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.

NASCAR America: Matt Kenseth unable to realize potential due to team’s mistakes

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Sunday’s pit road mistake — having seven crew members over the wall when only six are allowed — not only knocked Matt Kenseth out of the race, it also knocked him out of advancing in the NASCAR Cup playoffs.

As a result, Kenseth lost out on his bid to earn a second Cup championship in what could potentially be his last season in the Cup series.

And it wasn’t the first time Kenseth has suffered through issues not of his making this season and in prior seasons.

On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Nate Ryan all gave their thoughts on what happened to Kenseth — and they didn’t hold back, either.

Click on the above video to hear what they had to say about Kenseth’s misfortune and how it could potentially impact his legacy going forward.

 

NASCAR America: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s picks for Championship 4

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On Monday’s editions of NASCAR America, Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave his predictions for which of the eight remaining championship-eligible drivers — including Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott — will make it to the Championship 4 round.

In addition to Johnson and Elliott, Junior also makes it known in the above video that he’s also pulling for Ryan Blaney. He may even throw in a surprise to his picks.

Our NASCAR America team of analysts go over Junior’s picks and give their take, as well.

We don’t want to spill the beans of who Junior is picking here, so click on the video above to find out, as well as what our analysts think about his picks.

 

 

 

Long: Kyle Larson’s playoff exit significant to title contenders

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Lost among questions about rules, confusion on pit road and chaos on the track Sunday was just how significant Kyle Larson’s departure from the playoff is.

The owner of four wins this season, Larson was one of the few drivers who typically could race with Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch on the 1.5-mile tracks and some even considered Larson the championship favorite if he made it to Miami.

“I think Kyle Larson was going to be the car to beat, and still will be the car to beat at Homestead,’’ said Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch. “Now that he’s not in the (playoff) mix anymore, it probably opens it up for the rest of us.’’

Said Kevin Harvick: “I think you eliminated the best car at Homestead. That’s a big deal. For everybody.’’

Larson entered Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway with a 29-point cushion before his title hopes ended when his engine blew with nearly 200 laps left. He finished 39th.

“It’s crazy,’’ Cole Pearn, crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., said of Larson’s playoff exit. “You can’t ever be safe, for sure.’’

Sunday marked the first time since 2013 that Larson failed to finish a race because of an engine failure. His first two career Cup races ended early because of engine issues that season.

Larson’s departure was as shocking as Busch’s exit in 2014 when he entered the elimination race at Talladega second in the standings with a 25-point cushion to advance to the next round.

Now a spot many presumed would be taken by Larson is open for someone else.

WORK REMAINS

Jimmie Johnson overcame two spins to finish 11th and advance to the Round of 8, moving a step closer to an eighth championship.

Crew chief Chad Knaus, though, wasn’t pleased after Sunday’s race.

On the radio afterward, Knaus said: “That was a pitiful performance.’’

Knaus had more to say after the race, telling NBC Sports:

“We ran like (expletive deleted). It was a bad weekend. We managed to capitalize on some other people’s misfortune, which was great for us. We’ve got some work to do. I don’t know what’s going on. We definitely don’t have the speed that we need.

“Good news is we’ve got three really good race tracks coming up for us, at least historically. Very optimistic heading into Martinsville and going to Homestead this week to test, so hopefully we can hit on some stuff there to take to Texas. We obviously have run well there in the past. Phoenix has been a really good race track for us as well. We’ve got three great opportunities. Just got to do the best.’’

Knaus is right to be concerned. The second round was mistake-riddled for the team.

The pit crew failed to tighten all the lug nuts late in the race at Charlotte, forcing Johnson to back up partially into his stall to remedy the issue, costing him time and positions.

An error by the team’s spotter led to the crew working on Johnson’s damaged car before the red flag period had ended, leading to the team being parked. The team had hoped to run one more lap after being collected in a crash to gain at least one more point.

Then came Kansas’ woes with the lack of speed, an ill-handling car and a seven-time champion causing back-to-back cautions.

