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Aric Almirola starting from ‘ground zero’ with Stewart-Haas Racing

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After six years of racing and struggling to compete for the most famous name in NASCAR, Aric Almirola is getting a reboot to his Cup career.

Tuesday and Wednesday, the 33-year-old drove a Cup car that didn’t have Richard Petty’s famous No. 43 on the side of it for the first time since 2010.

Almirola took part in a Goodyear tire test at Texas Motor Speedway in his unofficial debut in Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 10 Ford.

It was just another part of the busiest offseason of Almirola’s career, sparked by the November announcement of his move from Richard Petty Motorsports to SHR.

“We run a long schedule, so I certainly took some time to myself,” Almirola said Tuesday. “But I have spent a lot of time at the shop. Probably more time at the race car shop this offseason then I’ve ever spent. I’ve basically started from scratch, right? Started from zero, with all new seats, pouring inserts in seats and just everything. Gauges, dash and just everything that you can think of that a driver looks at or is a part of inside the race car, I’ve started from ground zero.”

During his six seasons with RPM, the offseason was “pretty mellow and relaxed and routine” for Almirola. That changes when you transition to a larger team.

“New seats, new team, new cars, new people, new names and faces to learn,” Almirola said.

There are some familiar faces at the SHR shop for Almirola from his days racing at Dale Earnhardt Inc. a decade ago.

“That part’s been fun to rekindle those relationships that I’ve had in the past,” Almirola said. “But just to go there (to the shop) and see the operation … when you drive up to the complex it’s so big and so massive. They have so many resources at their fingertips inside their race car shop.”

Almirola, who has just one Cup win in 244 starts, is reminded of Richard Petty Motorsport’s lack of success during his tenure there every time he visits SHR’s Kannapolis, North Carolina, shop. He sees the two championship trophies and trophies from the 39 Cup victories in their first nine seasons.

“You see all their trophies in their trophy case and their championship trophies, it’s very evident why,” Almirola said. “Just the attention to detail, the amount of people pulling in the same direction – it’s incredible to see first-hand, so knowing I’ve had to race against that the last six years has been disheartening, but I’m glad I get to be a part of it finally.”

Of SHR’s roster of drivers – Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Almirola – only Harvick (14) and Busch (five) have wins with the team. Bowyer hasn’t won since 2012.

Almirola replaces Danica Patrick, who went winless in her 180 starts with the team. He said he hasn’t given much thought to replacing Patrick, but that the pressure to drive the No. 10 doesn’t come close to what it took to drive the No. 43 for six years.

“When I get in the car, the only thing I see is the windshield and 39 other drivers that I’ve beaten or want to beat,” Almirola said. “So for me, I’ve driven the sport’s most iconic car for the last six years, so if you want to talk about it from that aspect, there’s been more pressure driving that Petty blue 43 car than I think I’ll ever have driving a black and white 10 car.”

Danica Patrick: ‘I want to continue racing if I have an opportunity to do well’

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KANNAPOLIS, N.C. — While Danica Patrick’s future remains uncertain, one thing is certain.

She doesn’t have interest in racing full-time in the Xfinity Series next year.

“Cup only,’’ she said Monday after unveiling the throwback paint scheme her car will have in next month’s Southern 500.

Patrick’s future with Stewart-Haas Racing remains cloudy because of lack of sponsorship for next year. Nature’s Bakery was to have been in the second of a three-year deal with the team but terminated its contract in January. The team filed a $31 million lawsuit against Nature’s Bakery. A settlement was later reached in May.

Without sponsorship, Patrick could be out of a ride. She says she’s not fretting about her job status.

“I want to continue racing if I have an opportunity to do well,’’ Patrick said. “I have no interest, as I’ve said for years now, to run 25th. It’s not fun. So if I don’t feel like I can have the opportunity to move on from there and have a better opportunity, then honestly I don’t care. It’s just because it’s not fun. I don’t drive because I love the thrill of getting sideways. In fact, I don’t like getting sideways. That’s not why I do it. I’m just letting things evolve the way they can without being forceful about anything.’’

While some could infer that means she doesn’t care. Patrick says that’s not the case.

“When I was younger I used to get so mad all the time,’’ she said. “Trust me. I still get mad and throw things. I try not to do it in front of people. I still get fired up.

“But there was so much when I was younger that happened with me getting mad. I felt like if I didn’t portray a displeasure with anything but the best, but first place, then I was somehow showing people that I didn’t think that I could do it.

