Ryan: The hit parade for Danica Patrick understandably can take its toll

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After all the hard shots Danica Patrick has weathered in her NASCAR career, the hits came as fast and furious for her passionate reaction to a fiery impact Saturday.

A Cup driver was being cut out of his car because of an injury concern (for the first time in more than a decade), and engines were silent at Kansas Speedway. A solemn interview on FS1 by Joey Logano indicated a pall had fallen over the track as safety workers carefully extricated Aric Almirola.

And then Patrick gave an interview that seemed borderline flippant in contrast to the preceding somberness.

Was it fair to criticize it as tone deaf, as many did the next few days on satellite radio and social media?

Let’s put aside the mood, the timing, the setting and just re-examine some of Patrick’s words while standing outside the care center on national TV for the second consecutive week.

“I hope Aric’s OK,” she said “He definitely is feeling the worst of everybody. NASCAR has done everything they can to make our cars as safe as possible, but things happen. And his car looked the least damaged of all of ours.

“That’s what I said before I walked out, one of these times these accidents aren’t going to go good for me. They are all big. I’ve been very fortunate so far, but one of these times it’s not going to go well.”

If it sounded like someone who was feeling the strain of being in too many crashes – particularly the sort of jarring impacts that naturally leave drivers questioning their vocations – that would be a reasonable conclusion.

Kansas marked the third crash in four weeks for Patrick, who has endured collisions in five of the first 11 races this season – the highest rate of a career already marked by its share of wrecks.

In 165 starts in NASCAR’s premier series, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver has been listed on the crash report in 51 races – 20 resulting in DNFs.

According to David Smith’s Motorsports Analytics website, Patrick was among the top 15 in crash rates from 2013-15 (last year, she was at 0.31 crashes per race, 19th highest in the series and the lowest of her career). Over the past three seasons, she has the third-most crashes (40).

This year’s crash rate of 0.45 is among the top 10, but it shouldn’t be viewed as an indictment of her ability.

She crashes slightly more than a typical Cup driver but not so much that it begs questions about her qualifications. The fiery wreck at Kansas (where she ran in the top 10) was because of a broken part on Joey Logano’s Ford, and Patrick had no say in the contact between A.J. Allmendinger and Chase Elliott that collected her car at Talladega Superspeedway.

What is troubling about Patrick’s crashes isn’t the frequency — it’s how heavy they frequently are.

A day after the Kansas wreck, a YouTube user assembled a dozen of Danica’s most jarring impacts, and the compilation easily filled nearly 10 minutes.

This isn’t an unfamiliar narrative for Patrick, whose cars have found walls at high rates of speed since even before the first race of her Cup career. This 2012 Daytona 500 qualifier now seems a harbinger of sorts:

A week before Kansas, there was this impact with a barrier jutting out at Talladega (around the 1:40 mark):

A year earlier at Talladega was a crash that left her shaken and with a foot injury:

There was a hard turn into the wall at Auto Club Speedway in 2016:

A wreck at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in September 2015 knocked the wind out of her:

There was a heavy right-front impact in the 2014 Daytona 500:

Even practice sessions have included some heavy licks, such as this during Speedweeks 2015 at Daytona:

When the crashes in her career are watched in succession, Patrick’s assertion three months ago that she has had at least a dozen concussions seems less like hyperbole and more just a fact.

If she could re-do Saturday’s interview, Patrick might choose her words differently. She admittedly is known for getting angry in the wake of crashes throughout her career in IndyCar and NASCAR. Adrenaline is pumping in the wake of traumatic moments such as slamming a wall at 200 mph, and drivers shouldn’t be asked to apologize if it occasionally results in histrionic reactions.

But beyond just being in the heat of the moment, consider what else Patrick might have been thinking about Saturday night as she attempted to process another high-speed collision that wasn’t her fault.

The primary sponsor of her No. 10 Ford has left and no replacement has been named for next year. She has a bevy of off-track, fitness-oriented pursuits (clothing lines, a book, maybe a cooking show?) with lucrative potential for long-term commercial viability independent of racing.

Patrick, who turned 35 two months ago, has raced for more than a decade on the national stage and has built a brand and reputation that will carry for decades if she left NASCAR tomorrow.

It might be fair to ask whether she reacted well Saturday night after she was involved in another wicked crash.

But it also seems fair to ask if that reaction should be taken in the context of someone who clearly and understandably has had enough of being involved in violent impacts.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. reignited a debate over whether it was “in poor taste” for media outlets to use photos of Almirola clearly in pain while being attended to by safety workers. It already had been a flashpoint Saturday night when a similar photo was deleted by a prominent writer after much negative (and some high-profile) blowback.

