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Hailie Deegan riding fast lane on rise in auto racing

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GRANITE CITY, Ill. (AP) There are three questions that Hailie Deegan gets from everybody she comes across, and while she insists they’re not necessarily annoying, they certainly are persistent.

The first is about NASCAR star Kevin Harvick, who gave the young driver a shout-out after they raced against each other in a small event earlier this year. The second is about her favorite driver, and the last is about what it’s like being the next coming of Danica Patrick.

It’s probably best to take them in reverse order.

First, she explains, there is little in common between Deegan and the most well-known female driver in motorsports. Deegan is the daughter of motocross legend Brian Deegan, which means she grew up on dirt – not in IndyCar – and is trying to work her way through stock car’s lower levels.

Second, she’s a big fan of Kyle Busch, which says a lot about her personality. Busch is loathed by many NASCAR fans for his bad-boy attitude, but the 17-year-old Deegan loves that the 2015 Cup Series champ brings an edgy, almost heel-like quality to racing.

And finally, she thought it was pretty cool that Harvick thought so highly of the teen from Temecula, California.

“It was crazy,” she said during a break between recent practice sessions at Gateway Motorsports Park near St. Louis, where Deegan was preparing for that night’s race in the K&N Series.

“He was one of the first to talk about me publicly in the NASCAR world,” Deegan said, “so that was cool. But I’m with Toyota, so my favorite drivers have to be Toyota drivers.”

Yes, it was officials from the auto manufacturer that decided there was enough promise in Deegan to lure her away from a promising off-road truck career to the world of stock cars.

Deegan spent some time testing last year with Bill McAnally, and a deal was struck to race a full K&N schedule this season. And while she’s racing against other drivers with years of experience on ovals and road courses, Deegan has more than held her own, leading laps last week at the Las Vegas dirt track and twice finishing second while building a strong case for rookie of the year.

Heady stuff considering Deegan just became old enough to drive legally on streets a year ago.

“It’s funny,” Deegan said, “because coming into this year we were like, `OK, our goal is to run top five.’ And now it’s like, `I want to win.’ It’s fun to see how your goals change so quickly.”

Then again, moving quickly is part of Deegan’s DNA.

She grew up going to motocross races with her dad, a 10-time X-Games medalist and founding member of the Metal Mulisha. Brian Deegan became a cult icon for the crazy stunts he pulled on a motorcycle, to say nothing of the devastating crashes that left him with broken bones too numerous to count. Eventually he moved from two wheels to four, embarking on a successful off-road truck career.

While other little girls were playing with dolls, Hailie Deegan was always in dad’s back pocket at the track, and it seemed almost inevitable that she would end up behind the wheel.

She was 8 when she climbed into her own truck the first time. She won a championship and quickly moved up the ranks, reaching the pro level a couple years ago – which meant young Hailie was at the same start line as her old man.

There was no trash-talking, though. Good-natured ribbing, maybe, but mostly just support.

“He’s the reason I’m good at this,” Hailie Deegan said. “He’s always like, `If you’re not 110 percent into this you’re not going to make it.’ So I train my butt off when I’m off the track. I work out all the time. I’m always watching film. I practice all the time. I have a dirt oval in my backyard that I practice on, and a road course. I race late models, go karts. Anything I can get in.”

Her workout regimen is documented on Deegan’s social-media accounts, where she has about 13,800 followers on Twitter and 216,000 followers on Instagram. Her hectic schedule is summed up by this: After leaving Gateway last month, she hopped a plane to sponsor appearances, than jetted to Wisconsin to run her truck in one of the biggest races of the season at Crandon International Off-Road Raceway.

Then it was back to a late model on pavement, and another K&N race a couple weeks later.

“She’s just got a great knowledge of racing,” McAnally said. “Her dad has done an amazing job building a foundation. She can tell you what she needs out of a car to feel comfortable, to go fast. We have kids who have won some big races, and have years and years of experience, and this is her first season, so to do what she’s done this season is quite impressive.”

