News Analysis: Aric Almirola to drive No. 10 car at Stewart-Haas Racing

What happened: Stewart-Haas Racing announced Aric Almirola will replace Danica Patrick in the No. 10 car next season with backing from longtime Almirola sponsor Smithfield.

What it means: Almirola will be in the best equipment of his Cup Series career after Smithfield and Richard Petty Motorsports resolved their legal issues. There had been a holdup in announcing this move after Smithfield’s CEO and Petty himself had a war of words during what seemed like a bitter breakup, and that apparently led to behind-the-scenes wrangling over whether Smithfield and Almirola could go to a different team as a package. That’s all behind them now, and Almirola will join Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and whoever drives the 41 car (probably Kurt Busch) at SHR next season.

News value (scale of 1-10): Four. The primary newsworthiness in this situation appears to be making it “official,” since everyone knew for awhile now that Almirola was heading to SHR. Still, it is more newsy than other non-surprises because it’s a major team with a high-profile team owner.

Three questions: Despite spending his career in lesser equipment than Patrick, Almirola is statistically an upgrade in every category — but can he win races in the 10? Will Almirola be a perennial playoff driver now that he’s with an elite team? What exactly will Smithfield’s involvement with RPM be?

12 Questions with Danica Patrick

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues with Danica Patrick of Stewart-Haas Racing. I spoke with Patrick at Martinsville Speedway. This interview is available both in podcast and written form.

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

Are you talking about me, or are you talking about in general?

Your success as a driver, like how you got here. Is it because you’re naturally talented or your hard work?

Well, I got here by determination and believing I could. It’s that simple. And then I would say that to open it up to something that your question wasn’t exactly — I would say once you get to this level, I think we’re all talented, so then it depends on so many other circumstances, which is why you see a driver all of a sudden emerge and maybe submerge every now and again, depending on circumstances.

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?

Man, I don’t think you can pitch a fan. I think a fan is your fan because they decide to be and not because you’re offering free candies or a lifetime of happiness.

I think you decide who you cheer for based on perhaps history, family, maybe who you used to cheer for — like if you cheered for Jeff Gordon, you may cheer for Chase Elliott now just based on the alliance with that number and team and history. But otherwise, it’s personality, and I can’t fake a fan. You really can’t. It will all come out eventually if you can for a little while.

So I don’t think you can make a fan yours just by saying, “Be my fan” and telling them a good reason why.

But if you offered free candy or a lifetime of happiness, I might be convinced.

(Laughs) It’s a pretty good promise and I can do the candy part, but I can’t control the other one.

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

I would say that the hardest thing away from the racetrack is balancing out all the other things I have going on. It’s decompressing when things get busy. If I had to pick one thing, it’s when things get really busy, it gets hard to sort of regroup and you really have to look day by day instead of just the next month because you might not have a lot of room to breathe. But that’s just kind of in life for everybody; there are phases that you go through where you’re like, “Man, I just gotta focus on today.”

But I think pertaining to just what I do — it’s not necessarily hard, it’s just different — and this is just because of what we do and who we are and being exposed publicly, it’s just even simple things like the safety stuff. Just being smart about what you do and what you put your name on and access that’s available, things like that. Just simple safety protection, whether it’ll be safety from people or just safety from people wanting to know more about you.

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

I don’t mind, but I would say if I was out to dinner, the most desirable communication would be if someone came over after dinner was over and just said, “Hey, I just wanted to let you know I’m a huge fan, good luck this weekend.” That would be like, “Wow, that was super polite (and) they acknowledged, which takes guts.” I know, because I’ve been in that position before when I don’t want to go up to somebody and say anything because I’m embarrassed or I don’t want to bother them. So it took the bravery, but they were polite enough to keep it very simple and acknowledge instead of trying to have something to take with them.

So they get respect points for playing it cool.

Yeah, because the bravery is just coming over. That’s the hardest part. And sometimes it’s almost easier to say, “Will you sign this?” because it’s a very simple request, but it’s harder to have to say something sometimes, I believe. So for me, that’s the most perfect kind of situation that you can have in public with a fan.

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

I don’t know. I feel like you guys have so many races and so much time, there probably isn’t much that you don’t cover. Is there something that you wish you could cover more of that you’re not allowed to?

What goes on in the driver/owner lot. You know, who’s friends with who.

