Danica Patrick earns season-best 14th-place finish Sunday at Fontana

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Ever since the season-opening Daytona 500 and in each of the four races that have followed, NASCAR media has been able to report the same thing after each race: Danica Patrick enjoyed her best finish thus far of the 2014 Sprint Cup season.

Admittedly, the first two finishes – 40th at Daytona and 36th at Phoenix – weren’t much to write home about.

But Patrick has shown steady progress since then, finishing 21st at Las Vegas, 18th last Sunday at Bristol and yet another season best in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway, where she finished a very respectable 14th.

Patrick, who qualified 27th for the race, might have finished even higher at the end, but a tire issue on Lap 139 caused her to lose ground before rallying back strong for the eventual top-15 showing.

“It seems like some of our most trying weekends end up with our better results,” Patrick said. “We will take it and we will know that there is so much more potential for those weekends where we feel like we are running a lot better.”

It was Patrick’s best Sprint Cup series showing since finishing 14th in last July’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

“We just made little adjustments here and there,” Patrick said. “I don’t think we were extremely fast, but we were fast enough to pick them off and move up and have a steady day.

“It’s nice when you get fortunate and lucky and your best running position on track happens to be the last lap so I will take it – that doesn’t normally happen.”

Now in her second full Sprint Cup season, Sunday’s finish tied her fourth-best overall in her Cup career. Her three best finishes were all last year: eighth in the season-opening Daytona 500 (after starting from the pole), 12th at Martinsville last spring and 13th at Michigan, also in the spring.

With Sunday’s finish, Patrick moved up one position in the season standings to 27th, a far cry from where she was after Daytona (37th) and Phoenix (39th).

What’s more, as hard as it may seem to believe, Patrick is now just two positions behind Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick (25th) and three spots behind fellow teammate Kurt Busch (24th).

Busch, of note, climbed seven places in the rankings after leading the overall SHR contingent with a third-place finish in Sunday’s race.

Patrick is now 94 points behind new series leader Carl Edwards, while Busch is 87 points back and Harvick 89 points out of first.

Team co-owner and leader Tony Stewart finished fifth in the race to climb to 17th in the standings, just 59 points behind Edwards.

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Hunter and Jett Lawrence walk a delicate balance between winning races and favoring the fans

Hunter Jett Lawrence fans
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ANAHEIM, California – Hunter and Jett Lawrence are two of the most popular riders on the Monster Energy Supercross circuit, with fan bases that established and grew immediately when they came to America to ride for HRC Honda. Connecting with those fans came naturally for the charming Australian brothers, but it has not come without cost.

“It’s cool they’re there and it’s one of the things we try to do is give the fan that interaction,” Hunter told NBC Sports during Supercross Media Sessions ahead of the 2023 season. “It’s why we do ride days, meet-and-greets, press conferences  – all that stuff, because it’s exciting for them. We are trying to bridge the gap so they get personal interaction. Because that’s all they’re after. It’s all about getting that fan to think, ‘I know that guy. I didn’t meet him, but I get him. I get his humor.’ ”

There is no artifice in either brother. Their fan appeal is directly attributable to who they are at their core. And it’s that very genuineness that has throngs of fans standing outside their hauler, waiting for just a moment of their time.

“It’s about being yourself – talking to people,” Hunter said. “It’s not like I turn it on or turn it off; it’s just about being yourself. This is who we are, this is who you get and this is how it will be. You can’t portray something you’re not. If you keep saying you’re an orange, but apples keep popping out, it’s only a matter of time [until they figure it out].”

The key word is ‘throngs’, however. One person wanting just a few moments of time is incidental. Dozens are an entirely different matter.

“It’s tough in Supercross because it’s such a long day,” Hunter said. “The recovery side of it’s tough to do everything. We get stuck outside the grid; we can’t be there for like 10 minutes. We’re stuck there for like an hour. It gets overwhelming at times.

“You feel bad because you want to sign everything, but you’re still here for a job. Every race day is like that. We do the best we can, but there are so many people who wait out front. They’re screaming for you. Even when we’re coming off the sessions, they’re already yelling before you put your bike on the stands. You don’t even get time to take you helmet off.”

It can be a double-edged sword. Personality is only one part of the equation. A much bigger part of the brothers’ fan appeal comes because of their success. Hunter finished second in the last two Supercross 250 West title battles and third in the past two Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championships.

Jett won the last three titles he competed for, including last year’s 250 East Supercross Championship and the last two Motocross contests.

“I think they expect me to have nothing else to do on a Saturday and that I have unlimited energy,” Jett said. “But, I’m trying to recover for the next race.”

It’s a matter of timing. Jett has gained a reputation last year for handing out hundreds of donuts before the races during Red Bull fan appreciation sessions. And after the race, once the business at hand has been settled, Jett is equally available to the fans.

“After the race it’s fine; I’ll stay behind.” Jett said. “My job is done on the racing side of things, but until that last moto is done, my main thing is dirt bikes. The fans come along with it. The fans are part of the job, but main job at hand is the racing side of things. After the race, I’ll stay there for an hour or so. It’s a lot calmer.”