News Analysis: Danica Patrick will not return to Stewart-Haas Racing

What happened: Danica Patrick will lose her ride at Stewart-Haas Racing following this season after SHR secured sponsorship for the No. 10 car with a different driver, she said in a Tuesday afternoon Facebook post. This comes after Smithfield said earlier Tuesday it would leave Richard Petty Motorsports for SHR next season.

What it means: Barring the unexpected emergence of a sponsor with a different team, Patrick’s time in NASCAR may be coming to an end. Her return to SHR was dependent on sponsorship, and that necessary funding proved to be elusive — something that could be blamed both on the economic climate in NASCAR and Patrick’s lack of results. From the time she arrived in NASCAR from IndyCar, Patrick had been billed as a driver whose massive marketability could boost the sport — but the results never followed. Her average career finish is currently 24th over 180 Cup starts — this despite being in top-tier equipment throughout — and she has yet to score a top-five finish in a race. Despite the lack of success, Patrick is perhaps the most well-known NASCAR driver outside the sport — yes, even more than Dale Earnhardt Jr. — and one of the most recognizable athletes in the country. Losing a driver of her popularity and star power is yet another blow to NASCAR after it has seen Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Earnhardt all say goodbye.

News value (scale of 1-10): Six. This move seemed to be in the making for months, but it’s above average on the interest scale — like everything with Patrick — due to the driver. Still, the bigger news would be when and if she decides her driving days are over.

Three questions: Does Patrick still want to race, or is she ready to move on and do something else? Has Patrick’s time in NASCAR been a positive or negative for future female drivers trying to break into the sport? If this is the end, what will Patrick’s legacy be?

News Analysis: Kurt Busch’s contract option will not be picked up

What happened: Kurt Busch’s contract option to race at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018 won’t be picked up by the team, the Daytona 500 winner has been told. The news was first reported by Jerry Jordan of KickinTheTires.net on Sunday, but Lee Spencer of Motorsport.com posted Tuesday that “the expectation is that Busch will not drive the No. 41 Ford for SHR in 2018.” Moments later, NBC’s Nate Ryan also posted Busch’s contract will not be picked up. But shortly after those stories, SHR tweeted a denial: “We don’t comment on contract status, but we expect @KurtBusch back in our @MonsterEnergy / @Haas_Automation Ford in ’18. Just sayin’.” I asked for clarification from SHR on this, but was told to just refer to the tweet.

What it means: Busch is a free agent. Jordan and Spencer both have solid relationships with Busch, so the news his contract option wasn’t picked up is almost certainly accurate. However, that doesn’t mean SHR won’t bring Busch back with a renegotiated deal, which is perhaps why it issued a denial. The Monster Energy piece of this is the big question, because Monster likely was balking at sponsoring both the series and a race team (after all, it got a pretty good bargain on being the Cup title sponsor). We still need more information to understand what’s going on here, but the best guess is SHR told Busch it wasn’t bringing him back under the current deal, freeing him to look elsewhere while also hoping to negotiate a new deal with better terms.

News value (scale of 1-10): 8. The news of Busch’s option not being picked up is about a 5, but I’m rating this so highly because we aren’t actually sure what’s going on here. Media reports said one thing and the team said another thing, which is very unusual in NASCAR. Either way, it’s gotten everyone’s attention today.

Three questions: Um, what the hell? Is Busch really out, or is this confusion driven by Monster’s unorthodox way of conducting business? When will SHR let everyone know what’s going on with its other Silly Season situation — Danica Patrick?

12 Questions with Kurt Busch

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch of Stewart-Haas Racing. I spoke with Busch at Dover International Speedway.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I would say that it’s a balance of both, but in all honesty, my dad, Tom, taught Kyle and I everything about the race car. First up was how to work on it, and that taught us how to respect it. And then (was) how to race it. He was always there helping us with our go-karts.

You know what’s funny is that I always looked forward to watching the race with him on Sundays as a kid, because he would point out certain things that the veteran drivers were doing, like Dale Sr. was doing this or Bill Elliott did that, and it was really neat to digest that and then apply it to the little go-kart we had.

Does he still give advice from time to time now?

