Danica Patrick’s 2014 Speedweeks an exercise in frustration

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When all was said and done, the 2014 edition of Daytona Speedweeks was nothing to write home about for Danica Patrick.

At what many acknowledge is one of her two strongest tracks – she has frequently run in the top-10 at both Daytona and Talladega since entering NASCAR full-time in 2012, and even in her part-time races before – Patrick was involved in two major wrecks during the week, neither of her own creation.

Patrick was still one of the biggest storylines of the month heading into the week-and-a-half period, thanks largely to the comments offered by Richard Petty. It triggered a measured response from Patrick, a mild backtrack from Petty, and then an impassioned defense from her boss Tony Stewart that led to the rather crazy idea Petty, 76, and Patrick could actually race head-to-head.

On-track, away from the headlines though, Patrick ran better than her results indicated.

Her Sprint Unlimited wreck only occurred after Patrick had actually done a rather stealthy job of weaving through spinning cars in the tri-oval. It was only when she spun on her own in avoidance that she was right in the path of, of all people, her boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Then she and Stenhouse were among the top three in Sprint Cup practice on the Friday after the Budweiser Duel races.

Saturday in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race, Patrick had a good shot to win after starting third in the No. 30 Florida Lottery-sponsored Turner Scott Motorsports Chevrolet. But she didn’t lead and with passing a little harder to achieve, and single-file racing the norm for most of the day, she faded to 19th by the checkered flag.

The Daytona 500 was also a relatively nondescript day at the office. Patrick started from the rear of the field after her pre-qualifying engine change; she methodically moved up to the mid-20s, but never seriously looked like threatening the leaders.

She did lead two laps during a pit stop sequence, but that was thanks to varying in-and-out laps in the field.

Coincidentally, she was struck twice during the race by both of Petty’s Fords. In the opening pit stop sequence, before the six-hour delay, she got hit by Marcos Ambrose while entering her pit stall. It was minor contact but still an interesting nugget.

Of course the bigger incident of contact came when Aric Almirola’s other Richard Petty Motorsports Ford, the No. 43, ricocheted off the Turn 4 SAFER barrier back across the track and collected Patrick on Lap 145. It wasn’t a particularly heavy incident of contact, but the result afterwards was Patrick spinning into the unguarded wall on the outside of the track just before the tri-oval.

“I think more than anything I am just upset because the GoDaddy car felt really good and it was the best car that I had all Speedweeks,” Patrick said. “It seemed like we could catch whoever and it seemed like we could move around, make lanes and just move around and move forward at the end of the day. I felt like everything was going pretty well, so it’s just upsetting. It’s a bummer, but you know that is the excitement of speedway racing that anything can happen, and it was unfortunate that I was on the short end of the accident. But that is the kind of thing that happens, and I appreciate everyone sticking around and watching, and we will go get them at Phoenix.”

You forget how hard some impacts can be that aren’t into SAFER walls, and Patrick’s was one of two of them during the race. In the waning stages, 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne also hit a non-SAFER outside retaining wall on the backstraight.

Patrick’s day mirrored the frustration for the entire Stewart-Haas Racing quartet, who walked away from the Daytona 500 without a single top-10 between them and with several wrecked race cars.

Fuel cell issues hampered Stewart’s race, resigning him to a 35th-place result.

Meanwhile the two SHR new drivers, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, ended only 13th and 21st. Harvick was involved in the final lap crash off Turn 4; Busch faded back despite leading 15 laps in the early stages of the race.

And as for Stenhouse Jr.? He ended a solid seventh. Go figure.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

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Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.