Ryan: NASCAR and Danica Patrick parted on faint and familiar terms

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The secret to unlocking the most candid and insightful sides of Danica Patrick in an interview was always simple but somewhat counterintuitive.

Stay away from the racing questions.

If you wanted to get her comfortable, the conversation was best steered toward the topics of lifestyle and pop culture (for which Patrick always has had a soft spot). The jokes quickly would follow about Mercury being in retrograde, the Millennials who shopped for Lululemon yoga pants on the Magnificent Mile and the appeal of a raglan sleeve.

When talk shifted on track, the guard usually went up, and justifiably: Few drivers have had their demeanors and performances scrutinized as closely, so every word was chosen carefully and, in some ways, clinically.

This isn’t implying she lacked passion for racing.

For anyone who has met the steel-cable grip of her handshake, there is no mistaking Patrick always is determined, serious and unwavering about excelling in whatever has her focus.

Stock cars just happened to become the vessel for her competitive fire and zeal.

It was almost incidental that Patrick landed in NASCAR, and now’s the moment to reflect on how and why the fit always felt less than perfect.

For the first time in five years and 181 races, the green flag will drop on NASCAR’s premier series Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway without Patrick in the field.

She will be missed by a circuit that was greatly impacted by her transcendent appeal, but Patrick probably won’t be missing much about NASCAR (at least not immediately).

In in-depth sitdowns with Brant James and Jenna Fryer, two reporters who built a long rapport and trust with Patrick and know how to channel her honesty, the most successful woman in racing revealed a mix of ambivalence and relief about stepping off the Cup merry-go-round and away from racing in general. She told Fryer she didn’t plan to watch many races nor mentor young women drivers and wouldn’t be selling gear at track, dedicating herself to her fitness books, winery and clothing line.

Yet though she could have done without the 10-month travel schedule and the tunnel-vision vibe of an insular garage, her departure wasn’t exactly dripping with disdain for NASCAR.

There is some notable indifference, but it shouldn’t be confused with a lack of spirit to conquer whatever athletic pursuit in which she chooses to commit.

Breaking a glass ceiling that stands for decades takes a certain “damn the torpedoes” swagger that Patrick has. During a 2013 interview that branched into her love of fitness and cardio, her eyes once turned black as coal when it was suggested a marathon might be out of reach.

“I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have to train,” she said. “I don’t think there’d be much difference in going from 7 miles to 17 miles.”

What about 26.2?

“I feel I could just do it,” she said. “I want to do one. But I’m so competitive, I don’t know if I can go into it blind.”

“Blind” would be a fair description of how she arrived in NASCAR, which she felt offered more challenge, exposure and money than the limits she’d reached in IndyCar after seven seasons. She made no bones knowing little about stock cars in her early days.

When crew chief Tony Eury Jr. talked about “yaw” in handling, she thought he was saying, “Y’all.” After an Xfinity qualifying lap at Dover International Speedway in 2010, she embarrassingly got lost on the way back to the pit lane. And she struggled to grasp NASCAR’s peculiar lexicon.

“I don’t know if I could have studied more,” she said after her first partial season in 2010. “At first I probably jumped in a little too deep, and I wanted to see setup sheets and tried to do it like IndyCar. It’s just damn gibberish to me. Especially talking about truck arms. On a car?”

This isn’t restricted to Patrick. Many drivers wheel vehicles they don’t fully understand. In an episode of Racing Roots last year, Kyle Larson playfully was exposed for knowing little mechanically when starting out in the sprint cars he dearly loves.

For every Mark Martin and Jeff Burton who remember the weight and size of every shock and spring they ever ran, there are multi-time Cup champions who couldn’t explain the setup under their cars even if you spotted them a small army of ASE-certified mechanics.

Yet stock cars never seemed to strike Patrick’s fancy the way that IndyCar did (she told James that an Indianapolis 500 victory naturally would rank ahead of Daytona). Undoubtedly, that stems mostly from an exclusively open-wheel career path that began in go-karts and took her to Europe before returning for Indy.

But it was more than just an unfamiliar environment. Patrick has hinted a few times recently — notably in the 2017 documentary, Danica — that she believes her Stewart-Haas Racing crews sometimes didn’t believe in her (Tony Stewart refuted that, telling ESPN.com’s Bob Pockrass at Daytona that her team was overhauled on her demand). Undoubtedly, there are traces of bitterness and resentment from a career chapter that probably feels more transactional than sentimental.

So as NASCAR moves on without her this weekend, it’s understandable that Patrick is moving on, too. Her new life is marked by a blueprint for major branding but apparently few race cars after the 2018 Indianapolis 500.

And though she didn’t win or contend regularly in NASCAR (while enduring some wicked crashes, particularly in her last season), she leaves with the respect of its stars, some of whom once openly questioned her credentials. During Daytona 500 Media Day, several credited her for an attendance surge of young girls (usually identifiable because they were clad in “Danica” T-shirts).

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson spoke eloquently about what Patrick meant to his two girls, 7 and 4. He tweeted a photo of Patrick holding his youngest, Lydia, who ran through the pits with her older sister, Genevieve, to greet Patrick before her last start.

“Danica has been someone for my daughters to look up to,” Johnson said. “That’s top of mind for me.  The impact she’s had in sports, (for) women in sports.”

That impact is an indisputable part of her resonance beyond NASCAR.

For Patrick, it always has been about more than just racing.

Just ask her.

New Hampshire Cup race in rain delay

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The Foxwoods Resort & Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway is in a rain delay.

The race was scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. ET. The start time had been moved up from 2 p.m. ET due to the threat of weather.

Kurt Busch is on the pole and Martin Truex Jr. will start second.