(Laughs) That’s easy, we’ll tell you.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Well outside of Ricky (Stenhouse Jr.), because we live in the same house … probably Ryan Blaney. We stopped by and said hi after we went to the Aaron Lewis concert, and so that was the last. He’s having a Halloween party, so I requested that he change the date from Sunday to Monday, but he informed me/us that he has something to do on Monday.

So you’re like, “This is much more convenient if you change the date to Monday,” and he’s like, “No?”

He said, “I could, maybe,” but he has something Tuesday morning or something. He had a good reason. So I understand now.

It’s gonna be a late night after the race.

I just thought it was a young buck in his 20s who was like, “Let’s party after the race,” and here I am, 35, like, “Can we do it the next night?”

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

That is pretty much what we are. If you want to know, you just have to travel to another country and get a visa to go work and your visa says, “Entertainer.”

That’s interesting. That’s proof right there.

When I raced in Japan, my passport said “Entertainer” on it.

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

Bring it on. I can’t get my finger far enough out for someone to really see it, I mean, shoot, my fingertips (barely) get out there. Let’s say I’m hot and I wanna stick my hand out the window to bring in some cool air. It’s fingertips. That’s it. Like everyone can hang their (hands out), they’re resting on the window and hand all the way out. I can’t even get (fingers) out there. I guess if you saw one finger, just imagine it’s the middle one.

So you don’t mind if it gets done to you as well?

I don’t care. If I deserve it, you should give it to me.

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, for sure, absolutely. You’ve got the drivers that you know are difficult and you cut them no slack, therefore your situation perpetuates. And if you have someone that you get along well with, then that situation also keeps going because you treat them the same. Each are self-fulfilling.

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

Jay-Z and Beyonce.

When you filmed the music video (in Monaco)?

Yeah. Could Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) say the same, do you think? He was there, too.

I think that was his same answer.

That was a pretty baller week.

How were they? How did you find them?

Jay-Z was very nice and he was excited that he could facilitate Dale and I meeting, because we’d never met before. And Beyonce was very, very quiet. So yeah, she’s kind of shy. So it makes sense why she has an alter-ego diva girl. But everybody was really cool, and it was a first class production. I mean, we were in Monte Carlo, so it was pretty good.

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

I always kind of think to myself, “Be nicer.” But it’s just that my reaction to someone, if they’re not perfectly nice, is so ridiculous and over-the-top-mean that no one ever remembers the first blow. So yeah, I wish I could tone that down just a little bit. It doesn’t need to be so aggressive.

Like if somebody’s rude, you match them, so to speak?

Oh, no, no. I don’t even match. You can’t even remember the first mean when you get done with my mean. And I wish I could tone that down a little.

Maybe wait for Phase Three. Like Phase One, they’re mean. Phase Two, I’m like, “Come on buddy.” And then the next one is, maybe it’s (Phase) Four, and then he responds, and then it’s like, “OK, you wanna go? Let’s go.” Because yeah, I’m just not very shy and I have no problem with confrontations. So I kind of go right to the end of it. So I wish I was a little more patient in that category.

12. Last week I was at the F1 race and I interviewed Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean, and I asked them to come up with a question for you. Kevin wanted me to ask you: Who has bigger balls, NASCAR drivers or F1 drivers?

Collectively NASCAR, because we have so many more drivers. I mean, that’s 39 sets of balls versus like 22? How many are there (in F1)?

Twenty, I think.

Twenty. That’s a lot more balls in NASCAR.

But in a simple, diplomatic, honest answer, to get to the top level of anything is difficult. I don’t care who you are. And my balls are called ovaries, so I guess I count, too.

I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with. Do you have a question I can ask a driver in general?

My first thought is to ask a really weird one so people will be like, “What?” My first question would be, would you rather stay on Earth and eat the steak and be kind of miserable but the steak tastes really good, or would you rather live on another planet in pure bliss? You don’t know what it’s gonna be like, though — you just know you’re always gonna be happy.

So basically, stay on earth in the current situation, how it is now, but if you’re taking a gamble, it could be way better on the other planet?

Yeah, what would you do? Would you take the chance, or would you stay here? Do you like it here?

That’s a good question. I may put that permanently next year on the 12 Questions.

Oh wow. I like that. Wow, what an honor! Thank you! I thought I’d be met with, “Yeah, think of another one.” (Laughs)

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?