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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New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”