The usage of photos with graphic or possibly sensitive content has been a topic in journalism ethics classes for decades. There is no necessarily right or wrong answer.

The reactions are reasonable from Earnhardt and others who know Almirola personally and view publication as tantamount to an invasion of privacy.

But images help tell a story, and along with accepting the risks to their health, race car drivers also enter into a covenant as public figures.

Some of the most famous events in sports history have featured athletes in various degrees of pain and sometimes with bloodshed. Those stories remain vivid in large part because the images associated with them provide compelling and unvarnished veracity.

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There also was some outrage over NASCAR’s decision to add a fourth stage to the Coca-Cola 600.

It seems misplaced for several reasons. One is that NASCAR officials have been fairly transparent about the fact that they would be tweaking stages as they were evaluated in their debut season (which has been mostly positive).

The longest race of the year by 100 miles virtually mandated a different approach because of the pit strategies in play over 400 laps. Though you might find it curious why the race was broken into 100-lap stages (some might have expected the last segment to be longer), it’s hard to argue with the logic.

There is some merit to the point that it lessens NASCAR’s major-league credibility to announce this two weeks out (of course, that also begs the question of why weren’t more apoplectic when the All-Star Race format was announced two weeks ahead of last year’s event?)

It would seem prudent for NASCAR just to “own” this by saying, “Yes, we concede it would have been better to announce this in January. But we also think stages are working, and we want to keep improving it during the season.”

By the way, expect more changes for stages in 2018, starting at Daytona.

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After track promoters initially were told the 2018 schedule would be released Monday, it now seems likely it will be out next week.

Though still much earlier than in previous years (thanks to five-year sanction agreements in place since 2016), the timing will be roughly two weeks behind when the 2017 schedule was unveiled last year.

One of the major keys to finalizing next year’s slate apparently is Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Brickyard 400 has been held on either the last week of July or the first week of August since its 1994 inception, but there has been discussion of shifting the date both forward and backward on the calendar.

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Martin Truex Jr.’s victory at Kansas reaffirmed many things about the Furniture Row Racing driver – chiefly, that he is learning to win the races he once struggled to close. But it also underscored something about his team and manufacturer.

The Joe Gibbs Racing drought to start the 2017 season isn’t solely because of Toyota. For the second time in three weeks, Truex was asked twice in the last three weeks about the Camrys of FRR outpacing those of JGR.

“They’ve had speed at times,” Truex said. “They’ve been a little bit inconsistent, but it’s there, and they’ll figure it out quickly.”

Based on the way Toyota Racing Development does business, all the information and tools are available for JGR to run as well as Truex. But the trick is getting the data correctly applied.

Truex has attributed his speed to a perfect blend of competition minds in crew chief Cole Pearn, engineer Jeff Curtis and competition director Pete Rondeau.

“We all get the same information,” he said. “Our guys in general are just clicking. We have a lot of confidence.  My guys are doing an amazing job of filtering through all that information and making sure the right things are going into the car.

“I think that the good part for (JGR) is that they see what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and they know it’s possible as well.”

With two weeks to regroup around the Charlotte Motor Speedway homestand, the guess here is that TRD finds a way to put JGR back on track by pointing them in Truex’s direction.

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Colleague Dustin Long got a good nugget Tuesday from team owner Rick Hendrick, who seems optimistic about re-signing Lowe’s and Nationwide beyond 2017.

Team sponsorship concerns have been an underlying story of the 2017 Cup season. Amidst some ominous business indicators for Lowe’s and the impending retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., whether Hendrick Motorsports could retain two of its flagship primary sponsors was viewed as an important barometer by the NASCAR industry.

If both return as Hendrick expects, that will bring some sighs of relief well beyond the walls of a NASCAR powerhouse.

Chase Elliott, AJ Allmendinger unveil Darlington throwback schemes

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Both Chase Elliott and AJ Allmendinger have revealed the paint schemes they’ll drive in the Sept. 3 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Elliott will use his No. 24 Chevrolet to pay tribute to the car his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, drove in his first Cup start.

The light blue look was on his No. 9 car when he started in the Feb. 29, 1976 race at Rockingham Speedway.

The car was revealed on Facebook in the below video.

AJ Allmendinger will pay tribute to two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte with his No. 47 Chevrolet.

The car will resemble the No. 44 Piedmont Airlines Oldsmobile that Labonte drove in during the 198 Cup season when he competed for owner Billy Hagan.

NASCAR America: Felix Sabates: ‘I’m lucky to be here’ after near-death experience from illness last year

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For nearly a month last year Felix Sabates was at death’s door.

The fears were so great that Sabates might not wake up from a coma he spent 29 days in, Chip Ganassi bought a blue suit for the possibility he might have to attend his co-owner’s funeral.