Oh yeah. He hasn’t slowed down one bit. (Laughs) He still knows it all.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

There’s the opportunity in NASCAR that’s different than any other sport and that is that we have 40 guys that take the green flag every weekend. There’s two sports teams usually, like right now it’s the (Golden State) Warriors against the (Cleveland) Cavaliers (in the NBA Finals), and are you a fan of either? Usually by this time of year your guy or your team is out of it, and so you choose one or you move on to another situation.

But I always encourage people to stay involved in NASCAR and find a driver that they think is similar to their driving style or to their demeanor (or) to their ability of fun level. I think the fun level is what this sport needs to continue to focus on. Everyone talks about power rankings, stages, points, wins — let’s talk about fun level.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

That’s a good question. My job is great, I love it. There’s always so many different hats you have to wear, whether it’s a media hat, a sponsor hat, working with the crew guys and the engineers, studying wind tunnel numbers.

That’s maybe the toughest part right now, balancing all the rule changes of NASCAR and trying to find a common thread on how to get that advantage. The sport is all about having that advantage and being the top team, and right now we’ve been working our buns off balancing all of the different things that are changing.

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Oh sure. There’s a moment in time where you always have that one chance to make a new fan or to keep a fan of the sport of NASCAR. It’s nice when you’re done eating to come over.

I remember one time — it was actually here in Dover, Delaware — where I was having ribs and somebody wanted me to sign what they wanted me to sign. I was like, “Guys, I’m eating.” They were just so ecstatic, they wanted me to sign and I really had rib barbecue sauce all over my hands and signed what they wanted signed. They wanted that part of it as well.

Here’s some barbecue sauce from my meal. It’s like an extra souvenir here.

Yeah, it was like icing on the cake.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

I would say it’s just the genuine racing on the track and who’s doing what and how that move or pass happened. It’s similar to like old-school journalism on where guys were out-dueling each other out on the racetrack.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

I had lunch with Matt Crafton this week, so maybe that was the last driver I texted.

That would make sense.

I do need to text Jimmie Johnson, though. My wife’s playing polo and his buddy Nacho is playing polo, and so we gotta figure out if we’re gonna go watch polo.

That’s something you’d never thought you’d say a few years ago, right?

Yeah. Polo, right?

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Yeah there’s that aspect of it. Ultimately we’re just hardcore racers, and then you learn at this level the TV side of things because we’ll be like, “The track’s ready to go, the track’s green,” but we still got another hour or so before live TV hits. So there’s a little bit of that, but at the end of the day you just roll with it and focus on driving the car.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

I haven’t used it in a while because it came with so many penalties — not from other drivers, just from NASCAR. Honestly I haven’t used it in a while. It’s usually when somebody does something so blatant and that blatant moment was backed up by three consistent blatant moments. So you usually need to have three strikes to get something pretty big.

So three strikes, then the finger.

Yeah, I would say.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Yeah, you have all the different lists. Like when we get to the cutoff for the playoffs and you know guys are really pushing hard to run consistent and to get into the playoffs. Then there’s the good guy list, the bad guy list; you keep track of it all. That’s an element that if you’re good at that situation, you’re in that top percentile.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

I’m trying to think. I had a beer with Reggie Jackson the other day.

That’s pretty cool. How was that?

It was pretty solid. We were hanging out at the Yankee Club restaurant in New York City, but I don’t know (about dinner).

Oh, I got it. We just finished Indy, so Indy’s fresh in my mind. Having dinner with Mario Andretti at an Italian restaurant in Tampa, Florida, was one of the coolest moments that I’ve had. To sit down with him — I had my family, his family there was really neat.

That’s awesome, especially being able to pick his brain and stuff like that I imagine.

Just hanging out in one of his cool Italian spots and the way that racing was the anchor of the conversation. I saw the joy in my dad’s eyes and the way that everybody was really just chill, but really engaged in the situation.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

My ability to communicate. I’ve had things in my head all the time on what I’m thinking or what I would like to see happen with the car or it could be something simple as schedule.

I think I told my wife the other day, “Yeah, we’re gonna have lunch when we get to New York City and we’ll meet up afterwards,” and she was just confused if she was doing lunch or if I was just doing lunch. It’s a little thing. I think that’s just a part of being husband and wife, but honestly I can do a better job with Tony Gibson and anybody that works at Stewart-Haas, just to be clear on communications.

12. The last interview I did was with James Hinchcliffe because I went to the Indy 500. His question was: “Do you think that Jimmie Johnson will be able to break the championships record, and if so, how many do you think he’ll end his career with?”

I’ll answer your question, James Hinchcliffe, in reverse. I think he’ll end with eight. I think if he gets it, he’ll be done; he’ll walk away, drop the mic. Will he get it? I’ll tell you, the combination of Chad Knaus, Rick Hendrick, Lowe’s, Jimmie Johnson — that is a power package that has never been assembled and probably never will ever again, and it’s mind-boggling to see their results and watch them continue each and every year to power through it. I wish them all the best. I think they’ve got the best potential out of everybody to ever set that type of record.

Will he do it? I’m on the fence; I’m 50/50 because I’m out there still competing and I don’t want him to get another one while I’m out here. I wanna get one. I wanna get another one. So we’ll see how it pans out. I’m gonna say 50/50 that he gets it, but when he does, 100 percent he’ll drop the mic and walk away.

The next interview that I’m doing with is with Paul Menard. Do you have a question that I could ask Paul?

What’s the slogan for Menard’s? “Everything’s better at Menard’s,” or what’s the slogan? Oh, “Save big money at Menard’s.” So I wanna ask Paul Menard who came up with that tagline, and then if he was ever a box boy or a bag guy at Menard’s.

Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, Paul Menard will not be the next 12 Questions interview. Due to another interview running long, I was late for Menard and he was unable to reschedule the interview for the Dover weekend. My apologies.

12 Questions with Clint Bowyer

The 12 Questions interview series continues this week with Clint Bowyer of Stewart-Haas Racing. The interview was conducted Sunday morning prior to the Martinsville race. Here is the archive of other 12 Questions from this season.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I would say with me, I don’t know why, but natural ability seems to be the case. This has always come relatively easy for me. The hardest part of our game anymore isn’t the fact you can drive better than the next guy; everybody at this sport, at this level, can drive and is capable of winning these races. It’s how well you work with your team, how well you communicate to your guys to get the most out of your race car.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards have all retired in the last couple years. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours? (Note: I know the following answer makes no sense, but it’s Bowyer, so I think he just got distracted.)

Man, it’s just trying to instill that same attitude, the same thoughts and culture. The fit factor has always been really good for everybody. I just like it. I like my teammates, I like the crew chiefs, I love the owners. The sponsors, the partners they have. There’s no weak link anywhere you look in Stewart-Haas. The manufacturer in Ford, Doug Yates, the Roush Yates horsepower. Every aspect of the program is spot on and exactly the way you would want it.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

Right now when my wife (Lorra) goes to Charleston and left me with that two-and-a-half year old (son Cash). I couldn’t handle the two-month old (daughter Presley). Grandma — my mom — had to bail me out on Presley. (Lorra, sitting nearby with the kids, reminds everyone Presley is actually four months old, not two). Cash and I held the fort down and had a good time.

He’s still living and doesn’t look like he has any broken bones or anything.

No, believe it or not, he’s still breathing. No broken bones. We did pretty good on the potty training. Not bad at all. I was pretty impressed. (Pauses) Not with him — with me.

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Of course, fans should always approach people. But the restaurant is a little different. Everybody is wired different. I don’t care. I don’t mind it. It is kind of awkward.

Just not the bathroom. God almighty. We went to Outback, took the family to Outback. We all go in there. Cash has to go to the bathroom, which, with a two-year-old, it’s a little bit of a deal. It was after (nephew) Lincoln’s baseball game. Lincoln had to go to the bathroom (too), so my brother Casey had him. I had Cash. (A random) dude finally gets done at the urinal, turns around and wants to shake your hand — and realized (the awkwardness)! He was like, “Eh, uh — can I shake your hand?” (Laughs) I’m like, “Well, damn. I guess.” So just not the bathroom. It’s the only place — just don’t go there.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

(Spotter Brett Griffin, also hanging out in the motorhome, says, “Spotters.”)

My spotter, Brett, just said “spotters.” Can’t live without ‘em; can’t live with ‘em.

Man, I think the media, I think TV, everybody does a great job covering this sport. I mean, honestly. There are so many meetings, so much thought that goes into every aspect of covering this sport. I think they do a good job. I don’t know that you could fix anything or look at one thing and say, “Wish they would show that.” ‘Cause they do.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

(Kasey) Kahne, actually. Kahne has been posting pictures of him working out on social media and I’m like, “Unless you’re a girl, don’t do that.”

