Friday Notebook: Patrick won't be intimidated by Bristol
By: By Seth Livingstone, Special to NASCAR Wire Service, Superior Telegram
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Jokingly calling herself a "bottom feeder," Danica Patrick knows the need to run the high line at Bristol Motor Speedway might not play into her hands on Sunday.
But Patrick says she won't be intimidated by the .533-mile, high-banked oval nor shy away from at least trying to run the bottom lane in Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500.
"In the second Cup race last year, (the fastest line) moved to the top," Patrick said. "If you can get the bottom to work and get the car turned, you have some options in your pocket for lapped traffic. In general, I would say I'm more of what I could call a bottom feeder. But, you do have to run where the grip is."
As a Sprint Cup rookie, Patrick started 10th at Bristol and ran 434 laps before tangling with Regan Smith in a crash that also ended eventual Cup champion Brad Keselowski's afternoon last August.
She knows that simply surviving 500 laps will be her first priority on Sunday.
"If you get taken out, you get taken out," Patrick said. "When we are racing nose-to-tail, really close, it's always more of a risk. I don't mind some beating and banging out there. I don't mind pushing your way around a little bit. It is just the nature of short tracks when you are running really close to one another. When you put 43 cars out on a track this size, you are filling up a lot of the track.
"It is a little daunting to say ‘500 laps.' (But) whether it's a 200-lap race, or a 500-lap race, you find your rhythm. All I can hope is the car has a decent balance because when it doesn't, that's when the laps seem long."
Beyond survival, the challenge for Patrick and her 42 rivals will be to determine, early on, if running anywhere but at the top of the concrete oval makes sense.
"It seems like the higher you get on the race track the faster you can go," said fellow Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Ricky Stenhouse Jr., during Friday's mid-day practice.
Bristol ground the top lanes of the track prior to last season's August race, hoping to tighten the top groove and force the drivers to the bottom of the track. But the result created the opposite effect.
"(The top) is now the place to be it seems," says Sprint Cup points leader Jimmie Johnson, no worse than sixth in any of the season's first three races. "I assume we will be back up there once the race starts. The good news is that is where everybody wants to be, so maybe we will rough each other up around the top instead of around the bottom as the fans want to see."
Kevin Harvick made a similar observation earlier in the week.
"I don't think the changes that were made to the track did much to the top lane," Harvick said. "Everyone still wound up in the top groove and the racing ended up pretty much as it was in the past."
That doesn't mean it can't be exciting.
" I think any time you go to a short track, no matter if the groove is top, bottom or middle you're going to have cars beating and banging on each other," Harvick said. Everyone is a little more aggressive in trying to slide themselves into a spot, so you have to be aggressive to take the opportunity to pass somebody."
And it doesn't mean there won't be the opportunity or plenty of time to try multiple tactics.
"I think we're gonna see people running right up against the fence and I think you're gonna see people trying to slide-job each other and trying to make the bottom groove work," Ford driver Aric Almirola said.
ANNETT'S RECOVERY ON TRACK
NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Michael Annett was happy to be back at the track for the first time since suffering a fractured sternum in his nasty crash in the season-opening race at Daytona.
"Honestly, I feel like I could be putting my suit on right now and going over to the car (to) get ready for practice," said Annett, whose projected eight-week recovery puts him on target to return for the next superspeedway event at Talladega on May 4. Annett, who has a checkup scheduled for Monday at Carolina Medical Center, had two plates inserted to help facilitate healing.
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver says it remains a mystery what caused the injury but is thankful for the safety advances that have been made in the cockpit.
"Twelve years ago I wouldn't be able to be standing here," he said. "I was in a carbon fiber seat, six-point harness. Everything did what was supposed to do. My injury is something we haven't seen in the past 12 years, at least.... They (RPM, seatbelt manufacturer Schroth, NASCAR) don't know what happened. The steering wheel hadn't moved. It wasn't bent. There wasn't a mark on the helmet, a mark on the suit. Pretty much, my body stayed where it was supposed to. All the safety equipment that we wear did its job."
Annett said he planned to be atop the spotter's stand, providing input for Reed Sorenson, who taking his spot in the No. 43, and Ford teammate Travis Pastrana, who is running his first Nationwide race at Bristol.
Jeremy Clements, reinstated for this weekend's Jeff Foxworthy's Grit Chips 300 Nationwide race after completing a sensitivity training program mandated by NASCAR, said his use of a racial slur was completely out of character for him.
"It doesn't represent who I am or how I was raised," Clements said. "My Grandpa Crawford Clements, who I looked up to and respected and got me started racing when I was seven, was a crew chief for Wendell Scott in 1965. I was raised to respect everybody
"I made a remark that has no place in our society, (whether I was) kidding or not. "NASCAR did what they had to do. I respect their decision. … I want to apologize to NASCAR, the reporter, my team, my family, my sponsors and of course all the fans out there. I didn't mean to offend anybody at all. I'm sorry I let you all down."
Reading a formal apology, then answering reporters' questions with sincerity, Clements called it "a challenging time" for him. He thanked other drivers for their support, expressed a willingness to chat with Nationwide driver Darrell Wallace as well as other African-Americans who might have concerns, and do "anything to right the wrong."
"I had a lot of time to think about my action," he said. "I wasn't thinking. As soon as I (said it) I knew I'd messed up, but it was too late and I just kept talking. It was stupid. … I want to grow from it and help other people from it."
Wearing his St. Jude's Research Hospital fire suite, Clements said he rejected a sponsor's offer to pay $2,500 for his individualized sensitivy program with Dr. Richard Lapchick and his staff at the National Consortium for Academics and Sorts.
Worse than his fine was missing a race, said Clements, who remains on probation until Sept. 13. "Anytime a race car driver gets sat out any amount of time it is the worst thing that can happen to anybody," he said "(You) don't want to watch anybody drive your car when you are supposed to be in it."
TOPS IN PRACTICE
Keselowski (129.047) was the only driver to top 129 mph in Sprint Cup practice, but was followed closely by last week's race winner Matt Kenseth (128.903) and five-time Bristol winner Kyle Busch (128.900). ... Austin Dillon's Chevrolet (124.186) was quickest in Friday's Nationwide Series practice. Toyota driver Alex Bowman (123.833) and Chevrolet driver Regan Smith (123.166) were next in line.