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Danica Patrick’s goal for 2017 is simple: ‘Be my best’

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The question was posed to several drivers who walked into the room.

In 2017, I want to …

They said “win another championship” or “win more races” or some variation of those.

One response, though, was different. It was more open-ended.

“In 2017 I want to … be my best.’’

The speaker was Danica Patrick.

“I just want to be my best,’’ she told NBC Sports in a recent interview. “I want to know that I’ve left no stone unturned, know that I have made minimal mistakes in the races, that I dug deep and stepped outside my comfort zone to go faster and do better.

“Do my best. That’s all that I can do.’’

She enters her fifth full-time season of Cup after a frustrating campaign. She finished no better than 11th in any of the 36 points races last season. She has gone 64 Cup races since her last top-10 finish, a ninth-place result at Bristol in April 2015.

Patrick struggled as all three of her teammates each won at least a race last year. Kevin Harvick won four races, Kurt Busch one and Tony Stewart one.

She conceded during the NASCAR on NBC Podcast with Nate Ryan in November her frustrations.

“It’s just not much fun,’’ Patrick said on the podcast. “Running in the top 15 every weekend would be so much more fun.

“It breaks my heart every Sunday when it doesn’t go well.’’

The offseason also has had its ups and downs. She appeared at last week’s NASCAR Media Tour in her TaxAct uniform instead of a Nature’s Bakery uniform, raising questions about the company’s primary sponsorship. The company was slated to be the primary sponsor for more than 20 races this year.

Stewart-Haas Racing stated that it and Nature’s Bakery were in “discussions about how the sponsorship might look in 2017. Both sides have options, and it’s a matter of determining what is best for both parties.’’

Nature’s Bakery website, though, does not feature Patrick, and a press release on the company’s sponsorship of Patrick’s team from Aug. 2015 no longer is on the site. The TaxAct uniform Patrick wore on the NASCAR Media Tour did not include a Nature’s Bakery patch.

Patrick can’t control that situation. Her focus is on the track.

Patrick said she’s spent additional time with crew chief Billy Scott to discuss how they can improve her performance.

“What are we going to do to get the result that we want because if you want the same thing that you’ve had, then just go on and keep doing the same thing, but I want something different,’’ Patrick said. “I want more. I want to do better. I want to have fun. Running 20th or 24th is not fun and I don’t come to add a car to the field and just be out there.

“If I’m not having fun for a long enough time, then there’s so much more to life. This is a year to really see what we can do to have some fun out there and perform. I think they go hand in hand. When you’re having fun, you perform. When you perform, you have fun.’’

Patrick notes that Stewart-Haas Racing’s move from Chevrolet to Ford could lead to greater results. Previously, the organization received engines, chassis and technical support from Hendrick Motorsports. Now, Stewart-Haas Racing will use its own chassis and receive engines from from Roush Yates Engines.

“For me, as a racer, I feel like the best results are going to come from you being able to create your own destiny, your own future by working really hard and having something that somebody else doesn’t,’’ Patrick said. “It’s pretty tough to beat people when you’re getting equipment from them.The best you can expect is the same.’’

Patrick is looking for anything but the same this year.

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Ryan Preece is fastest in final Xfinity practice Friday at Kentucky

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Ryan Preece soared to the top of the speed chart in the final Xfinity practice Friday night at Kentucky Speedway.

Preece covered the 1.5-mile oval with a top speed of 181.629 mph. He hit that speed on his first of 38 laps run during the session.

Justin Allgaier was second (180.777 mph), followed by Spencer Gallagher Jr. (180.114), Tyler Reddick (179.832) and Daniel Hemric (179.712).

Sixth through 10th: Matt Tifft (179.665), who was fastest in the first practice session earlier in the afternoon, William Byron (179.605), Brennan Poole (179.581), Sam Hornish Jr. (179.521) and Brandon Jones (179.521).

Five of the 12 Xfinity playoff contenders ended up in the top 10: Allgaier, Hemric, Tifft, Byron and Poole.

Others playoff contenders on the speed chart were Elliott Sadler (12th, 179.194), Ryan Reed (16th, 178.944), Cole Custer (17th, 178.838), Brendan Gaughan (19th, 178.453), Blake Koch (20th, 178.159), Michael Annett (21st, 178.124) and Jeremy Clements (25th, 176. 286).

Qualifying for Saturday night’s VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300 takes place at 5:30 p.m. ET, with the race set to take the green flag at 8 p.m. ET.

Click here for the full speed chart from the final Xfinity practice.

