, SHR has went out and acquired Kevin Harvick, a consistent champion-in-waiting who’s usually good for two or three wins a year and a Chase berth, and now, Kurt Busch, the 2004 champ who in his two years of “lower team purgatory” has outperformed his equipment and reminded everyone of his serious ability level.

Patrick’s name is rarely brought up on teleconferences, and there’s been a bunch of them in the last few weeks following Tony Stewart’s injuries. SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli and subsequent replacement drivers Max Papis, Austin Dillon and Mark Martin have been the focus, not Danica.

It seems that for the first time in her career, the Danica “brand” has not been able to overpower the Danica results. That will be even tougher next year; she’ll likely be able to improve in her second full year of Cup, but she’ll be measured against three of the best ever in her discipline. And that’s no easy task.

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds