Danica Patrick ends July by completing best stretch of racing in two years

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For the first five months of the season, almost nothing seemed to go right for Danica Patrick.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver, in her fifth full-time season in the Cup Series, recorded seven DNFs through the first 17 races of the year. Six of those were for crashes, and it seemed like each was harder than the last.

And after a particularity violent crash at Kansas that injured Aric Almirola, Patrick voiced frustration at her run of bad luck.

By the time she crashed out of the July 1 race at Daytona, Patrick had one top-10 finish (10th, Dover) – her first in two seasons – and no other finish better than 16th.

Flash forward to Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway – the same track where a Facebook video earlier this year showed her lecturing fans after they booed her for not signing autographs – and Patrick was capping off her best four-race stretch in two seasons.

Patrick drove her No. 10 Ford to a 15th-place finish in the Overton’s 400. It was her fourth straight top-15 finish, a career first for Patrick who has 175 Cup starts since 2012.

The stretch began at Kentucky Speedway, where she also placed 15th. She followed it with a 13th at New Hampshire and an 11th at Indianapolis.

“The Code 3 Associates Ford team did a great job today getting us another top 15,” Patrick said after the race. “We have really gained some consistency over the past few weekends. I think we’re going to put together more top 15s and top 10s this season as long as we can stay out of trouble and finish the race.”

Patrick ended this stretch with an average finish of 13.5. According to Racing Insights, her previous best four-race stretch based off average finish was in March and April 2015. Patrick averaged a finish of 12.8 in races at Auto Club Speedway (19th), Martinsville (seventh), Texas (16th) and Bristol (ninth).

This current streak is also just the third time in her career she’s earned three consecutive top-20 finishes.

But Patrick almost lost out on her chance at a top 15 on the first lap of Sunday’s race.

After starting 22nd, she was one of eight cars counted in a crash in Turn 3. But the No. 10 Ford only suffered minor front end damage. But as teams executed various pit strategies in Stage 1, Patrick found herself in fourth place on Lap 27 before she pitted on Lap 30.

In Stage 2, Patrick spent much of the 50-lap segment running in 11th after restarting from a Lap 70 caution in 13th.

As leaders pitted neat the end of the stage, Patrick moved into third where she finished the stage. It was only the third time Patrick has earned stage points this season. She finished eighth in Stage 1 at Talladega, earning three points. She also finished sixth in her Daytona 500 qualifying race, earning five points.

Now Patrick heads to Watkins Glen International. In four starts at the road course, Patrick’s best finish is 17th in 2015. Last year, she led a season-high 11 laps in the race.

NBC Sports Power Rankings: Kyle Busch ends the season No. 1

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The 2019 season is over and Kyle Busch is the NASCAR Cup champion. And not surprisingly, the younger Busch brother also ends the season as No. 1 in this week’s Power Rankings.

Busch received 39 of 40 possible points to take the No. 1 spot, followed by the other three Championship 4 contenders: Martin Truex Jr. (35 points), and Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick (tied for third place with 28 points each).

The biggest surprises in this week’s standings were Xfinity Series champ Tyler Reddick in fifth and Gander Outdoors Truck Series champ Matt Crafton in sixth.

Here’s this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Kyle Busch (39 points): Finally gets that second title. Last week: Second.

2. Martin Truex Jr. (35 points): Inexcusable pit mistake left him as the championship runner-up for the second year in a row. Last week: Fourth.

(tie) 3. Denny Hamlin (28 points): Came so close to his first championship, only to be fall short yet again. Could this be the closest he’ll get? Last week: First.

(tie) 3. Kevin Harvick (28 points): Needed a bit more help than he got going against the Joe Gibbs Racing juggernaut. Still, a very strong season regardless. Last week: Third.

5. Tyler Reddick (18 points): It’s hard enough to win one championship, but back-to-back championships with two different teams? Last week: Unranked.

6. Matt Crafton (14 points): Wins the championship without even winning a race (in fact, his last win was more than two years ago). Thrived on his underdog status. Last week: Unranked.