But the 71-year-old made a full recovery through a rehab process that included learning to walk again.

NASCAR America’s Kyle Petty and Sabates have a special relationship. Petty drove the No. 42 car for Sabates’ SABCO Racing for eight years in the 1980s and 1990s, winning six of his eight Cup races for the millionaire owner from Cuba.

Sabates sat down with Petty to discuss the ordeal, which began in January 2016 when Sabates began feeling ill during the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I came home and woke up the next morning and I (couldn’t) breath,” said Sabates, who drove himself to the hospital. “The minute they saw me I was in intensive care.”

Sabates was in the hospital for two and half weeks before he was released, but Sabates “should’ve know I wasn’t cured.”

The Chip Ganassi Racing co-owner returned to his usual grind until it caught up to him in August.

“My blood pressure was through the roof, my oxygen level was 55, which you should be dead then,” recalled Sabates, who has no memory of a three-month stretch. “They thought was I was brain-dead. They were pretty much going to disconnect me. So 4 o’clock in the morning, they took my tubes out.”

That’s when Sabates began the process of waking up.

“I’m lucky to be here,” said Sabates, who aside from being back at the track is also back to playing golf.

“I used to worry about little things,’ Sabates said. “Now I don’t even worry about big things.”

The full feature will air Sunday on Countdown to Green, which begins at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN before the Cup race at Pocono.

NASCAR America: Ryan Blaney glad Team Penske news is finally out in the open

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On Wednesday it was finally announced that Ryan Blaney would move from Wood Brothers Racing to Team Penske full-time next year in the Cup Series in the No. 12 Ford while Paul Menard will take over the No. 21 Ford.

NASCAR America’s Dave Burns caught up with Blaney on Thursday. Blaney was happy that his 2018 plans were finally public knowledge.

Blaney also acknowledged how a technical alliance between the two teams helped Wood Brothers Racing return to a competition level that allowed Blaney to get his first Cup win this season earlier this year.

“That was a big deal,” Blaney said. “That was getting us to where we could run a full-time season. That was really helpful not only to me but to (crew chief) Jeremy Bullins, will be coming with me to the 12 car.”

Blaney has been driving for Team Penske part-time in the Xfinity Series since 2012.

“It’s been nice to get the news and tell everybody finally about what we’re doing,” Blaney said. “But mainly we’re trying to finish this year out strong with the Wood Brothers, getting their 100th win, that’s really big. That’s on my bucket list for this year and getting as far as we can in the playoffs.”

The No. 21 team returns to Pocono Raceway this weekend, the site of Blaney’s first Cup win last month.

Watch the video for the full interview.

Numbers add up for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Pocono

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Just six races remain for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to make the playoffs in his final NASCAR Cup season.

Earnhardt is ranked 22nd in the NASCAR Cup standings and there are only four open positions — that could shrink further with additional first-time winners in 2017 in the next six races — left for winless drivers to qualify for the 16-driver playoffs strictly on points.

As a result, Earnhardt and his fans know that with each passing race where the No. 88 remains winless, the urgency to win even just one race to make the 10-race playoffs increases exponentially.

Junior’s fans may be heartened to hear some positive tidbits about his chances this weekend at Pocono Raceway, courtesy of RacingInsights.com.

  • Did you know that during Junior’s nine-plus year tenure with Hendrick Motorsports, he’s earned the most top-fives at Daytona (seven in 20 starts) and … this may come as a surprise … at Pocono (seven in 18 starts).
  • Earnhardt also has six top fives both at Martinsville and Michigan (18 starts each), and five top fives at Phoenix and Talladega (also 18 starts each).
  • Of Hendrick Motorsports’ last 10 wins, Jimmie Johnson has won eight, Kasey Kahne won last Sunday’s Brickyard 400 and Earnhardt’s most recent Cup win came on Nov. 15, 2015 at Phoenix Raceway.
  • Earnhardt has gone 39 races since his last win.
  • Earnhardt won both races at Pocono in 2014. In the four races he’s been in since then, he’s finished fourth (mid-summer 2015) second (early 2016 race) — meaning he’s had four top-five finishes in his last six starts at the 2.5-mile tri-oval.
  • He also was 11th in the early 2015 race there. His only finish lower than 11th came last month at Pocono when he completed just 58 of the scheduled 160 laps before his motor expired.
  • In 34 career Cup starts at the Tricky Triangle, Earnhardt has two wins, 11 top fives, 15 top 10s and one pole.
  • Earnhardt is ranked sixth for most laps led by winless drivers this season, with 24 laps led. By comparison, Kyle Busch has led 1,040 laps, the most of all winless drivers in 2017.

Add all those elements together and could Junior’s best chance up to now to win and lock in a playoff berth come this Sunday?

We’ll soon find out.

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