Danica Patrick’s 2014 Speedweeks an exercise in frustration

1 Comment

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.

Title contenders stumble on the streets of Toronto

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

The championship picture of the Verizon IndyCar Series saw a massive shakeup after Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto. While points leader Scott Dixon ended up in victory lane, his third win on the streets of Toronto and his third win of the 2018 season, all of his championship rivals stumbled.

Josef Newgarden, the pole sitter and second-place man in championship – he trailed Dixon by 33 points entering Sunday – led from the pole and looked to be a contender for the win, but a Lap 34 restart saw his day come apart.

Newgarden ran wide exiting the final corner coming to the green flag and smacked the outside wall. He plummeted through the field and pitted under caution – for a Turn 1 pileup involving Graham Rahal, Max Chilton, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, and Sebastien Bourdais – to allow the No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet Team Penske group to examine the car for damage.

Newgarden continued on, but was never a contender the rest of the day, ultimately finishing ninth.

“I knew it would be low grip, but not zero grip. I just lost the front end completely,” Newgarden said in describing how the wall contact happened. “I feel terrible, it’s not fun to make a mistake.”

Alexander Rossi, who sits third in the championship, ran a steady sixth in the first stint until Lap 27, when contact with Will Power damaged his front wing. Rossi was then caught up in the melee on the Lap 34 restart, getting airborne over the left-front of his Andretti Autosport teammate Hunter-Reay.

Rossi again pitted for a new front wing – he had six stops in total – and ended up eighth on a day when he felt like a podium beckoned.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result. I don’t think we had the car to beat Scott (Dixon), but for sure with the problems that everyone had, we could’ve finished second. It’s been a difficult string of races,” Rossi said afterward.

Hunter-Reay, too, had a day forget. After going from sixth to third on the start, he spun his No. 28 DHL Honda into the Turn 3 Barrier on Lap 27. And like Rossi, he was caught up in the Lap 34 pileup, falling off the lead lap in the process.

Hunter-Reay languished in 16th at the checkered flag.

“It was a very unfortunate day and a big loss for us in points,” Hunter-Reay lamented. “The DHL Honda was running comfortable in third and pushing hard, but I had too much front brake lock and found the tire barrier – that’s my fault. Then after that, we got caught up in a wreck, which put us a lap down. From there we just fought to stay in front of the leader.”

Power, too, hit his struggles after the first stint, when contact with the Turn 11 wall, an incident similar to the one that his Team Penske teammate Newgarden had, bent the right-rear suspension of his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet. He also had contact with Rossi later that lap.

Power lost two laps in the pits as the team made repairs, and he took the checkered flag in 18th.

“In the last corner, I brushed the wall and bent a rear toe link, so the car was a little bit out of whack. I didn’t even know that (Alexander) Rossi and I touched. I was just kind of trying to hang on until we got a yellow and could pit,” Power explained. “I’ve never had so many DNFs; not DNF for this race, but like a DNF in a season. Still, it’s kind of how this sport can go.”

All told, their struggles mean that Dixon leads the championship by 62 points over Newgarden. Rossi sits third, 70 points of the lead, followed by Hunter-Reay and Power, who sit 91 and 93 points out of the lead respectively.

And the next race, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (July 29 on NBCSN) won’t make it easy for them to make up ground, as Dixon’s record there is astoundingly strong. The four-time IndyCar champion has five wins at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, his most recent triumph coming in 2014, a race in which he famously came from last on the grid (22nd) to win.

Conversely, Newgarden, Rossi, Hunter-Reay, and Power have a combined one win at Mid-Ohio (Newgarden, last year).

However, the likes of Newgarden and Rossi still appear confident that they can make up for their Toronto struggles.

“We have to move on now and try to pick it back up. With the championship battle, we’ve got a long way to go. This doesn’t help but look, we have plenty of racing (left),” said Newgarden. “We need to keep our head up here. We’re going to be just fine, we’ve got fast cars and the best in the business. If we get our mistakes sorted out, we’re going to be just fine.”

Rossi, who finished sixth at Mid-Ohio last year, echoed similar sentiment, and thinks Mid-Ohio presents an opportunity to get back on track.

“We’re very good at Mid-Ohio, we’re kind of circling Toronto and Mid-Ohio as two races we were going to be pretty good at, so we got to reset, man, and just execute,” Rossi explained afterward. “We’re fast. We’re there every weekend. That’s the important thing. It’s a lot harder to be outside the top 10 and looking for answers. We’re fighting for pole every weekend. We’re in the Fast Six virtually every weekend, so you’re putting yourself in position to have a good result, it hasn’t come really since Texas.”

The 2018 championship is far from over – the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma being a double-points event helps ensure as much. But, if Dixon does claim the 2018 title, Toronto may be the race that serves as the turning point.

Follow@KyleMLavigne