Starting lineup for Sunday’s ISM Connect 300 NASCAR Cup race at Loudon

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Up until this season, Kyle Busch wasn’t necessarily looked upon as a prolific qualifier.

He earned a career-best three poles in 2013 and 2014.

But that’s nothing compared to 2017, as Busch earned a career-best eighth pole Friday for Sunday’s ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

It’s also his second consecutive pole, having won the pole for last weekend’s playoff-opening race at Chicagoland Speedway.

Kyle Larson was next and will join Busch on the front row Sunday.

As for the other 14 NASCAR Cup playoff contenders: Denny Hamlin (134.763) was third, followed by Ryan Blaney (134.720), Chicagoland winner Martin Truex Jr. (134.188), Kevin Harvick (134.108), Kurt Busch (133.985), Kasey Kahne (133.966), Matt Kenseth (133.589), Jamie McMurray (133.680) and Jimmie Johnson (131.989).

Of the top 12 qualifiers, 11 are playoff drivers. The only non-playoff driver was Erik Jones (eighth, 133.971).

As for the other five playoff contenders, Brad Keselowski was 13th (133.422), Chase Elliott (133.357) was 14th, Austin Dillon was 17th (133.133), Ryan Newman was 18th (133.007) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. qualified 24th (131.628).

Click here for the starting lineup.

 

Kyle Busch gets past Kyle Larson to take Cup pole at Loudon

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In a battle between Kyle and Kyle, it was Kyle Busch who emerged with the pole for Sunday’s ISM Connect 300 Friday afternoon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The younger Busch brother was the only driver over 135 mph, taking his 27th career Cup pole with a speed of 135.049 mph.

“Just went out there and gave it what she had,” Busch told NBCSN. “It certainly would be great to finish this out in victory lane on Sunday.

“We knew we were going to have a shot for the pole, just didn’t know if we were going to get it. For as ugly as that session looked or felt from my vantage point, it certainly worked out.”

Busch has now won the pole for the first two playoff races, having won the pole last week at Chicagoland.

What’s more, this is the most prolific season of qualifying for Busch in his career: this is his eighth pole in 2017, most of all drivers in the Cup series and his most in a single season. His previous mark for most poles in a single season was three in both 2013 and 2014.

As for the other Kyle, Kyle Larson, he qualified on the outside of the front row with an effort of 134.911 mph.

“I feel overall that my lap was pretty good,” said Larson, who finished second in the July race at New Hampshire. “The 18 has been real fast, especially in qualifying all year. For us to be second to him is not bad.”

Denny Hamlin (134.763) was third, followed by Ryan Blaney (134.720), Martin Truex Jr. (134.188), Kevin Harvick (134.108), Kurt Busch (133.985), Erik Jones (133.971), Kasey Kahne (133.966), Matt Kenseth (133.589), Jamie McMurray (133.680) and Jimmie Johnson (131.989).

Of the top 12, 11 are in the NASCAR Cup playoffs. The only non-playoff driver was Jones.

As for the other five playoff contenders, Brad Keselowski was 13th (133.422), Chase Elliott (133.357) was 14th, Austin Dillon was 17th (133.133), Ryan Newman was 18th (133.007) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. qualified 24th (131.628).

Elliott and Johnson both wrecked their primary cars in the Cup practice session earlier in the day.

While Johnson was able to get back on-track for that practice session with his back-up car, Elliott qualified cold with his back-up, unable to get back on-track during the morning practice.

Joey Logano did not take a qualifying lap after failing pre-qualifying inspection four times. Logano will start last (40th position) in Sunday’s race at NHMS, which he considers his “home track.”

Click here for the full qualifying grid.

Matt Tifft fastest in first of 2 Xfinity practices at Kentucky Speedway

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Matt Tifft ran 25 laps during Friday afternoon’s first of two NASCAR Xfinity Series practice sessions at Kentucky Speedway.

But it was just one lap that mattered the most, as Tifft (180.427 mph) emerged from the 55-minute practice as the fastest in the 36 cars that took to the track.

Brian Scott was second (179.253 mph), followed by Ryan Preece (178.465), Brandon Jones (178.288), Justin Allgaier (178.271), Ben Kennedy (178.136), Elliott Sadler (177.573), Tyler Reddick (177.544), Spencer Gallagher Jr. (177.503) and Brennan Poole (177.381).

Interestingly enough, only four of the top-10 were playoff contenders. The seven-race Xfinity playoffs begin with Saturday night’s VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300.

There will be one more practice session today from 6:30-7:25 p.m. ET.

Qualifying and the race are Saturday.

Click here for the full practice speed grid.