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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Here’s who were picking to win the Indy 500 — who are YOU picking?

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Several members of the NBC Sports motorsports staff have made their predictions on who will win Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Of the six voters, two are going with 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champ Josef Newgarden, while two others are going with Helio Castroneves to win a fourth 500, which would tie him with A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.

Here’s our picks. Who are YOU picking?

Leigh Diffey: Helio Castroneves — He drives the place better than anyone else. For me (for what its worth) he deserves a fourth 500 ring for the frustration he went through never getting the IndyCar title!

Townsend Bell: Josef Newgarden

Nate Ryan: Simon Pagenaud — All of his 2018 misfortune on the track has disappeared in May, and it culminates in the biggest victory of his career.

Jerry Bonkowski: Helio Castroneves – There’s no pressure as he pursues his fourth Indy 500 win. All Helio has to do, as late NFL owner Al Davis would say, is “Just win, baby!” (But if Helio falls short, watch for Marco Andretti)

Kyle Lavigne: Josef Newgarden — I think he has everything he needs to get it done this year.

Dan Beaver: Robert Wickens – Has driven like anything except a rookie and his second-place finish at Phoenix proves he’s just as good on an oval as the road courses.

Follow: Jerry Bonkowski