Check back for more.

Staff picks for today’s Cup race at New Hampshire

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win today’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Denny Hamlin. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver rediscovers his magic here and locks into the playoffs.

Dustin Long

Martin Truex Jr. wins back-to-back races for the first time in his career.

Daniel McFadin

Kevin Harvick earns a career-best sixth win of the season.

Dan Beaver

Martin Truex Jr. is getting into the same groove he had last year. This week he catches Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. Next week, he starts to pull away,

Today’s Cup race at New Hampshire: Start time, lineup and more

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The Cup Series holds its only race of the year at New Hampshire Motor Speedway today with the Foxwoods Resort & Casino 301.

Kurt Busch starts on the pole and Martin Truex Jr. starts second.

Here’s all the info you need for today’s race.

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given by Jean Swift, treasurer of Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Counsel, at 12:51 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 1 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 301 laps (318.46 miles) around the 1.058-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 75. Stage 2 ends on Lap 150.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 35

PRERACE SCHEDULE: Garage opens at 7:30 a.m. Driver/crew chief meeting is at 11 a.m. Driver introductions are at 12:05 p.m.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: Vanessa Salvucci will perform the anthem at 12:45 p.m. The Canadian National Anthem will be performed by Kirk Young at 12:42 p.m.

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will broadcast the race beginning at 1 p.m. Coverage begins at noon with Countdown to Green on NBCSN. Performance Racing Network’s radio broadcast begins at noon p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will have PRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: wunderground.com calls for a high of 70 degrees and a 78 percent chance of rain and storms at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Denny Hamlin won this race last year over Kyle Larson. Kyle Busch won the playoff race over Larson.

TO THE REAR: Landon Cassill (backup) and Michael McDowell (backup).

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the complete starting lineup.

Long: No idea seems too wild these days in NASCAR

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LOUDON, N.H. — A sea of change is brewing in NASCAR and no idea seems far-fetched anymore.

A Cup race incorporating Charlotte Motor Speedway’s infield road course would have been mocked. Such a race is about two months from happening.

A Cup race on a dirt track? It seems more plausible but still a few years away.

And the idea one driver has of turning a 1.5-mile track into a short track doesn’t seem as farcical as it would have been years earlier.

While the action on the track remains a key focus for NASCAR, the race to retain and reach out to more fans also is key. That’s opened conversation to changes, particularly what venues should hold Cup races.

“To me, if you go to a track that is smaller, it’s better for the fans,” Ryan Newman told NBC Sports. “If you go to a track that is slicker, it’s better for the fans. If you go to a track that is different, it’s better for the fans.

“At this point in our sport, different is good because we’ve done so much of the same in the last 18 years that I’ve been involved as a competitor. I would say as a fan it has become somewhat redundant.”

Camping World Truck teams on the dirt at Eldora Speedway. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Newman competed in Wednesday’s Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway and likes the idea of a Cup race on dirt. Cup last ran on dirt Sept. 30, 1970 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh. Richard Petty won.

Is it time for Cup to return to its roots?

“The Cup Series was not above racing on dirt 40 years ago, 50 years ago,” Newman said. “Dirt is where we get our food from. There’s nothing wrong with racing on it.”

Not everyone agrees.

In the race by public opinion to change the sport, Kyle Larson is pumping the brakes on one idea.

“I wouldn’t like to see Cup on dirt,” Larson said Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, echoing comments he made two years ago. “To me, Cup belongs on pavement and real road course tracks.”

Asked what could be done to make Cup racing on dirt a better idea to him, Larson noted improved tires for that surface and more horsepower. He then stopped himself and said: “I don’t really know how to answer the question without making people mad.”

One thing that is becoming evident is there are few bad ideas.

The notion of racing at different tracks is gaining momentum. The last track added to the Cup schedule was Kentucky Speedway in 2011.

“I think that new venues always add excitement,” Denny Hamlin said Friday. “I mean, that’s what really, in my opinion, boomed the popularity in the 2000s, was going to these new race tracks. You know, Kentucky was awesome for the first time and then it’s just kind of – it fizzled out and it’s still the same old Kentucky that it’s always been.

Kasey Kahne tests on the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Photo by Dustin Long)

“If you want to talk about a road course, there’s some amazing tracks just north of the border in Canada that are awesome – Montreal and tracks that are made for road course racing. The (Charlotte) roval is a little bit different of a beast because I don’t know how much architect went into coming up with passing zones and the lay of the land.

“It’s certainly a wildcard race and maybe that’s what the fans want. If it is, then we can – we’ll do that every week, but I definitely like the idea of going to new venues because there’s always a level of excitement.’’

But Hamlin also knows change will be slow.

For those wanting races at different venues, NASCAR signed five-year sanctioning agreements with tracks that go through the 2020 season. The 2019 schedule already has been announced. So unless something dramatic happens, there won’t be anything new until 2021.

If then.

“None of this is ever going to happen,” Hamlin said of the many venue changes fans and those in the sport support. “Not until these tracks and NASCAR get together and are willing to make changes.”

But fans and those in the sport can dream. While thinking about the possibilities, David Ragan has an idea for his home track of Atlanta Motor Speedway. The track’s rough surface, praised by drivers, likely will need to be repaved soon and with it will be the fear that the multi-lane racing will disappear.

Ragan has a solution for Atlanta. Don’t repave. Rebuild.

“Whenever they go to pave Atlanta Motor Speedway, they need to reduce the size of the track to three-quarters of a mile and build it like Iowa,” Ragan told NBC Sports. “I think they would make a big mistake if they would just repave it.”

It’s a wild idea that doesn’t seem likely to happen. Then again, who had ever heard of a roval two years ago?

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