7. Ryan Blaney (12 points): Finished 11th or better, including a win at Talladega, in five of the last six playoff races. Last week: Fifth.

(tie) 8. Joey Logano (11 points): Ends year with four consecutive top 10s, but he fell short in making it to the championship round and defending last year’s title. Last week: Eighth.

(tie) 8. Erik Jones (11 points): Ends season with four top 10s in last five races. That bodes well for next season. Last week: Seventh.

10. Christopher Bell (6 points): Missed his chance to add an Xfinity title to his Truck championship. Still, with eight wins, had an outstanding season. Up next: a promotion to the Cup Series. Last week: 10th.

Others receiving votes: Kyle Larson (5 points), Clint Bowyer (5 points), Cole Custer (4 points), Austin Hill (2 points), Brad Keselowski (1 point), Brett Moffitt (1 point).

Zane Smith joins GMS Racing for full-time Truck Series ride

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Zane Smith will compete full-time for GMS Racing in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series next year, the team announced Tuesday.

Smith, 20, joins the team after competing part-time with JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series this year, where his best result in 10 races was fifth twice.

He will be GMS Racing’s fourth full-time entry next year, joining Brett Moffitt, Sheldon Creed and Tyler Ankrum. Sam Mayer will compete part-time.

Smith will have veteran Kevin “Bono” Manion as his crew chief.

“When I got the offer from Mike Beam asking me to run a truck full-time for GMS Racing, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity,” Smith said in a press release. “GMS is a championship-caliber team and to be a part of an organization like theirs is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’m looking forward to working with Manion again. He has a lot of experience and I know we will be a great team.”

Manion, who has 24 wins across all three national NASCAR series since 2003, joins GMS Racing after serving as a crew chief for DGR-Crosley in 2019, including working with Rookie of the Year Tyler Ankrum. Manion was crew chief for Smith in 2018 when he made his Truck Series debut at Gateway and finished fifth.

“I am really excited to join GMS Racing and Zane (Smith) for the 2020 season,” Manion said in a press release. “With GMS Racing’s championship caliber equipment and Chevrolet support, we have all the resources to win some races and be in the hunt for the 2020 Championship. I got the opportunity to crew chief Zane (Smith) in his first Gander Trucks start in 2018 at Gateway and we worked really well together. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish next season.”

Sponsorship and an assigned truck number for Smith will be announced at a later date.

Penalty report from Homestead-Miami Speedway

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NASCAR issued four fines and one suspension for lug nut violations during its championship weekend in Miami.

Cup Series

Mike Wheeler, crew crew chief on Matt DiBenedetto‘s No. 95 Toyota, was fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut.

Xfinity Series

Mike Shiplett, crew chief on Cole Custer‘s No. 00 Ford, was fined $5,000 for an unsecured lug nut.

Truck Series

Steve Lane, the owner of On Point Motorsports and crew chief on Danny Bohn‘s No. 30 Toyota, was fined $5,000 and suspended one points race for two unsecured lug nuts. The No. 30 truck competed part-time this season and made 16 starts. The team told NBC Sports it will not appeal the penalty.

Trip Bruce III, crew chief on Stewart Friesen‘s No. 52 Chevrolet, was fined $2,500 for one unsecured lug nut.

Other

NASCAR issued an indefinite suspension to Jeffrey Schmidt for violating its substance abuse policy.

Truck Series gets minor name change for 2020

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Four days after the end of the Gander Outdoors Truck Series season, NASCAR announced the series will receive a minor name change for the 2020 season.

The series will be called the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series when the season starts in February at Daytona International Speedway.

This is the second name change for the series in two years.

This season saw the name change from the Camping World Truck Series, which had been the title from 2009-2018.

Gander Outdoors and Camping World are owned by the same company.

Next year will also see a different name for the Cup Series. With the series going to a new sponsorship model, it will simply be called the NASCAR Cup Series.