“It’s no real surprise that mile-and-a-halves have been a little bit of a struggle for us this year,’’ Johnson said. “We’re putting in the effort. These guys are working around the clock. I’m looking under every stone I can to try to find something as well. We just don’t have the speed yet.

“We’ve got a real opportunity at Martinsville. If we’re able to win there … it sets us up for Homestead.’’

COMMUNICATION WOES

The communication issues Matt Kenseth’s team had Sunday wasn’t the first time for that team and crew chief Jason Ratcliff in the playoffs.

In the penultimate race of the 2013 season, Kenseth struggled all weekend and then had a disastrous pit stop when there was confusion on if the team would change two or four tires. After the call was made for four tires, Kenseth had to back up because the car was on the air hose.

The result was a 23rd-place finish that left Kenseth so far behind Johnson needed only to finish 23rd or better in Miami to win the title. Ratcliff apologized to his crew on the radio after the race for the effort.

Sunday’s scenario was different but communication again proved key and a miscue will keep the team from having a chance to race for a title.

“That’s one thing about that pit stall (closest to pit entrance), makes it difficult,’’ Ratcliff said. “You get to pit road really quick. You have a little less time to communicate. Thankfully, we don’t fall under the damaged vehicle policy that much. Other than last week at Talladega we did. We missed a head count there.’’

So what happened?

“Two of them were holding tires (over the wall),’’ Ratcliff said of crew members. “We have a gameplan. We have a gameplan that has worked really good for us all year and … I don’t know if someone missed the call there or I didn’t communicate properly. Typically, it boils down to communication and that’s what happened there.’’

When Kenseth was told on the radio that he was being parked for having too many crew members work on his car while under the five-minute clock for crash damage, the former champion sounded incredulous that his — last? — chance to win a title ended in such a way.

With no plans announced for next year, there’s no guarantee Kenseth will be racing for a championship again. Now the goal becomes a win.

“We’ve had some great runs at Martinsville and there would be nothing greater than going there and finally getting that win with Matt,’’ Ratcliff said. “That would be special. Would it make up for not having a shot at Homestead? No, but it would be sweet to have that happen with just a few races to go in the season.’’

PIT STOPS

The final eight Cup playoff contenders include four former champions — Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. There has been a first-time champion in three of the last five years, which could be a good sign for playoff drivers Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. … With winning the pole at Kansas, Truex Jr.’s team earned the first pick of pit stalls also at Martinsville this weekend because qualifying is on the same day as the race there.

Memorial service to be held Friday for Furniture Row Racing team member Jim Watson

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A memorial service for Furniture Row Racing crew member Jim Watson will be held Friday in Lincolnton, North Carolina, his family announced Monday.

Watson, who served in a number of roles for both the No. 78 of Martin Truex Jr. and No. 77 of Erik Jones, passed away Saturday night after suffering a heart attack in Kansas City, Kansas, where the teams were preparing for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup race.

Watson was 55.

MORE: Furniture Row Racing crew member dies of heart attack

MORE: Long: Tears turn to cheers for Furniture Row Racing

The memorial will be from 4-6 p.m. ET Friday at the Warlick Funeral Home, 125 Dave Warlick Drive, in Lincolnton.

Watson’s obituary was included in the announcement of the memorial service:

Watson was born Sept. 27, 1962, in Kenosha, Wis., to Betty Paulus Watson and the late David Harrison Watson. He is survived by his wife, Laurie Ann Watson; a daughter, Brittany May Watson; his mother, Betty L. Watson; brother, Mike Watson; stepchildren, Eric James Conover and fiancé Claudia Rodriguez, and Matthew Sean Conover; Michael Patrick Conover, and wife Michele, and Nicholas Ian Conover; three grandchildren, Patrick Michael Conover, Michael Winston Conover, and Coleton Daniel Conover; nieces, Jennifer Watson and Katie J. Ballou; and many other uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that memorials be made to hatsalive.org.