Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 15 — Danica Patrick, did she improve in 2014 or not?

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MotorSportsTalk will be counting down the top 20 stories of the 2014 NASCAR season over the month of December.

Here’s what we’ve done so far:

Numbers are the lifeblood of NASCAR.

Among the most significant figures are those that gauge a driver’s overall performance in a season, as well as the gains or losses he or she has made from the previous season.

In her second full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series, Danica Patrick finished one spot lower than her first full-time campaign, 28th in 2014 vs. 27th in 2013.

That would seem like a setback when it comes to numbers.

But a case can be made that Patrick actually showed some improvement in 2014 over the previous season.

While she didn’t have the splashy season opener at Daytona (crashed and finished 40th) in 2014 like she did in 2013, when she won the pole and finished eighth (her only top-10 finish of the season), Patrick did have three top-10 finishes in 2014, including a career-best sixth-place showing at Atlanta.

Crew chief Tony Gibson continued to be an excellent mentor for Patrick, but admittedly, there still was inconsistency in her race-to-race performances.

Plus, restarts continued to be one of Patrick’s biggest problem areas.

“The biggest thing that holds her back is her restarts,” Gibson told ESPN.com after Homestead. “She’s got to really figure out a way to race better and be more aggressive on restarts. … If she can ever figure out how to get her restarts better here, she can hold her position or gain two or three, she will be more successful.”

But there are plenty of indicators still that showed she indeed made progress in 2014 over 2013:

* She had 14 top-20 finishes vs. just nine in 2013.

* She led 15 laps in 2014 vs. just five in 2013.

* She had an average start per race of 22.3 in 2014 vs. 30.1 in 2013.

* She had an average finish per race of 23.7 in 2014 vs. 26.1 in 2013.

* And perhaps the most telling improvement of all was in lead-lap finishes, going from just 12 in 2013 to 19 in 2014.

Yet even with the signs of improvement, Patrick lost Gibson as her crew chief prior to the Texas Chase race, when he was shifted to the same role with veteran and 2004 Sprint Cup champ Kurt Busch. That move is permanent going forward.

Daniel Knost, who was Busch’s crew chief for his first 33 races with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, was then moved atop Patrick’s pit box. Her finishes in the three races with Knost were a mixed bag: 36th (Texas), 22nd (Phoenix) and 18th (Homestead).

There’s also a bit of uncertainty on exactly what Knost’s status is. When he was shifted to Patrick’s team, it was initially announced as an interim role.

But here we are in mid-December and there’s been no announcement of a new crew chief for Patrick for 2015. That could mean Knost may remain in the role to give more time to see how well he and Patrick may jell if they have a full season ahead of them.

No matter who ultimately becomes her crew chief, Patrick feels the improvement she made in 2014 was a good sign of even better things to come in 2015.

Realistically, going into her third full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series, Patrick should be able to finish in the top 25, if not the top 20 in the final 2015 standings.

The higher up she finishes, the more successful a season it will be.

And, of course, earning her first Sprint Cup win would also go a long way towards building momentum and confidence.

But as long as she continues showing improvement and progress, that’s all anyone can ask.

“We did improve this year, and I hope we do better in 2015,” she said late in the 2014 season. “(I’m) looking forward to next year.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds