CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Although she continues to receive criticism from race fans, Danica Patrick has shown improvement over last year through the first four races this season.
And she made big gains last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, where she wrecked in the first few minutes of the opening practice to set the tone for a very rocky weekend. Despite a bumpy race Sunday, she finished a satisfying 18th.
"We had to go to a backup car just four laps into practice, so I appreciate the effort of (crew chief) Tony Gibson and the guys," she said after the race. "It was a tough weekend, so to come out of here with 18th, I'll take it."
Patrick opened last year with finishes of 39th at Phoenix, 33rd at Las Vegas and 28th at Bristol in her rookie Sprint Cup season.
This year she was 36th at Phoenix, 21st and the highest finishing Stewart-Haas Racing driver at Las Vegas, and then 18th at Bristol to improve five spots in the standings to 28th.
Bristol was a handful for Patrick. She was in an early wreck with Cole Whitt, she angered teammate Kevin Harvick when she held him up as he tried to pass her midway through the race, and she ran into Clint Bowyer on pit road as she left her stall. It turned out she'd been driving since the wreck with Whitt with only fourth gear.
"I lost first and second gear and then finally third gear, so the last 100 or 200 laps I only had fourth gear," she said. "That's why I hit Clint in the pits. It wouldn't go, so I dipped the clutch and got sideways and when it was about to spin around, I lifted, it caught and then it went straight and it wouldn't stop. So I hit him. I apologized to his crew after the race."
She's earned praise from SHR vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli for the progress she's made.
"She is more comfortable with this package. It does complement her driving style," Zipadelli said. "I don't know if it is because the cars don't move around as much and that's kind of what she kind of grew up driving. We're very happy with where the 10 is by their practice speeds. I thought Vegas was outstanding. Qualifying, it just started so dang loose, but she did a good job fighting back. They'll keep fighting, they'll figure out. But I do think she's done a good job."
Big day for Richard Petty Racing
In 75 races as teammates, Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose had never before run in the top five together. They finally broke through at Bristol Motor Speedway, where Richard Petty Motorsports scored its best overall day as an organization in years.
Almirola finished a career-best third at Bristol, while Ambrose was fifth. It marked the first time since Almirola moved into Petty's iconic No. 43 Sprint Cup seat in 2012 that both drivers finished in the top five in the same race.
Now they had to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., looking for another big finish.
"Last week gave our team a lot of momentum going into this weekend," Almirola said. "It showed that all of our hard work and all the investment from our partners is paying off. We have shown speed everywhere we've gone this year, we just haven't seen the results to prove it. We did just that last week."
For Ambrose, his finish at Bristol was his first top-five since Bristol in August 2012. Last season was a disappointing year of only six top-10 finishes for the Australian.
But California will be a different animal.
"We have a lot of confidence that we can continue this level of performance," Ambrose said. "California is a tough track, really fast with a lot of grooves, but we're ready to step it up there and get a good finish. We haven't had the results we have wanted there, but we've put in work with these new rules to get better. I know the guys will be busy this weekend so we get the best car possible for Sunday."
In eight previous starts at Fontana, Ambrose has yet to finish on the lead lap. His best finish was 21st in 2012 and his average finish is 28th.
Almirola was a career-best 14th at Fontana last year - but it raised his average finish to 29th in six career starts.
But he likes the way his team has started the year and feels good headed to California.
"We've had a lot of positives," he said. "We didn't run very good at Vegas. We struggled really bad there, but at Daytona we had a great car. We went up and led some laps and had a really strong car there. At Phoenix, we had a good car and ran in the top-10 all day and then those last couple of restarts we didn't have very good restarts and I finished 14th or 15th, so we've had good cars, we've had good runs. This is how we expect to run.
"We were not very happy with how our season went last year and we've made a lot of changes and all of those changes seem to have been positive."
Much has been made of the stars of the Sprint Cup Series racing in the lower levels, largely because of Kyle Busch's recent domination.
Busch won a combined 17 races in the Nationwide and Truck Series last season. This year, he's won two of the first four Nationwide races and the season-opening Truck Series race at Daytona. Brad Keselowski also has a Nationwide win.
NASCAR understands that many fans are unhappy with the Cup stars dominating in the lower series, and said recently they are considering limiting how many races full-time Cup drivers can run in the future.
Kyle Larson, who moved from Nationwide to Cup this season, said he'd be disappointed by such a rule.
"I think the Nationwide regulars like Cup guys running with them. I know I do," he said. "Whenever I'm out there with guys like Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, I can see them in front of me, I'm learning a lot from them. I like it. I think it's good for the development-side of the young drivers `cause it is a development series for those kids. I think it's a good thing for NASCAR to have the Cup guys in there because it's just going to make their series more competitive when those young guys move up."
Larson spent only one season in Nationwide. He scored 17 top-10 finishes, was eighth in the final standings and used last year as a springboard into a Sprint Cup Series ride.
Now that he's a Cup driver, he plans this year to run all the companion Nationwide races for Turner-Scott Motorsports, with the support of Cup team owner Chip Ganassi.
"Chip Ganassi, he really wanted me to do double duty," Larson said. "I think I read a stat somewhere before the year, I've only ran 40-something stock car races in my career. I'm getting double the amount of experience in stock cars this year running both. I think it's a good thing."
Petty Museum returns
The Richard Petty Museum is back in its original location in the former Petty Enterprises shop in Level Cross, N.C.
The museum was started in the race shop in 1988 by Lynda Petty, wife of the seven-time champion. But it was moved to nearby Randleman in 2003 because of space demands as the racing operation expanded.
Now that Richard Petty Motorsports is operating in Concord, the museum was moved back to its original location. The grand opening was last week and the public is welcome.
"We tried to pack as much racing memorabilia as possible, but also have stuff from our movies and other different things," Petty said. "There is something here for everyone to enjoy."
The new-look museum feature exhibits of the Petty family's four members in the Hall of Fame (Lee, Richard, Dale Inman and Maurice), of "Mr. and Mrs. The King" from the Pixar film "Cars" and of the family's many contributions to the sport of stock car racing.
"It's just good to have it back home and open for everyone to come see us," said Petty. "We're really showing a lot of history here on the grounds where my daddy built the race team. It's something we hope the fans come see, enjoy and tell their friends about."
The museum will also host special events including an opening gala and other events to benefit the Petty Family Foundation.
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