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: 2018 marked by winless streaks ending

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Aric Almirola came close to snapping a more than 100 race winless streak so many times this year many questioned if it would ever happen. When Kurt Busch’s engine sputtered exiting Turn 4 at Talladega Superspeedway last week, Almirola was in position to capitalize and he held the field at bay during the run to the checkers.

Almirola’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 win was his second career victory and first in 149 races. His first win also came on a restrictor-plate track in July 2014 at Daytona – a race that locked him into that year’s playoffs. Sunday’s win guarantees he will advance to the Round of 8 as a championship contender.

Almirola’s win was one of several conclusions to winless streaks of 50 or more races.

MORE: Aric Almirola laments lost opportunity at Dover win 
MORE: Aric Almirola leaves New Hampshire frustrated after third-place finish 
MORE: Aric Almirola’s speed neutralized by loose wheels, pit gun problems 

These drivers “have been put in the right situations and trying to find that right mix for a driver – you just never know when that is,” Dale Jarrett said on Monday’s edition of NASCAR America. “You keep trying to put yourself in that position. Clint Bowyer went a year at least … when he was not in contention whatsoever, but he knew what was on the horizon for him.”

When Bowyer won in March, he snapped a 190-race winless streak. Chase Elliott’s first win at Watkins Glen came in his 99th start.

Busch broke a 58-race winless streak at Bristol in August while Ryan Blaney’s visit to victory lane at the Charlotte Roval was his first in 50 races.

There are two common threads among these drivers.

Almirola, Bowyer and Busch compete for Stewart-Haas Racing who is having a breakthrough season.

Elliott, Blaney and Almirola each scored their first or second career wins in breaking their streaks.

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NASCAR announces 12 invitees to the Drive for Diversity combine

Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR
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NASCAR announced the 12 drivers invited to compete for the 2019 Drive for Diversity program on Monday. The dozen drivers have competed on three continents in a variety of racecars.

“The drivers invited to this year’s NASCAR Drive for Diversity Driver Development Combine represent a wide range of diverse backgrounds, both in terms of heritage and driving disciplines,” said Jusan Hamilton, NASCAR senior manager of racing operations and event management in a press release. “The combine has been tremendous in helping the NASCAR industry identify and develop top diverse talent and this year is no different.”

Rev Racing serves as the on-track partner for the Drive for Diversity program. Since the inception of the program, Rev Racing has earned 19 wins, 88 top fives and 186 top-10 finishes.

The combine will help set their lineup in 2019.

“As we embark upon our 11th year managing the Drive for Diversity program in partnership with NASCAR, we couldn’t be more excited about the evolution of our driver development program,” said Max Siegel, CEO of Rev Racing. “Through selection process and training program we look forward to selecting and developing some of NASCAR’s brightest stars.”

In addition to testing their skill behind the wheel of a racecar, candidates will undergo a physical fitness assessment as well as tests to determine their ability to effective communicate and market sponsors.

This year’s combine invitees include Ruben Garcia Jr. – current points leader in the NASCAR Peak Mexico Series.

Trans Am standout Ernie Francis Jr. will also compete. He has scored four win in this series in 2018 and currently leads the series standings

Chase Cabre, Juan Manuel González, Loris Hezemans, Perry Patino, Nick Sanchez, Brooke Storer, Ryu Taggart, Gracie Trotter, Ryan Vargas and Brittney Zamora round out the list.

Zamora became the first female driver to win the Northwest Super Late Model Series Championship in 2017.

These hopefuls look to follow in the footsteps of Kyle Larson, Daniel Suarez and Bubba Wallace – all of whom have gone through the program.

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NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Kyle Busch, Martin Truex struggle at Dega while Aric Almirola shines

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Today’s NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN with Carolyn Manno and Nate Ryan from Stamford. Dale Jarrett will join from Charlotte with a look back at all the action for last week’s playoff race at Talladega.

  • We’ll recap Sunday’s race at Talladega that saw Aric Almirola end his 149-race winless streak and advance to the Round of 8. What does his victory mean for Almirola’s championship hopes going forward?
  • Plus, we’ll examine the run of dominance of Stewart-Haas Racing in the Round of 12. Can all 4 of the team’s drivers find their way to Miami to battle for a championship?
  • We’ll discuss the recent struggles of Cup Series champions Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. How does their performance of late bode for their chances to make it to Miami?
  • Kyle Larson had a lot to say following Sunday’s race and it wasn’t positive. Facing elimination, how will Larson approach Kansas this weekend? Dave Burns reports from the Chip Ganassi Shop on the state of the 42 team.
  • Plus, we begin our celebration of NASCAR America’s upcoming 1,000th episode (Friday, 6 ET) with highlights from our vault.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Kyle Larson calls Talladega performance ’embarrassing at times’

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A season of frustrations boiled over this weekend for Kyle Larson, who described his car’s performance at Talladega Superspeedway as “pretty disappointing, embarrassing at times.”