“I finally came to the conclusion a long time ago, and I’ve only just gotten better at it that I don’t have to look like I hate everything and hate everybody and be awfully unhappy about everything to do well on the track. In fact, sometimes it would get in the way if I was too unhappy. Me being more at peace with everything and not getting so fired up at certain points in time is just really because it’s unproductive, and I don’t need to prove to people that I care.’’

Since a run of four consecutive top-15 finishes — her best four-race stretch in two seasons — she has placed 22nd at Watkins Glen and last weekend at Michigan. She enters Saturday night’s race at Bristol 28th in the points.

“I think that we have finally got away from bad luck,’’ she said.  “I think we have finally found ourselves having clean races and staying out of trouble and getting lucky on top of not having bad luck, we’ve had some good luck, too.’’

Her team isn’t the only one at Stewart-Haas Racing searching for sponsorship.

Stewart-Haas Racing recently declined the option on Kurt Busch’s contract for next year because Monster Energy hasn’t decided if it will return to sponsor Busch’s car. The team expects Busch to return next year. Haas Automation, the company founded by team owner Gene Haas and that sponsors Kurt Busch‘s team, has been the sponsor on Clint Bowyer’s car in 13 of the season’s first 23 races.

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Stewart-Haas Racing enjoys best race since winning Daytona 500

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It’s hard to believe, but Stewart-Haas Racing went winless between the first and 16th NASCAR Cup races of the year.

The team co-owned by Tony Stewart and Gene Haas bookended the first half of the season by winning the Daytona 500 and Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway.

Though the day was highlighted by Kevin Harvick winning at Sonoma for the first time, it was improved upon by Clint Bowyer finishing second in a car that looked like a diecast that had been manhandled by a 3-year-old.

It was just the third time SHR cars had finished 1-2 in a Cup race.

For Stewart, a year removed from his final Cup win at the same track, it made for an “awesome day” in the middle of a tough year that started with Kurt Busch‘s Daytona 500 triumph.

“I think the important thing is with the way our series is laid down, having two of the drivers get their wins already at this point of the year and solidly in the Chase, that’s a very important deal for our company, especially from the sponsorship side,” Stewart said. “Got great partners, obviously, and to get Mobil 1 in Victory Lane this weekend was great. That’s big, and our first year with Ford now and we’ve won two races already this season, so I think that’s a really solid effort and shows how good a partnership we have with Ford right now.”

Though there’s been bumps in the team’s transition from Chevy to Ford this season, the team has had off-track issues finding sponsors for its four-car team and legal problems with existing sponsor, Nature’s Bakery. A four-month legal battle resulted in the company sponsoring Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer in two races each later this year.

Bowyer has had Haas-owned companies as his primary sponsor in 12 of 16 races. Busch has had them as a co-primary sponsor in 15 of 16 races.

“For two of the four teams right now, they can start worrying about what to do to get ready for the (playoffs) and having the ability to try different things to prepare for that,” Stewart said of the next 10 races before the playoffs start. “That’s a really important thing for our company right now, and I think we all expected that Kevin would have got it sooner than this, but there’s just been some bad luck, some different venues that he’s been really, really strong at that we just had some weird and bad luck that have crept in to his program.”

Entering Sonoma, Harvick had five top fives, with his best result a runner-up finish at Pocono. He still has three stage wins, tying him for second most with Kyle Larson.

Bowyer left the road course with his second runner-up finish of the year and his third top five, his most since 2014. His rebound comes while he works with crew chief Mike Bugarewicz, who was paired with Stewart in his final year of competition.

“Clint and Buga, to be having the season they’ve had as a fresh driver and crew chief combination, I think they’ve had a really good start to their season, as well,” Stewart said. “I think there’s a lot of positive things in the company, and the results haven’t obviously always shown that, but at the same time, being able to sit on the pit box and see it a lot more clearly from the pit box than I could from my own car last year, I think there’s a lot of things that we’re excited about.”

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What they’re saying about the new NASCAR Sprint Cup charter system

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Reaction to the new charter system in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series announced Tuesday was mainly positive.

Several team owners and other officials issued statements on their thoughts about the new system:

Team owner Jack Roush: “I’ve been in this sport for a long time and am thrilled at the unprecedented collaboration that we’ve seen in the last year between the teams, drivers, NASCAR and the tracks. This system propels us into a new era by putting in place a structure that more closely resembles that of the other major professional sports, while at the same time maintaining the characteristics of our unique history and tradition.”

Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage: “This announcement is really important in giving our sport stability long term. Right now if you own a team and you want to sell it you own nothing but a building and the equipment in it. Nothing else of value can be offered to some potential buyer, so all the money they’ve invested through the years leading up to that point really doesn’t mean anything. With the charter system, it gives you equity ownership in the team. It gives it value. You can sell portions of it or all of it to another person or investor. For buyers and sellers, it makes it a market that is really going to create some value for the team owners so that when they are done with their racing days the organization has some value just like a baseball or football team has value to their owners.

