Danica Patrick’s second Cup season set to end at a track she’s starred in the past

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The year was 2010. The track was Homestead-Miami Speedway. The battle was one between Danica Patrick and Tony Kanaan, lap-by-lap, side-by-side, for second place in the last race of the IndyCar season.

Patrick prevailed for the runner-up position in what was widely considered one of her best races in open-wheel, the last time IndyCar raced on the 1.5-mile oval.

While you wouldn’t expect Patrick to be in runner-up territory as she closes the books on her second full season in NASCAR Sprint Cup at Homestead this weekend, she is keen on ending better after struggling her first two races working with new interim crew chief Daniel Knost, who was moved over to Patrick’s No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet team prior to Texas in a swap with the No. 41 entry for Kurt Busch (started 27th, ended 36th at Texas; started 32nd, ended 22nd at Phoenix).

“I’m ready for it. It’s a mile and a half, but it’s unique in that it doesn’t have the dogleg,” she said in the Stewart-Haas Racing team’s advance release. “I’ve only run it once in Sprint Cup, but we got a top-20 and we’ve run well in Nationwide. We’ve qualified well in that series and had a top-15 in 2012. We finished second in IndyCar, so I’ve got some experience there, just not a lot in Sprint Cup.”

Patrick was a major story most of 2013 as she transitioned to Sprint Cup full-time after making a handful of starts in 2012, but in 2014 she’s been under-the-radar.

She enters the weekend 28th in points, which is actually a spot down from 27th a year ago. She’s unlikely to move up as she’s currently 26 points in arrears of boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who ranks 27th. But she can’t fall further than 28th as Justin Allgaier in 29th is more than 100 points back.

Looking at that only would provide a misleading take on her season, as her overall performance has increased, primarily working with then-crew chief Tony Gibson. There’s been a jump from 30.1 as an average grid position to 22.0 this year, and a finishing jump from an average of 26.1 to 23.8.

She has three top-10 finishes this year, only one of which has come on a restrictor plate track. She has 13 top-20 finishes, up from nine last year.

So while it hasn’t been a season of a quantum leap, there have been some strides made.

“It’s been OK. We’ve improved in some areas and we haven’t in some, but we’re progressing,” she said. “We’ve qualified better and I think we’ve raced better. We’re hoping for a good run at Homestead to finish off the year and get us ready for the break. We had a decent car last week and I hope we can do better at Homestead.”

This race will see Patrick’s No. 10 adorned in Florida Lottery colors, as it has been earlier this season at the fall Daytona race.

Max Verstappen shows speed in Austria; Lewis Hamilton lacking pace

Leonhard Foeger/Pool via Getty Images
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SPIELBERG, Austria — Red Bull driver Max Verstappen posted the fastest time Friday, and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton lacked pace in the second practice session for the Styrian Grand Prix.

Verstappen was 0.043 seconds quicker than Valtteri Bottas – Hamilton’s teammate at Mercedes – and 0.217 ahead of Racing Point driver Sergio Perez.

“The car already feels better than last week, the balance is a lot nicer and we have made a good step,” said Verstappen, who did not finish last Sunday’s season-opening Austrian GP after starting from second.

“It is too early to say how we are looking against Mercedes, but we are quite happy. We have tried a few different directions to understand the car a bit more and we are heading the right way.”

Hamilton was only sixth fastest, about 0.7 seconds slower than Verstappen. Hamilton spent a chunk of time in the garage while his team worked on his car.

“It was quite far off, so there’s a lot of work to do in the background to figure it out,” he said. “Others out there are quick and Valtteri’s obviously got good pace.”

Despite adding a new front wing to its car, struggling Ferrari had a dismal afternoon.

Charles Leclerc was only ninth quickest and 1 second slower than Verstappen, while teammate Sebastian Vettel lagged about 2 seconds behind Verstappen in 16th.

Daniel Ricciardo lost control of his Renault car early into the second session, swerving left off the track and thudding backward into a protective tire wall. He climbed out unharmed, other than a slight limp, but the left rear tire was mangled and the car was lifted off the track by a crane.

Alexander Albon spun twice, the Red Bull driver’s second spin taking him right off the track and into gravel.

Earlier, Perez was fastest in the first practice ahead of Verstappen and Bottas, with Hamilton fourth quickest and Vettel only 10th in sunny conditions.

That session was briefly interrupted when Nicholas Latifi’s Williams car pulled over to the side with a gearbox issue.

The incident brought out yellow flags, forcing drivers to slow down. But McLaren driver Lando Norris overtook Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri and got a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

Norris, 20, finished third at the Austrian GP last weekend, becoming the youngest British driver in F1 history to get on the podium and third youngest in F1.

The upcoming race is changing names from last week but is at the same track. It is surrounded by the Styrian mountains.

A third and final practice will be held on Saturday morning before qualifying in the afternoon, with heavy rain and storms in the forecast.

If third practice and qualifying are washed out, drivers take their grid positions from where they placed in second practice.

“It would definitely suck if we didn’t get to qualify,” said Hamilton, who started fifth and finished fourth last weekend. “It would make it challenging.”

However, qualifying also could be moved to Sunday morning.

“I don’t expect to be on pole position with this (practice) lap,” Verstappen said.