Danica Patrick is looking to up the ante heading into the new season. Throughout her tenure at Stewart-Haas Racing, change has always occurred on the No. 10 team. For the third consecutive season, she will have a new crew chief calling the shots for her.
Consistency has not quite been there since Patrick made the move to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2013. Though she is entering her fourth full-time season, she hasn’t been behind the wheel of a stock car for a long time. This will just be her fifth full-time season in NASCAR, period, after racing open-wheel cars for the majority of her life.
Taking over the role of crew chief is former Michael Waltrip Racing employee Billy Scott. The third-year crew chief has never had a stability with one driver either. In 2014, Scott led Brian Vickers to nine top-10 finishes, but a disappointing 22nd-place finish in the standings at the end of the year. This came in the season that Vickers finally made it back to the Cup Series after battling to regain supremacy in NASCAR’s top series and back into a competitive ride.
In 2015, change was constant for Scott. For the better part of 18 races, he continued to crew chief the No. 55 team. However, Vickers was the driver for only two of those races after a resurfacing of blood clots came up and knocked him out of the ride. In the remaining races, he worked with Brett Moffitt, David Ragan and Michael Waltrip.
The second half of the season was better for Scott. He moved over to the No. 15 team to lead Clint Bowyer. He led Bowyer to a late season surge making the Chase for the first time as a crew chief. After making NASCAR’s playoffs, Bowyer and Scott were quickly eliminated from the Chase at the end of the first round due to poor finishes.
Knowing that, he needed to make a new career move since MWR was shutting its doors at the end of the season because co-team owner Rob Kauffman decided to take his funding elsewhere and support Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.
The day after the 2015 season ended at Homestead, Scott was announced as the crew chief for Patrick. Since the duo has been paired together they have been able to grow closer together, even though she had very little input on whom her new crew chief would be.
“Billy has obviously been on the team now for a couple of months and he’s really done a good job of learning as much as he can, learning the shop and all of the things that need to be done to the car and obviously making changes to the car that he wants to make,” Patrick told Speedway Digest. “On our team, our crew chiefs are able to do that and I’m sure it’s pretty cool for crew chiefs to be able to call shots on the cars.”
Patrick is coming off a season in which she finished 24th in the standings. It was her best finish in the final championship standings coming off seasons when she finished 27th and 28th, respectively. She picked up two top-10 finishes and finished on the lead lap 14 times, down from three top 10s in 2014.
Typically, the No. 10 team hasn’t run well on the short tracks since Patrick began racing in the Cup Series. In 2013 and 2014, she had four top-20 finishes in the 12 short track events. However, last season, it was the short tracks of Martinsville and Bristol where she recorded her best finishes of seventh and ninth.
On the restrictor plate tracks any team can win and Patrick has done a solid job of running up front for the first three-quarters of those races. It is in the last stint of the event that she isn’t able to finish the job and be competitive as 20 of her 27 career laps led have come on restrictor plates. But either Daytona or Talladega is her best shot at winning a race in 2016.
Unloading off the hauler knowing the direction in which Scott and Patrick want to go will be crucial, and something that she has not had in her first three seasons after working with multiple crew chiefs.
She needs to give better feedback to the team so they can make changes and go in the right direction on the car instead of continuing to struggle and going in the wrong direction. Now that she has a former engineer as a crew chief, he might have a better understanding in the lingo that she gives back to the team.
“Billy and I have gotten along really well so far,” she said. “He is a super nice, relatable, easy to get along with guy and spends a lot of time on the shop floor it seems like talking to the guys and I feel like there is definitely a lot of excitement with the crew and everybody just seems like they are in a good mood.”
An advantage at Stewart-Haas Racing is its crew chiefs. Scott has previously worked with Rodney Childers, 2014 championship winning crew chief for Kevin Harvick, and has gained valuable knowledge from him. The welcoming atmosphere within the Kannapolis, N.C. shop could lead to great success and better competition on the race-track.
“He’s been doing a lot of that stuff and he worked with Rodney [Childress] back at MWR, so they have a relationship,” Patrick said of Scott. “As Kevin [Harvick] said in the ballroom there that the crew chiefs really for probably the first time are all going to be in sync and get along very well.