“It ensures our teams have solid financial footing. The cost to go racing is so expensive. To run up front, you are talking $25 to $26 million a year to keep that car on the track and competitive because the technology changes from week to week. It’s hard to stay ahead of those costs. All sports struggle with this, but our sport more than any has that dilemma and NASCAR is trying to fill that gap to ensure that we have good solid competitive teams that are able to get on the race track every week and perform to put on the kind of races we enjoy at Texas Motor Speedway.”

Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Tony Stewart: “Our sport is well positioned for growth and sustainability with this new charter agreement. I’m very proud of the work the teams and NASCAR have put into this new system, as many people have worked tirelessly to secure the health of our sport. Stronger communication, more team stability and shared goals equal a better product that we can showcase to our fans week in and week out.”

Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Gene Haas: “This is an important day in the history of our sport that will benefit all constituents, immediately and in the long term. As someone who has heavily invested in motorsports for many years, I’m very pleased with the industry’s commitment to sustainability, collaboration and long-term value.”

The Twitter world also had a number of comments from the NASCAR community:

 

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Danica Patrick hopes to rekindle past this coming season

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CHARLOTTE – It’s simple. Danica Patrick hopes to go back in time with her performance this season.

“I’d like to get back to where I was ending in 2014 before (crew chief Tony) Gibson went to Kurt (Busch’s) car with running in the top 15 into the top 10 and being pretty fast each weekend,’’ she said of expectations for her fourth Sprint Cup season with Stewart-Haas Racing.

She had six top-20 finishes in her final 10 races with Gibson before he moved to Busch’s team. Daniel Knost became Patrick’s crew chief with three races left in the 2014 season but working with an engineering-based crew chief didn’t provide the results Patrick hoped. She had 13 top-20 finishes all of last season. Billy Scott replaces Knost as Patrick’s crew chief this season.

“Last year we weren’t that bad,’’ Patrick said. “I think if we would have had some things go better in the summer, we would have been closer. But that’s going to come from better finishes all year long and cleaning up our act, myself included, and not making mistakes.’’

Car owner Gene Haas says he’s looking for improvement out of Patrick, who signed a contract extension last year.

“I think at some point she does need to break out and go from being a top 20, top 15 driver,’’ he said. “I think that would be successful.’’

Asked if he felt Patrick needed to make the Chase to consider this season a success, Haas said: “Sooner or later, you do have to win races. That’s what it’s all about. Some drivers take a long time. Look at Joey Logano, He was with Gibbs for years. It wasn’t until he finally made a big change, he got competitive. Who knows when that period of time will come when she’ll finally make that breakout? That’s what she needs to do.’’

When asked about what more the organization can do to help Patrick’s progress, Haas suggested the tools are there.

“She’s got some of the best drivers in NASCAR to talk to and that’s always good,’’ he said. “Ultimately, it really comes down to the driver, though, finally deciding, ‘This is what I’ve got to do.’ It’s a very easy sport. You’ve just got to get ahead of the guy in front of you until there is nobody left and it all works out. That’s just something that the driver has to mentally overcome.

“This driving is a lot more of a mental game than some people think. You’ve just got to be able to do it. I think at some point, it clicks. Drivers finally realize, ‘Look, I can do this. I’m going to make it happen,’ and they do it.’’

As Patrick looks to improve her performance, she’ll have to contend with a low-downforce package that will challenge many drivers.

“I don’t like a car that rolls around and moves a lot,’’ Patrick said. “I can drive loose cars. I think they are going to be a little looser this year. I think it’s going to be fine. I think the crew chief just has to understand what feel I’m looking for and make that happen with the car, which is the challenge. I do think that packages can play into drivers’ favor or not. We’ll just have to see.’’

So was last year’s package not a perfect fit for her?

“I do think the cars lately have felt comfortable,’’ Patrick said. “I definitely like security on entry. I think that’s definitely what we got. On the other hand, I feel that I’m a disciplined driver, so when the car is moving around a lot or you need to hit a line or you need to find the grip, I do feel that I’m comfortable with that.

“We are going to be moving around a lot more. I kind of think (drivers are) going to be miserable some of the time. There’s going to be some times when the tires go off and you’re like, ‘Shoot me out here, it’s terrible.’ I have a feeling we’re going to have a few, ‘Shoot me’ moments this year where it’s just going to be moving all around, and it’s going to be a lot more.

“Even if you’re siding around and it feels like crap and you’re passing somebody, it’s still fun.’’