Larson enters this weekend’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway in danger of seeing his title hopes end after his 11th-place finish Sunday. He trails Martin Truex Jr. by 26 points for the final transfer spot. The most points a driver can score in a race is 60.

Larson was disappointed Sunday with Chip Ganassi Racing’s restrictor-plate program.

“It would be nice to invest some money into our superspeedway cars, money and time,” Larson, who qualified 34th and did not lead a lap in the race, told NBC Sports. “We focus so much on mile-and-a-half stuff, which is obviously important, but these plate races mean a lot. There’s a lot of points to be made at Daytona and Talladega.

“I feel like we haven’t really tried to improve as an organization really since I’ve been at CGR. We have one more race with this package, Daytona 500. Maybe we could put some emphasis on that and try to go have a good 500 in February.”

Larson’s comments are among the critical statements he’s made this season — one where he has six runner-up finishes but no wins — and show his challenges as a team leader and when to be critical and when not to be.

“That’s probably been the hardest thing for me to adjust to coming from sprint cars,” Larson said last month of being a team leader. “Sprint cars, you’ve got to get along with three guys. It’s easy to hang out with three people, but then when you’ve got 150, 200 people that you’ve got to please and make sure you take the time to talk to, and I don’t do a good job of that at all. I don’t. I try to be better, and that’s been something at the shop that everyone wants me to get better at, and it’s hard.

“I’ve been used to working with three people. It’s been something I’ve tried to get better at, and I remember Texas last year when I crashed out, I gave a terrible interview and was a major dick. I embarrassed myself. I embarrassed the race shop. I’ve learned from that, and I’ve grown from it. I still probably don’t do a great job at it all the time, but yeah, I try to not be like that anymore, and I think I’ve done an OK job with it this year, but you can always be better.”

Larson admits he’s watched how Kevin Harvick has led that Stewart-Haas Racing team and when Harvick has been critical of the team.

“He’s very involved in his race team,” Larson said of Harvick. “I think that shows on the weekends. He’s involved in hanging out with his guys but being tough on them also. I think it’s important.

“There’s so many sensitive people in our sport, but I think it’s important to be tough on them if they make a mistake and all that, so I think Kevin is a very good leader, and I think he’s gotten a lot better at that with his age, growing up, and having family and having success and championships and all that.”

Larson is trying to find that role with his team while going through the ups and downs of the season.

His frustration last weekend can be traced to the lack of success on restrictor-plate tracks. Larson has not finished in the top 10 in any of those races the past two years. He took the white flag as the leader in the 2017 Daytona 500 but ran out of fuel and finished 12th. This season, he has not led a lap in such races and finished no better than 11th.

But it’s not just at Daytona and Talladega where there have been struggles.

A runner-up finish at Bristol in August could not completely  lift Larson’s spirits.

“Just a really frustrating day,” Larson told NBC Sports. “Our (car) was not very good from Lap 1 to Lap 500 there, but we fought and got a second-place finish out of it. Happy about running second but just disappointed because I had a lot of confidence going into this race and thought our car was really good, but we were probably a 12th- to 15th-place car. Just lined up on the right restarts about every time and was able to gain some spots on every restart and maintain and then be terrible there at the end of the run. Frustrating.”

Problems persisted as the playoffs neared.

Brad Keselowski took the lead from Larson late in the Southern 500 and went on to win that race. Larson, who led a race-high 284 laps, placed third. The following week at Indianapolis, Larson and the team had problems on pit road.

Pit road has been a mess the last, I don’t know, all year basically,” Larson told NBC Sports. “We’ll have a good couple of spots and one where we explode. I didn’t do a  good job on pit road either. I almost slid through my stall one time. Stalled it leaving the box one other time. So I didn’t do good. We’ve just got to clean it up. If we want to win a championship, we have to clean up everything but especially pit road.”

In the opening race of the playoffs at Las Vegas, Larson had flat right front tire 10 laps from the end of Stage 1 and pitted from third place, costing him stage points. He fell a lap behind and that hindered his climb through the standings in the second stage. Larson estimated he lost 12 points because of the problem — nearly half his deficit from the transfer spot in the second round.

His problems continued at the Roval when he was collected in a crash in Turn 1 late in that event. After his struggles at Talladega, Larson will need a lot to happen at Kansas for him to continue his championship quest.