Shirtless, even.

Good God! It’s so embarrassing.

And then my go-to, fun text of the week is always (Jamie) McMurray. He’s so much fun to pick on, because he cares so much about what his appearance looks like and what people think of him that I love to pick on McMurray. And his new videos on social media are ridiculous.

I’ve seen those.

He looked half-dead after California, too. He was sitting in the plane doing his little debrief video. I’m like, “My man looks so out of it and so worn out.” I’m like, “Go take a nap and let (McMurray’s son) Carter take over.” Because my man Carter is hilarious and I think he would probably do a better job than his dad anyway.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Yes. I think this is the entertainment business. If you’re on television, you’re in the entertainment business — whether you want to or not or whether you think you are or not.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

Well, when you look over and you’ve got an in-car camera, you can’t do many of those. Going back to your question of what could be covered more in NASCAR, unfortunately you can’t even flip a guy off anymore without it being caught on camera or on TV.

Sometimes, I’ll flip a guy off — like a McMurray — we would just flip each other off just because it was him. Not that I was mad or anything else, just because I wanted to flip him off. It made me feel better.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Yeah, I think that goes hand-in-hand. You don’t want to call it friendship, because you’re not friends on that racetrack. If it’s for a win, I’ll take advantage of anybody on that racetrack and I’ll be the first person Monday morning to say, “Hey man, I ain’t gonna apologize because I know that ain’t worth anything, but I hope you understand.” And I hope they do understand. If it’s for a win, I’m hungry.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

(Looks to Lorra for help. She mentions Steven Tyler, John Fogerty, Blake Shelton. Brother Casey mentions Mike Helton.)

Yeah, I’ve been fortunate to have dinner with a lot of famous people. The people I love — truly, honestly, my brother just said Mike Helton. I don’t think there’s anybody that I respect more in my life than Mike. The reason is, I think he’s the go-to guy for our sport. He’s the spokesperson of our sport. He’s the face of our sport. And he doesn’t take that for granted and always has time for whatever aspect of the sport that needs attention. Whether it’s the drivers or whatever else, he’s always there to listen. The thing about Mike is he’s a good dude, a good person to go to dinner with. He’s a lot of fun to cut up and be normal as well.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

Damn. Winning, right now. Gotta win, you know? This is a performance-driven sport and you’ve got to go out there and have the performance on the racetrack.

But those stars are lining up. I’m starting to have fun again and starting to get that confidence back, and that’s not only with myself but my race team as well. Buga (Mike Bugarewicz) is a young crew chief and he’s hungry and you’ve got to have that confidence instilled in you week-in and week-out. I see that in him right alongside of me.

12. Last week’s interview was with AJ Allmendinger and he wanted to know: If you could be any animal, what kind of animal would you be and why?

How in the hell does that — that’s what came to his mind?

Man, I don’t know. I would think a lion would be pretty badass. That’s pretty top of the food chain. The badassery in the lion is pretty spot-on. I dig a lion.

Do you have a question for the next interview?

The question to ask the next driver is why do you or don’t you post workout videos on social media?

What if the next interview is with Kahne?

Exactly. I want to know why.

News analysis: Danica Patrick gets Aspen Dental sponsorship

What happened: Aspen Dental will increase its primary sponsorship of Danica Patrick this season, Stewart-Haas Racing announced via Facebook Live on Tuesday. The company will be Patrick’s “lead sponsor” for at least 10 races, an increase from four last season.

What it means: The sudden departure of Nature’s Bakery had left a 25-race gap for SHR to fill, so this softens the blow a bit. It also shows at least one of Patrick’s remaining sponsors wanted to double down on supporting her, which could help SHR in selling the other races. In addition, it might ease the minds of some who worried whether Gene Haas would have to pay for Patrick’s races out of his own pocket.

News value (scale of 1-10): Four. It’s basically a sponsor adding six races, but which isn’t huge, but it’s still important that one of Patrick’s backers increased its commitment and began to fill the giant void left by Nature’s Bakery.

Questions: How many races will Aspen Dental actually end up doing, since only a vague “double digit” number was cited? Can SHR continue to sell other races for Patrick once the season starts, or is this it? If Patrick has a below average season again this year, will that hurt her in terms of sponsorship for 2018?