Never say never: Polarizing, but popular, Danica Patrick back at Indy

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For the third time in the last 12 months, the open-wheel motorsports world has been smacked across the head with unexpected, shock news that definitively qualifies as the proverbial “jaw-dropper” of a story.

Just under one year ago, Nico Rosberg dropped the mic and retired after winning his first and only Formula 1 World Championship. Last April, three days after IndyCar raced at Long Beach and F1 raced in China, Fernando Alonso and McLaren pulled a somewhat bigger surprise by announcing they’d run this year’s Indianapolis 500 with Andretti Autosport.

And now, a driver equal parts popular and polarizing in this country – Danica Patrick – has announced Friday at her last full-time race as a NASCAR Cup Series driver that she’ll sign off her career at North America’s two biggest 500-mile races in Daytona and Indianapolis in 2018.

If such a comeback seems hard to believe, it’s largely because it is.

But the allure of going out at the race that made her name in North America is a tantalizing prospect and gives Patrick, who’ll be 36 next March, one last chance at glory at a race that, it’s easy to forget, she did rather well at.

The pure stats are solid: six top-10 finishes from seven starts, with 29 laps led, are very respectable numbers. More than the results though, Patrick helped lift the revival of the race that had sputtered for a good seven or eight years following the divisive Indy Racing League/CART split of 1996, and lifted the 2005 TV rating to a significantly higher number than it had been since the split.

There’s a nice closing here that could come with a return, as well, depending on the team she selects.

Looking at the Indianapolis 500, it’d only stand to reason Patrick would return to the race with one of the top-line teams that could be considered an Indianapolis favorite.

Perceived ‘big three’ outfits Team Penske (five cars), Chip Ganassi Racing (four) and Andretti Autosport (six) combined to field 15 of the 33 cars themselves last year.

A Ganassi bow is more than possible considering the team will run only two full-time cars next year and will have both the cars and crew (from its Ford GT sports car program) available for extras. The question now about an extra Ganassi car is if this announcement changes the potential idea of Kyle Larson running in 2018.

Meanwhile Michael Andretti’s team can run at least six, with five already confirmed as Stefan Wilson joins that group’s full-season four (Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Alexander Rossi, Zach Veach). However a return here for Patrick is “not in our plans,” an Andretti Autosport spokesperson told NBC Sports.

An extra Penske car is unlikely given that team’s four cars, and a fifth would presumably only be added for Juan Pablo Montoya if circumstances develop that way.

The only other realistic option to consider would be Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, where Patrick made her IndyCar debut and ran with her first two full seasons. The team has significant strength in its engineering department, the defending Indianapolis 500 champion driver in Takuma Sato added in a second car, and recently Graham Rahal made comments saying he’d welcome Patrick back if her plans allowed.

“I mean, Danica I would consider a great friend of our family. Certainly was a big part of the history of our program years and years ago,” Graham Rahal said during IndyCar’s teleconference announcing its 2018 schedule.

“It would always be great to have her back to drive at Indy. But really that’s completely up to her and the decisions that she makes.”

Any of those teams figure to offer a car and an engineering staff with top-10 finishing potential. The question for Patrick is whether she’d acclimate back to IndyCar like a driver with no IndyCar experience (Kurt Busch, Fernando Alonso) or as one with IndyCar experience, but a long time ago (Jacques Villeneuve).

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 29: Danica Patrick, driver of the #7 Team GoDaddy Dallara Honda, makes a pit stop during the IZOD IndyCar Series Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Her six seasons in NASCAR have produced little in terms of on-track results (only seven top-10 finishes, total), but her success there is not quantified solely by the stats.

She’s positively impacted a generation of young female fans, as well as provided beneficial exposure for companies associated with her. It’d be hard, for example, to think about GoDaddy as a company without the relationship they fostered with Patrick. And a year like this year where she experienced turbulence in the sponsorship side served as the exception to her career, not the norm, for a driver used to having built her brand with some good people and companies around her.

The teams she’ll have for Daytona and Indianapolis next year, particularly at the latter, will have to prepare themselves for the inevitable media circus that will follow. But they can also be prepared for good potential performance on-track in both races.

At Indianapolis in particular, Patrick is another early “extra star” that comes beyond the other story lines set to materialize for next May, and her presence will be chronicled heavily.

Next year’s Indianapolis 500 will be the first big oval race with the new 2018 Dallara universal body kit, which features significantly reduced downforce. This new car has both a significantly different aero package, as well as a reduced engine displacement – the 2.2L twin turbocharged V6 engines are a far cry from the 3.5L normally aspirated V8s she last drove in 2011. If she handles the change well, it speaks volumes of her ability through significantly different car transitions in the sport, which she never had to worry about in her 2005 through 2011 tenure.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 22: Danica Patrick, driver of the #7 Team GoDaddy Dallara Honda, talks with the media after qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 on May 22, 2011 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

It could, again, provide a boost in TV ratings after two consecutive years where the number has been down in 2016 and 2017. Alonso’s presence this year was a significant media generator throughout the month – almost to the point of overkill – but it turned out his impact was more important internationally than it was domestically. Alonso’s dalliance with North America though has grown into another major U.S. race start next year in Daytona, for the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Now, Patrick and fellow longtime IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves are the two featured guest attractions this year – and it’ll feel like old times all over again. Both figure to be good not just for TV ratings, but for ticket sales at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway throughout the month.

And for Patrick, it’s a chance to come back to a race that always felt like home. An open-wheel racer in her upbringing and at heart, the competitor in her couldn’t have been satisfied by the years of 20th-odd place finishes with the occasional “solid top-20 finish” serving as a “good day.”