Her dedication is evidenced by the fact she graduated high school with straight-As at 16, allowing her to spend more time racing. Deegan and McAnally both pump the brakes when it comes to a rapid rise in NASCAR, though. Deegan is still the new kid in the garage, and in an age when sponsorships are drying up and finding a competitive ride is harder than ever, the road to racing’s pinnacle has never been tougher.

“She’s used to driving through it and over it, and quite successfully, but this is different,” McAnally explained. “She’s learning. She’s paying her dues.”

She doesn’t mind, either.

Deegan knows NASCAR is a more lucrative career path than off-road trucks, which is a big reason why she made the leap. But she also transitioned to pavement because it’s something new.

At truck races, she’s Brian Deegan’s daughter. At stock car races, it’s almost the opposite.

“Coming here, it’s like, people don’t even connect it,” she said. “Some people say, `I didn’t realize you were Brian Deegan’s daughter.’ It’s my own world and it’s my own racing.”

That may be why she bristles, ever so slightly, when Patrick’s name is brought up. Patrick retired earlier this year.

“Yes, I’m a girl. Yes, we’re some of the only girls in racing,” Deegan said, “but I came from a different racing background. I have family in a different racing world. I’m a different personality on the track. We have different driving styles. The only thing that compares us is we’re girls.”

In other words, she’s OK being the next Deegan. Not the next Danica.

Deegan isn’t sure where her career goes next, though the natural arc would be another year in the K&N or ARCA series, then a jump to the Truck Series and eventually the Xfinity Series. Maybe in five or so years, everything will align and she’ll be racing alongside Harvick in the Cup Series.

But at the moment, she’s simply just enjoying herself.

“This stuff is just fun,” Deegan said. “I’m the person who likes to try new things. This is a new thing. I’ve been racing off road for seven or eight years, and I feel like I’ve enjoyed that a lot, but I wanted to try something new and this is all new to me.”

IndyCar: Which drivers need to start or continue comebacks in 2019?

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With the 2018 IndyCar Series season already far back in our rearview mirror, it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to the 2019 campaign, which begins on March 10 at St. Petersburg, Florida.

When you look at how 2018 ended up, several drivers either didn’t have the season they had hoped for and are looking to make big comebacks in 2019, or perhaps began comebacks in 2018 after prior difficult seasons.

Let’s take a look at who is due – or in some cases, overdue – for an even stronger season in 2019:

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: RHR isn’t overdue by any stretch, having started his “comeback” of sorts in 2018. His fourth-place season finish was his best in the series since winning the championship in 2012.

He also earned two wins – Belle Isle II and the season finale at Sonoma – his first visits to victory lane since winning twice in 2015.

Had it not been for three DNFs in the second half of the season, Hunter-Reay likely could have finished in the top 3 at season’s end.

It was good to see him come back into prominence after frustration the last two seasons (12th in 2016 and 9th in 2017).

Hunter-Reay still has several more good years in him and it would not be surprising to see him finish even higher in 2019 – and potentially once again being a championship contender.

SIMON PAGENAUD: After winning the championship in 2016 and finishing second in 2017, Pagenaud definitely had an off-season by his usual standards in 2018, finishing sixth in the IndyCar standings.

The French-born driver failed to win a race for the first time since 2015 and had just two podium finishes (also the most since 2015).

One of the most telling stats from what was a frustrating campaign is Pagenaud and the No. 22 led a total of just 31 laps across the 17-race 2018 season, the fewest laps led in a single season in his entire IndyCar career.

He also had the second-worst average per-race finish of his career (8.6), after having average finishes of 6.1 in his championship season and 5.3 in 2017.

Of course, looking at things from a glass half-full viewpoint, Pagenaud went from a winless and disappointing 11th place finish in 2015 to become champion in 2016. Could history repeat itself in 2019?

By all measures, 2018 was definitely an off season for Pagenaud. Look for him to make a significant comeback in 2019.

Or, to borrow a line Pagenaud said to teammate Josef Newgarden during their early 2018 season “autograph battle,” it’s your move, bro, for 2019.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: The French driver had perhaps the best comeback season of any driver in 2018.

