NASCAR: Danica finishes eighth, and moves ahead of Stenhouse in points

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Given some of the hype that’s surrounded her NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career to this point, an eighth-place finish for Danica Patrick would generally and widely be hailed as one of the biggest stories of the day.

Perhaps refreshingly, her run to eighth Sunday in the rain-delayed Coke Zero 400 at Daytona was a relative afterthought.

It also speaks to an increasing level of competitiveness that has seen Patrick rise from also-ran to genuine mid-level contender over the last several weeks, which is a positive step for her career development.

It was a race that featured a first-time winner in Aric Almirola, several rain delays, her own Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch dominating but falling to the wrong place at the wrong time, and of course, two separate “big ones” (one, two).

Although her No. 10 Florida Lottery/GoDaddy Chevrolet sustained minor damage from slithering through the first “big one” on Lap 21, Patrick otherwise ran a clean, consistent race on what’s widely regarded as one of her best tracks, the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway.

The top-10 result was her second eighth place at Daytona, after also ending eighth in 2013 in the race she scored the pole position. She posted her career-best seventh place finish at Kansas in May.

“It’s been a crazy day,” she said, via USA Today. “I can’t believe we finished eighth.”

As a result of her result, Patrick now ranks ahead of boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the Cup points standings. Patrick is 27th, Stenhouse 28th. Patrick also is only three positions behind Busch, the new fourth car at SHR.

Stenhouse’s day was a forgettable one after helping to trigger the first 16-car accident on Lap 21.

Patrick’s actually been on the best run of results thus far in her two-plus year career in Cup. Her last month has seen finishes of 17th (Michigan), 18th (Sonoma), 21st (Kentucky) and now eighth. Her qualifying has been much improved as well, with starts of 16th or better in six of the last nine races.

For reference, Patrick had only seven top-20 finishes the entire 2013 season. She has six already in 18 2014 races, so she’s moving in the right direction.

By contrast, Stenhouse appears to be regressing. Yes, he’s matched his 2013 totals of one top-five and three top-10 finishes and has done so in just 18 races. But since his runner-up finish at Bristol in March, Stenhouse has just three top-20 finishes, and has fallen from 10th to 28th in the points standings.

Yes, Daytona is always a crapshoot, but it was still important for Patrick to take advantage at a track she usually does well at. She did on this Sunday.

With 200 IndyCar wins in the books, Penske looks for No. 201 at Indy

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The history of Team Penske at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a storied one that features 16 Indy 500 wins, including a pair of four-time winners in Al Unser and Rick Mears, and number of utterly dominant performances.

Yet, they’ll head to this year’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 looking to avenge a pair of relatively subpar performances in each of the last two years.

Power was the only Penske driver to finish in the Top 10 in 2016, with Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud finishing 11th and 19th after fuel strategy intervened late in the race. And last year, all the Penske cars were somewhat down on pace compared to other teams, notably the Honda cars.

Power was the only Penske driver to qualify for the Fast Nine Pole Shootout last year – he qualified ninth. Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves were 18th and 19th in the grid, while Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud were 22nd and 23rd.

And only Castroneves was in winning contention in the final laps as he battled eventual winner Takuma Sato – Montoya was sixth, while Pagenaud was 14th and the only other Penske running at the end. Both Newgarden and Power crashed out on Lap 183.

This year, however, could see a return to the dominant form we’re used to seeing from the Penske outfit. All four cars entered – Pagenaud, Power, Newgarden, and Castroneves – qualified inside the top nine, with Pagenaud and Power on the front row.

They have all been near the front of the time sheets, especially in laps without a tow from another car, and the indication is that the Penske cars may be the fastest ones in the field.

All told, it leads to very high expectations for a team that already expects highly of itself.

Leading the way for Penske is current points leader and defending IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden. Newgarden’s best Indy 500 finish is third in 2016, but he only has one other Top 10 there – ninth in 2015.

But, with an IndyCar title now under his belt, Newgarden has his eyes set on an Indy 500 win.

Josef Newgarden looks to add an Indy 500 crown to his 2017 championship. Photo: IndyCar

“I think Indianapolis…is certainly next on the list for me,” he detailed in a press conference ahead of qualifying. “It’s not next on the list for the team, they’ve won it many times. The good thing is we have four great opportunities, especially having Helio back. I think we have one of the best opportunities in the entire field to win this race.”

Pagenaud, like Newgarden, is also looking for his first Indy triumph, though his record there isn’t quite as good. He has been fast at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but only has two Top 10s to show for it – eighth in 2013 with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and tenth in 2015 in his first year with Penske.

And a Pagenaud win would be somewhat historic – it would be only the fourth time a French driver has won the “500,” and the first since 1920 (Gaston Chevrolet).

Pagenaud explained that this race always holds a place as a top priority, and that success at Indy is all about preparation.

Simon Pagenaud looks to become only the first French driver to win an Indy 500 since Gaston Chevrolet in 1920. Photo: IndyCar

“It really is our number one goal. In Roger and Tim’s heart, it’s the most important one,” Pagenaud declared. “We prepare really hard. The team does a fantastic job at just understanding every bit and component of this new aero kit, trying to extract the best out of the equipment.”

Pagenaud added, “On the driver side, there’s a lot you can do obviously to review the past races, try to focus yourself, try to put yourself into the race before it happens, try to just improve. That’s what we try to do every day. That’s the goal. That’s why this group is so good. We push each other so hard that you always try to push the limits away.”

Power, the man who delivered Penske his 200th IndyCar win, is no stranger to success at IMS, having won the Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course three times. But, he is yet to find Victory Lane on the oval, and that leaves a void in an otherwise stellar career.

Will Power has won the INDYCAR Grand Prix three times, and looks for his first win at the “500” this weekend. Photo: IndyCar

Power spotlighted the opportunity in front of him, and detailed that running in traffic has been a strength thus far through practice.

“It’s fantastic to have that opportunity. Obviously very focused on (trying to win),” he revealed. “I feel like we have a really good opportunity to win this year. I mean, I think Chevrolet has brought a really good engine. I feel like we’re really fast. Running in traffic and such, I felt like we’ve been pretty strong, especially when you get to the front.”

Castroneves is the only Penske driver with Indy 500 wins on his resume. But, with three wins to his name, Castroneves is more than familiar with IMS glory.

Now a part-time IndyCar driver who races full-time in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship with the Acura Team Penske outfit, Castroneves’ sole focus is on getting that elusive fourth win.

Helio Castroneves looks to join the four-time winners club at the Indy 500. Photo: IndyCar

And he has momentum on his side too, coming off a debut IMSA win for the Acura Penske outfit at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. A fourth Indy 500 win would put an exclamation point on the month for Castroneves.

“I think about it every day,” he said when asked about how often he ponders getting that fourth win. “It was one of those incredible ones, I have phenomenal car, the Pennzoil car was really strong last year. Obviously coming back here, first of all, I want to thank Roger and (team president Tim Cindric) for giving me the opportunity to be back at the Indy 500. It’s such a special place for so many people. Just to be back and able to continue our goal and pursue for the number four, it’s incredible.”

Pagenaud and Power will flank pole sitter Ed Carpenter on the front, starting second and third respectively. Newgarden starts fourth, while Castroneves will start eighth.

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