Much has changed since. As of this writing, only nine drivers who raced in the 2011 Indianapolis 500 are still confirmed full-time in IndyCar for 2018 (Graham Rahal, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Marco Andretti, Ed Carpenter, Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Takuma Sato) with a few more from that race to be added.

So it’s a different landscape of a series now, an IndyCar Series that’s really grown with its own drivers over the last several years compared to one where her presence – often through no fault of her own – overshadowed the other stars.

In a final guest starring role, Patrick has one last chance to steal the spotlight in a beneficial ending to her own career, and the Indianapolis 500 as a race… if not the Verizon IndyCar Series as a whole.

“I never thought I would do it. I always thought never but I never said never. Here I am,” she said today.

The story of her new finale in IndyCar’s biggest race has only just begun.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 29: Danica Patrick, driver of the #7 Team GoDaddy Dallara Honda, stands next to the Borg-Warner Trophy prior to the IZOD IndyCar Series Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

F1 Preview: 2018 German Grand Prix

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The German Grand Prix continues its biennial presence on the Formula 1 calendar – it’s hosted F1 events in even numbered years since 2014 – as Formula 1 returns to the Hockenheimring this weekend.

The German fans will undoubtedly be joyful in Sebastian Vettel entering his home race in the championship lead, by nine points over Lewis Hamilton. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, Vettel despite being one of the most successful and decorated drivers of his generation, Vettel has won in Germany only once (2013, at the Nurburgring) and he has never won at Hockenheim.

Conversely, Hamilton has won in Germany three times, including twice at Hockenheim (2008 and 2016).

As such, Vettel will hope to add to his points lead over Hamilton with a win on home soil, though Hamilton may be equally as motivated after watching Vettel his own home race at Silverstone two weeks ago.

Nevertheless, their 2018 championship duel will most certainly continue to be closely fought.

Talking points ahead of the German Grand Prix are below.

A Different World in 2018 vs. 2016

Nico Rosberg during the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 31, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany. Photo: Getty Images

The Formula 1 landscape looked completely different back in 2016, the last time Formula 1 visited the Hockenheimring. Bernie Ecclestone was still the chief executive of Formula 1.

Nico Rosberg was partnering Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes team, and was on his way to a driver’s championship that year.

Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen were in the midst of a slump as Ferrari went winless in 2016.

The world was still getting to know a then 18-year-old Max Verstappen, the young Dutchman having won the Spanish Grand Prix in May that year.

And the cars looked completely different, with skinnier and taller rear wings and taller rear tires highlighting the appearance differences.

In 2018, Vettel and Ferrari might be the strongest combination. Rosberg is long from Mercedes, and Valtteri Bottas is doing his best to shine in the wake of Hamilton’s enormous shadow.

Verstappen is still a rising star, though he has come under fire at times for overly aggressive driving and his Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo has garnered more headlines this year, with a pair of race wins alongside his status as an F1 free agent after 2018.

In short, the Formula 1 landscape is hardly recognizable from what it was back in 2016. And even though Hamilton won that year, followed by Ricciardo and Verstappen in second and third, very little will carry over from that race two years ago.

Hamilton, Mercedes Look to Take Back Momentum from Vettel, Ferrari

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – JULY 08: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 leads Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 8, 2018 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

The seesaw championship fight has tilted back in the favor of Ferrari, with Vettel leading Hamilton after finishes of third and first in Austria and England. Hamilton, meanwhile, DNF’ed in Austria and came home second in England after spinning on Lap 1.

Hamilton trails by nine points, but this is hardly an unfamiliar position for Hamilton in 2018 – he started the year trailing Vettel until he took the championship lead for the first time after the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Both teams have had multiple swings of momentum this year – Vettel won the opening two races before finishes of eighth in China (he spun after contact with Verstappen) and a pair of fourth place efforts in Azerbaijan and Spain before getting two more wins in Canada and England.

Hamilton, meanwhile stumbled out of the gates somewhat with finishes of second and third before taking a fortuitous win in Azerbaijan and two dominant wins in Spain and France before the misfortune in Austria.

All told the ebb and flow of the 2018 season seems to change with every race, and while Vettel now leads Hamilton again, things could change this weekend.

Raikkonen Trying to Fend off Ricciardo, Bottas

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – JULY 06: Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 6, 2018 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Kimi Raikkonen is somewhat of a forgotten man this Formula 1 season, but he does rank third in the championship at the moment, 10 points ahead of Ricciardo and 12 points ahead of Bottas.

However, both Ricciardo and Bottas are likely thought to have had better seasons – Ricciardo has the aforementioned wins (at China and Monaco) and the only thing that has kept Bottas from the top step of the podium is a string of horrendous luck.

However, Raikkonen, to his credit, has picked up the pieces whenever others around him have faltered, and he has six podium finishes through 10 races.

However, in order to fully silence any critics, and maybe even keep his Ferrari drive, Raikkonen would do well to get a win in 2018.

Misc.

  • The driver challenging Raikkonen’s position within Ferrari is Sauber’s Charles Leclerc. The Ferrari junior driver has five points finishes, and that could have been six if not for a pit stop error at Silverstone that caused him to leave his pit stall with a loose wheel – it forced him to retire. Leclerc’s star is on the rise, and he could shine again in Germany.
  • Nico Hulkenberg is the “other” German driver on the grid. And though he has a 24 Hours of Le Mans win to his name, he is yet to finish on the podium in an F1 race. The Renault package may not be a podium threat in usual circumstances, but if he stays clean and others falter, he could sneak in there…and doing so in his home race would make that overdue podium even sweeter.
  • After a pair of eighth place finishes, Fernando Alonso has helped McLaren at least stop the bleeding after a dismal stretch of races from Monaco through France in which the team scored zero points. However, the team still has a long way to go, and Germany could be another weekend of struggles.

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