News and Tribune

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June 30, 2014

IN THE FAST LANE: Patrick, Johnson surprisingly quiet at Kentucky

Six-time champ still man to beat for title

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — There were plenty of story lines from last Saturday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.

The main one was Brad Keselowski becoming the first two-time winner of Kentucky’s annual NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. Keselowski not only won the race, he dominated it by leading 199 laps.

Another story line was the mile-and-a-half track’s rough surface that has been affected by several harsh winters in the Ohio Valley, especially last winter.

But the drivers still want track owner Bruton Smith to not repave the oval because it has developed a unique and challenging character.

There also was Kevin Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing pit crew continuing to shoot itself in the foot with another pit-road miscue and costing him a chance to at least contend with Keselowski for the victory.

Fortunately for Harvick, he has pretty much locked up his spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup postseason thanks to victories at Phoenix and Darlington earlier this season.

But there were a couple of attention-grabbing drivers who were relatively quiet this weekend that I need to point out.

The first was Danica Patrick.

Question — do you know where she qualified this weekend?

Patrick was a solid 10th with a lap of 185.803 miles per hour. She was one of 23 Cup drivers that went faster than the previous track record of 183.636 mph. Patrick reached the final session of qualifying for the second consecutive week and for the fifth time in the last eight races.

Yet, it seemed like the media nor the fans made a big deal about her qualifying performance.

If this happened last year, it would have been huge breaking news.

Every racing analyst would be saying how well she is adjusting to the Cup car after seeing those qualifying results.

Maybe Patrick did not get the attention because her No. 1 cheerleader — former three-time Sprint Cup champion and Fox Sports analyst Darrell Waltrip — was not doing the television color commentary during the race because old DW seems to praise Patrick’s performance even when she flips the ignition switch to start her No. 10 Chevrolet SS.

Or maybe Patrick had a quiet weekend because TNT analyst Kyle Petty kept his mouth shut this time at Kentucky after he criticized her skills behind the wheel of a Cup car at last year’s Quaker State 400.

Or maybe it is because the honeymoon is over for Patrick as far as impressing the media and fans, and she needs to start consistently run in the top 10.

I’m thinking it was the third reason and Patrick, who wound up 21st in Saturday’s race, still has a ways to go to put together that type of consistency.

But her qualifying efforts shows she is making major strides in that department.

The other driver who remained quiet was defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

I mean I was really disappointed after he finished 10th on Saturday night that no one from NASCAR Nation was worried or whining about Johnson’s winless streak growing to two races.

The most ridiculous thing I have heard all season was the motorsports media and NASCAR fans asking what was wrong with Johnson after he did not collect a victory in the first 11 races of the season.

Shortly after that 11-race winless streak, Johnson proved he was the same old Jimmie by earning three victories — Charlotte, Dover and Michigan — in a four-race stretch.

Plus I’m sure no one would have been inquiring about Johnson’s “problems” in the first 11 races if he did not cut down a tire while leading at his home track, Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., in May. Johnson had the race in the bag that day, but the flat tire showed that even he is not immune from the “stuff happens” syndrome in racing.

I guess after Johnson went winless for the second weekend in a row at Kentucky that some people realized he is still the man to beat in the Cup Series.

I have believed that since the start of the season and I guarantee Johnson’s competitors believe that, too.

Johnson definitely has the equipment and the people around him to win his seventh Sprint Cup title.

But two things many people do not give him credit for are his talent behind the wheel and his mental toughness. Those two qualities have been key factors in capturing six series championships.

If Johnson is among the final four drivers battling for the Sprint Cup title at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November (and I’m sure he will be one of them), his competitors must put up one heck of a fight to unseat him as the series champion.

Contact Kevin Harris at kevin.harris@newsandtribune.com.

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