Danica Patrick

Ryan Blaney throws out first pitch for Chicago Cubs game

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Ryan Blaney got his weekend in the Chicago area off to a memorable start with a trip to the ballpark Thursday afternoon.

The Team Penske driver got the opportunity to throw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field before the Chicago Cubs’ game against the Atlanta Braves.

While the pitch was a little high, Blaney got the ball across home plate.

This isn’t the first time NASCAR drivers have taken part in ceremonies at Wrigley Field.

Last July, Austin Dillon sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the the seventh-inning stretch of a game. Cubs fans Kurt Busch did the honors in 2011 and Jeff Gordon did so in 2005, though he’d like a do over.

Illinois native and Cubs fan Danica Patrick has also thrown the opening pitch twice over the years.

Reviewing Danica Patrick’s highs and lows at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the legacy left by her success

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So much of Danica Patrick’s fame can be traced to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It’s where she became a household name 13 years ago when she became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 and emerged as a transcendent athlete.

It’s where everything started. This Sunday, it’s where everything will end, too.

In her last warmup before starting the final race of her career, Patrick had a bumpy final practice Friday on Carb Day. She was eighth fastest, but her Dallara-Chevrolet was in the garage most of the session because of an electrical problem in the engine. After returning during the final 10 minutes of the session, Patrick’s No. 13 seemed to be OK.

“At the end of the day, these are things you’re actually glad for, because if this had happened Sunday, we would have been done,” she said. “I’m glad to get the issues out of the way early on. Overall, today felt good. We made some changes when I went out the second time, and I’m feeling good about starting seventh on Sunday.”
Though she has had her share of success – along with a fourth in her debut, there was a third in 2009 and six top 10s in seven starts — Patrick has learned well how to handle frustration at the 2.5-mile track, too.

Fuel mileage might have kept her from winning her debut, a pit collision ruined 2008, and an unstable setup made 2010 a wild ride.

For a review of her up-and-down history at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and her legacy in racing, watch the video essay above that ran during Friday’s NASCAR America Motorsports Special on NBCSN.

 

Kurt Busch’s No. 41 becomes first car revealed for this year’s throwback race at Darlington Raceway

Image: Stewart-Haas Racing
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If Kurt Busch’s car in this year’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 throwback race at Darlington Raceway looks familiar, there’s a good reason for it.

Busch will drive a car with a paint scheme similar to the car he drove at the 1.366-mile egg-shaped track in the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400.

And what a race that was. Busch’s No. 97 Rubbermaid-sponsored red and gray Ford had a last-lap fender-banging battle with Ricky Craven’s No. 32 Cal Wells Racing Pontiac, which ended up 0.002 seconds ahead of Busch for the win.

Ironically, tomorrow, March 16, marks the 15th anniversary of what at the time was the closest finish in NASCAR history.

Busch’s Darlington black, red and gray throwback scheme – the first of all teams to be revealed for this year’s race – on his No. 41 Haas Automation Ford Fusion, was first unveiled by NASCAR.com.

Busch has never won at Darlington. His 2003 runner-up finish has been his highest finish, though he’s also finished third in 2010 and in last year’s race.

This will be the fourth consecutive year for Darlington’s popular throwback weekend. This year’s theme is “seven decades of NASCAR” across the entire weekend from Aug. 31 to Sept. 2.

Stewart-Haas Racing has won the best throwback paint scheme the last two years (in voting at NASCAR.com), last year with Danica Patrick’s No. 10 car (a blue-and-white look that honored NASCAR Hall of Famer Robert Yates), and Tony Stewart’s car for his final race at Darlington in 2016 that honored Bobby Allison.

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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.

Danica Patrick jokes, ‘It almost felt like I died’ in positive reaction to Stewart-Haas departure (video)

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Danica Patrick, who announced five days ago she would not be returning to Stewart-Haas Racing next season, spoke with NBCSN’s Dave Burns (video above) prior to Sunday’s Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway, which is Patrick’s home track.

The driver of the No. 10 Ford addressed the response she got from the news that she was leaving the team.

“I’ve obviously had the indication for a while about what the situation would be,” Patrick told Burns. “I think what I felt the most is that there was an overwhelming amount of positivity and nice things said, but it almost felt like I died! I died, or it was like a for sure goodbye.

“You know, that’s just not necessarily the case. Yes, it might be over, but it might not be as well. As I’ve said for the last year or two, I’m not out here to fill the field. I’m out here to win, to be competitive and have fun. Running 20th to 25th is not fun. So if I feel I don’t have the chance to be in better position than that, then I’m OK with it.”

Patrick has driven the No. 10 full time for five seasons, earning seven top 10s and winning the pole for the 2013 Daytona 500.

Today’s Cup race is the start of her final 10 races with SHR.

NASCAR America analyst Kyle Petty said he would be “forever grateful” for Patrick’s contributions to the sport.

“The potential is unlimited for her,” Petty said. “She is, if not the best, one of the best that’s ever come through this garage gate as far as marketing herself and taking the sport along with it. She moved the needle in this sport. And I know in the beginning I took a lot of heat for things I said, but I appreciate everything she’s done for this sport.”

Watch the above video for the full interview and more from Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett.