Danica Patrick on her future: ‘I just want to do what feels right’

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Danica Patrick told ESPN.com Wednesday that she found out earlier this summer that if sponsorship could not be found, Stewart-Haas Racing would not field a car for her in 2018.

Patrick announced Tuesday that she would not drive for Stewart-Haas Racing after this season, her fifth full-time season with the team. She did not say what her 2018 plans are.

Her announcement came after Stewart-Haas Racing revealed that Smithfield would join the organization as a sponsor for 2018 but did not name a driver. Matt Kenseth said Wednesday that he would not be replacing Patrick next season. Kasey Kahne also said Wednesday that “I don’t really think the 10 is an option, it hasn’t seemed to be.

MORE: Tony Stewart says support for Danica “unwavering”

As for Patrick’s future?

“I just want to do what feels right and what will give me the best chance – if I’m racing, will give me the best chance to perform and get in the winner’s circle, which is what I want to accomplish in NASCAR,’’ Patrick told ESPN.com. “Or if I don’t feel like that’s something that will be possible, then I’m OK with that, too.

If she does not return, it could end a chapter for NASCAR’s most successful female driver even though she has never won a Cup race in 180 career Cup starts.

I hope she can find something,’’ said Kyle Larson, who is friends with Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse. “She’s already done so much for our sport, though. She could leave right now and she’s made a great impact on it.’’

Patrick’s legacy to some will be how she reached a younger audience, while others will look at an unfulfilled career. Patrick made her Cup debut in the 2012 Daytona 500. She was the first female to race in NASCAR’s premier series since Shawna Robinson last raced in 2002. Patrick became the first female driver to start on the pole for the Daytona 500 in 2013.

“I think her legacy is already established and really well across all of motorsports, not just in NASCAR, but open-wheel as well,’’ said Stenhouse, who has dated Patrick since 2012. “Racing is something she’s pursued since she was 10 years old, moving to England when she was 16. That’s kind of crazy to think about somebody moving to England when they’re 16 to race.

“I think the things that she’s been able to accomplish and do has been, I would say, the best female driver of all-time, but that’s my opinion and everyone has their own opinion.

Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch says Patrick’s influence has been immeasurable.

“She’s meant a tremendous amount to everybody – to have pioneered the way for many women to look at our sport and that you can have the chance to be competitive, Busch said. She did that in Indy Car and she’s done that everywhere she’s been. I see more female racers around our country and around the world for that matter interested in racing. She paved the way. She’s a true pioneer in this day and age of social media and the power of media recognizing that she’s moving the needle even though she wasn’t running consistently up front.

“She was a very professional teammate and always willing to learn. She maybe had a bit too many rookie mistakes that lingered into the middle part of her career, but we always wanted her to finish the races stronger and to be able to get in there and get those door donuts and get the fenders crinkled up and still come back with a good finish. Some of that isn’t just being a female, it’s that open-wheel mentality that’s tough to bridge out of and all of our group right now you’re seeing a ton of talented young kids or even the veterans that have all come up through late model racing, spent a ton of time in trucks, Xfinity and know the stock cars in and out.

Asked if Patrick belongs in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch said:

“I believe so.  She’s too powerful and too hard to ignore on what she did outside of the car,” he said.“There’s many women that are in the hall of fame in the NHRA world, I don’t see why she wouldn’t be in the hall of fame here in the NASCAR world.”

Patrick’s focus isn’t on that. She’s too busy with so many other projects outside of racing.

Her first book (“Pretty Intense”) will be released in January and she has made plans for a sequel. She has opened a Napa Valley vineyard. She has launched her “Warrior” athleisure clothing line, which sponsored her car last weekend at Richmond Raceway.

“She is very passionate about all her other businesses that she has going,’’ Stenhouse said. “It definitely makes her really happy doing that. So if she didn’t have all those other things going on that she enjoyed, I think I would be a little concerned because nobody wants to just quit racing.

“But I do think she’s in a great place as far as outside of the race car and what she has going on with the winery, the clothing line, the workout book.’’

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Truck practice report at Atlanta

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Justin Haley was the fastest in the first of two practices Friday for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He had a top lap of 178.029 mph.

Daytona winner Johnny Sauter was second with a lap of 177.040 mph. He was followed by Myatt Snider (177.040 mph), Stewart Friesen (176.995) and Noah Gragson (176.589).

There were no incidents in the session.

Final Truck practice will be from 4:05 – 4:50 p.m. ET.

Click here for Truck 1 practice

Police investigating vandalism, theft at North Wilkesboro Speedway

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The Wilkes County Sheriff’s Office is investigating a report of vandalism and theft at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, the track, which last hosted a NASCAR Cup race in 1996, suffered damage of about $10,000 when several trespassers were on the grounds last weekend. No arrests have been made.

The report states that several windows were broken and other damage was done to the structures. Also, large amounts of electrical wire and circuit breakers were reported missing.

The investigation continues.

North Wilkesboro Speedway hosted NASCAR Cup races from 1949-96. Winners included Fireball Roberts, Buck Baker, Junior Johnson, Lee Petty, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon, who won the final race there.

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Others’ predictions motivating Austin Dillon after Daytona 500 win: ‘I guess they don’t believe it yet’

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HAMPTON, Ga. – Fresh off the greatest victory of his NASCAR career, Austin Dillon already has motivation to win the next.

The Richard Childress Racing driver heard others predict this week that the Daytona 500 would be his only victory this season.

“I think on Race Hub, Brad (Keselowski) and Chad (Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson) saying that we weren’t going to win again,” Dillon said Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “So, that was good to hear. That was something to get me fired up a little bit more and our team, get those competitive juices flowing again. So, we will just keep rocking it however we can. We still have a lot to work on.”

Prior to Daytona, Dillon’s lone win in four seasons as a full-time Cup driver came in the 2017 Coca-Cola 600. His No. 3 Chevrolet qualified for the playoffs the past two seasons, but his top 10s (13 to four) and average finish (15.9 to 18.6) slipped demonstrably from 2016 to ’17.

“So yesterday in my group text with my buddies they watched Chad Knaus and Brad Keselowski, and it was like, ‘All right, it’s time to keep knocking them down, I guess they don’t believe it yet,’” Dillon said. “We’ve got to step up though at RCR. We’ve still got a lot to prove. It’s a speedway race, even though it’s the biggest race in our deal, it’s a speedway race.  We’ve got a lot more to prove.

“(Competition executive) Andy Petree and all the guys are RCR are working hard. I think coming down to a two-car team move is big for us. We’ve got to take advantage of that. I’m not going to lie, I’m tired right now, but we are going to kick butt this weekend and get back regrouped and get in the groove and try and gain as many bonus points as we can.”

But qualifying for the playoffs by winning the season opener should be a morale booster that avoids any letdown.

“The one thing they don’t have right now that we have is a win,” Dillon said. “So, we are on top right now, and no matter what they can’t take that away, and we are going to keep working.  I don’t expect us to lay down at all. I feel like now more than ever we need to go head on and go after it.”

Xfinity practice report from Atlanta

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Christopher Bell posted the fastest lap in the first of two Xfinity practice sessions Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Bell posted a lap of 178.447 mph. He was followed by Joey Logano (177.323 mph), Cole Custer (175.933), Ryan Reed (175.688) and Kevin Harvick (175.487). Daytona winner Tyler Reddick (175.388) was sixth on the speed chart.

There were no incidents in the session.

Final Xfinity practice will be from 3:05 – 3:55 p.m. ET

Click here for practice 1 report