When former CART champ Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan joined forces with Dale Coyne Racing just prior to the start of the 2018 season, Bourdais was the hand-picked driver to carry the DCR with Vasser-Sullivan banner.

Bourdais did not disappoint. He started the season with a win at St. Petersburg and enjoyed his best overall season finish – seventh – in an Indy car since capturing the fourth of four straight CART/Champ Car World Series championships in 2007.

It was also Bourdais’ best career IndyCar finish, topping his previous best season finishes of 10th in both 2014 and 2015.|

Bourdais, who turns 40 in late February, finished the season strong with two top 5 and two other top 10 finishes in four of the last five races. That’s a good harbinger of even better things to come in 2019.

GRAHAM RAHAL: It was a tough season at times for Rahal, who turns 30 in early January.

Not only did he have his worst season finish – eighth – since 2014 (19th), he failed to win even one race (also for the first time since 2014) and had just one podium finish (2nd at St. Petersburg).

As if to add insult to injury, Rahal had two of his three season DNFs in his final two races (4th lap crash at Portland and a battery issue at Sonoma).

Rahal is overdue for the kind of season he had in 2015, when he won two races, had six podiums and finished a career-best fourth in the overall standings.

While Rahal has the equipment and personnel to do better, something just didn’t click in 2018. Will things turn around in 2019?

MARCO ANDRETTI: The grandson of Mario and son of Michael Andretti continues to be a work in progress – with emphasis on the word “progress” when it came to his 2018 performance.

Although he remains winless since 2011 and hasn’t had a podium finish since 2015, Marco Andretti still showed overall improvement in 2018, including earning his first pole (Belle Isle I) since 2013.

With a fifth-place finish in the season-ending race at Sonoma, Andretti jumped from 12th in the standings to finish the season tied for eighth place with Graham Rahal, Andretti’s best overall showing since finishing fifth in 2013.

Andretti had a strong second half of the 2018 season, with a top 5 in the season finale at Sonoma, as well as three top 11 finishes in five of the last eight races.

Don’t be surprised if he closes in on a top 5 finish in 2019. Andretti Autosport continues to improve overall as a team, particularly with Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and now Andretti, as well.

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It was a strange season for the Mayor of Hinchtown.

He failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, had just one win and two podium finishes, yet ended up with a 10th place overall finish in the standings, his best performance since finishing 8th in both 2012 and 2013.

The Canadian driver went on a hot streak early in the second half of the season, winning at Iowa and finishing fourth in his hometown race in Toronto.

But DNFs at Pocono and Portland, as well as three other finishes of 14th (Mid-Ohio) and 15th (Gateway and Sonoma) likely cost him a chance of potentially finishing as high as eighth.

There was also the emotional, gut-wrenching crash involving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and longtime best friend, Robert Wickens, at Pocono. While Hinchcliffe tried to put on a happy face and showed support to his fallen mate, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wickens’ injury constantly dwelled on Hinchcliffe’s mind.

With the Indianapolis 500 heartbreak, the firing of engineer Lena Gade (who lasted just five races before her ouster), the injury to Wickens, and the overall second-half season struggles, Hinchcliffe is to be commended for finishing as high as he did in the final standings given the overall circumstances he had to endure.

At the same time, it’s likely a season he wants to wipe away from his memory bank and turn a forgettable season in 2018 into what Hinchcliffe and his team hope is an unforgettable season in 2019.

TONY KANAAN: A new team, new outlook and racing for legendary A.J. Foyt offered a great deal of promise for Tony Kanaan in 2018.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian native suffered through the worst season ever in his IndyCar career, finishing 16th in the overall standings.

Prior to 2018, Kanaan had experienced just one other season outside the top 10 (11th in 2013, the same year he won the Indianapolis 500).

Admittedly, TK, who turns 44 on December 31, is the oldest full-time driver on the circuit. But it doesn’t look like he’s lost much with age.

Rather, three DNFs and a career single-season low of having led just 20 laps over 17 races took its toll on Kanaan.

He will return for 2019, driving a second season for Foyt. But things need to dramatically improve for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.

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