“Having Tony’s crew chief be the old engineer for the No. 4 and Tony Gibson works really well with Rodney and Rodney have worked with Billy, everybody has worked together. I think everybody is going to communicate extremely well, which in a four-car team is very valuable.”
Improvement is really what Patrick needs. She needs to be able to run competitive throughout the entire race and not just have flashes of quickness.
Last season, her teammates of Harvick and Kurt Busch were two of the fastest drivers each week. Learning from them is a valuable lesson for her after coming off of a combined 49 top-10 finishes between the two drivers.
If Scott and she can come into the season with momentum they might be able to point their way into the Chase. With an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports, there is no reason as to why this combination can’t be successful. However, consistency and running toward the top 10 will be the ultimate goal for the team this season.
“I think that in 2014 I feel like we finished off the season with Tony Gibson solidly being top-15, top 10 and being relatively pretty fast every weekend,” Patrick explained. “I feel like with Daniel, being a new crew chief and in a new situation last year, I feel like we didn’t quite achieve that all of the time. Sometimes we were there, but sometimes we were worse than that and that was a step back from 2014.”
The new season allows for some experimenting early on. The No. 10 team has the potential to have a solid season, but it will be what Patrick and Scott surround themselves with within the organization and how quickly they can adjust to one other. If they are able to communicate and work together throughout the first half of the season they could be in prime position heading into the Chase.
“I would like to obviously get back to that top-15 running where if you have a good day you are in the top-10,” she said. “Once you start doing that regularly you will have a chance to win.”
On Saturday evening, Kevin Ward Jr. passed away during a sprint car race in Canandaigua, New York. Ward made contact on the track with NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Tony Stewart. Ward, 20, went outside of his car to show his frustration with Stewart, but Stewart’s car made contact with him – evidently ending his life.
According to Ontario County Sheriff Philip C. Povero, Ward was taken to a local hospital after being hit by Stewart, and was pronounced deceased on arrival. Although Stewart was not charged, an investigation is ongoing as local officials are still speaking to witnesses of the incident.
Stewart’s team, Stewart Haas Racing, released the following statement after the accident early Sunday morning:
“A tragic accident took place last night during a sprint car race in which Tony Stewart was participating. Tony was unhurt, but a fellow competitor lost his life. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends. We're still attempting to sort through all the details and we appreciate your understanding during this difficult time."
In the accident, Stewart squeezed into Ward’s No. 13 car in Turn 2 – causing him to have a flat tire. When he exited the cockpit of his race car, Ward walked down the track to express his displeasure with the 43-year-old driver. However, during the caution laps, he was using a slightly higher lane compared to the other drivers, and Ward rapidly walked towards Stewart’s vehicle. He was caught underneath Stewart’s right rear tire – sending him flipping in the air multiple times until he landed flat on the ground.
Since he was a four-year-old, Ward had been racing cars. Starting out in go-karts, he progressed over the years to race in Empire Super Sprint division.
In 2013, the three-time Sprint Cup Series champion was involved in an incident at the same track in upstate New York as well. In a 15-car crash, which Stewart caused, Alysha Ruggles, 19, received a back injury.
After originally planning on racing the Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International, approximately one hour away from the dirt track where the incident took place, Stewart’s team announced at 10:20 a.m. ET that he will not be racing on Sunday afternoon. Even though he was not charged by county officials and was released, he opted to sit out the race after carefully discussing the incident with his team.
Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition for Stewart-Haas Racing, told reports that Regan Smith will replace Stewart in the No. 14 Chevrolet for Sunday’s event. Smith drives the No. 7 car for JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Nationwide Series – a team that has an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports. There is no word on whether or not Stewart will return to the seat of his car next weekend at Michigan International Speedway since the investigation is pending.
“We at SHR support it and agree with it,” Zipadelli said. “It's a difficult time for both parties. This is what we feel is right and we're supporting Tony in it."
Following Zipadelli’s press conference, NASCAR issued this statement:
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family, friends, and fellow competitors of Kevin Ward Jr. We support Tony Stewart’s decision to miss today’s race and we will continue to respect the process and timeline of the local authorities and will continue to monitor this situation moving forward.”