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Patrick optimistic, believes team can string together top-15s MORE: Danica pours out her purse for Us Weekly RELATED: Play NASCAR Fantasy Live " Sign up for RaceView today For one of NASCAR's highest-profile drivers who is much more accustomed to making headlines and shining in the spotlight, Danica Patrick 's sophomore year in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has been relatively quiet and workmanlike. At times encouraging, at times frustrating. Consistently inconsistent. Yet Patrick remains enthusiastic and optimistic -- partly because her Stewart-Haas Racing team has proven to be among the best in the garage and partly because she is absolutely certain her stock car education has greatly advanced. Even if the scoring pylon doesn't always reflect the effort. "In general we've been running so much better, qualifying better, running better and just generally being much faster than last year … and I'd say in general, not having the results to show for it,'' Patrick said. "I feel like it's been a much better year, but in terms of getting the most points as possible, we haven't really done that. "We've had a lot of mechanical issues and it seems to happen when we're running well. There've been mistakes, whether it be while running on track or making calls or sometimes the pit stops are slow. I think if we can fire on all cylinders and not make mistakes and have clean weekends, I feel like we're a real solid top-15 car." Patrick spoke to NASCAR.com between practice sessions at Watkins Glen International , a day that started out with a blown engine in the opening practice and would culminate with a crash during the afternoon session due to a mechanical issue (shock failure) -- an extreme example of the rough luck her No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet has suffered this year. But at 32, Patrick is experienced enough to know the hard knocks are inevitable, if tough to swallow -- especially when you are under the microscope as she so often is. Her transition to stock cars from IndyCar has naturally come with great interest and great scrutiny. But this is a no-excuses, highly driven racer who nearly won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie in 2005, and earned worldwide accolades again in NASCAR when she won the Daytona 500 Coors Light Pole Award as a rookie in 2013 -- the first woman in the sport's history to do so. Patrick, however, is not the kind of person to rest on past accomplishment and has methodically worked toward a realistic set of goals: top-20s as a rookie, top-15s this season. But the patient approach aside, Patrick is at heart a competitor and says it's "go time." "I think you get more frustrated for sure, because you're waiting for it to turn and if it hasn't, you're getting frustrated that things aren't going your way," Patrick said. "But the positive side is that the hope is there and the speed is there when everything meets in the middle. "I think the team (has) … great drivers, so more help. I feel like I'm learning for that reason. It doesn't feel like I'm treated any different from the outside, but I really always thought people were relatively fair from the beginning anyway. Yes, people are watching a lot and everybody has opinions for sure, but I expect that I suppose." And Patrick has given them reason to believe in her. She led laps at both Daytona and Talladega. And with a third of the season still to go, Patrick has two top-10s -- twice that of last year. Her eighth-place finish in July's Coke Zero 400 equaled her career best finish at Daytona International Speedway. Her seventh-place at Kansas in May is what she considers her best race weekend from roll-out to load-up. "I think the cars themselves have been just better when they arrive at the track from beginning of the year but especially since the middle of the year,'' Patrick explained. "That's what happened at Kansas, that was the first full new car we got and I finished seventh and we had great night, great weekend. That was the start of those better cars and we've been running and qualifying much better since then. "From the end of last year, we learned that working more methodically through the weekend versus making huge and many changes throughout the practices has also helped us make what we have the best it can be. "That's a challenge in and of itself. I don't think you're going to move mountains with a spring change, so what you've got to do is maximize what you've got … it's more about just optimizing the car itself." Outside the car, Patrick says she couldn't be happier. That's evident to her NASCAR-best million-plus Twitter followers who regularly see photos of her life with boyfriend -- fellow Sprint Cup driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -- and their puppy, Dallas. She won the Food Network reality competition show "Chopped" one year ago and earned USA Today's "Best Dressed" award as a presenter at the recent ESPY Awards. Beyond that, Patrick says she is also still committed to working on her fledging golf game, something introduced to her by Stenhouse. "I feel like golf might be a little bit like racing where you spend a lot of the time mad and frustrated and say, 'I love it, let's do it again,'" Patrick said with a laugh. "I'd like to see the results come through for the speed of the car and for me. It would be nice to qualify well and run well, to have good pit stops, good restarts and just a solid string of top-15 finishes. "And I believe we can." MORE: READ: Latest NASCAR news WATCH: Latest NASCAR video PLAY: NASCAR Fantasy Live FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
NASCAR President clears up postseason status RELATED: Full coverage of Tony Stewart incident NASCAR President Mike Helton said Tony Stewart would be eligible for the 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup if he wins one of the final two regular-season races. Helton said that "this has been a very unique set of circumstances to Tony and to out sport. As the league, it's our responsibility to try and make decisions that are correct and right. Sometimes we evaluate circumstances that are given to us and then we make those decisions as correctly as we can. After evaluating the circumstances around this occurrence, we've come to the conclusion that Tony would be eligible to participate in the Chase if he were to earn a spot in it." At Atlanta Motor Speedway , Stewart is set to participate in his first Sprint Cup Series after sitting out the past three races. Stewart is 26th in points. To be eligible for this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, a driver must attempt to qualify for all 26 races leading up to the Chase and be in the top 30 in points. However, according to NASCAR, for rare instances the requirement can be waived as long as the driver is in the top 30. Stewart missed three races following his involvement in a sprint car racing incident earlier this month that resulted in driver Kevin Ward Jr. suffering fatal injuries at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, a half-mile dirt track on the Ontario County Fairgrounds. The investigation regarding the incident is ongoing. Stewart's racing plans outside NASCAR have been canceled and will not resume until further notice. Denny Hamlin experienced his own form of exemption into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs after he missed the fifth race of the season, at Auto Club Speedway in March, with an eye injury. Five races later, Hamlin scored a regular-season victory at Talladega Superspeedway to clinch a Chase berth. While he didn't know all the particulars of Stewart's situation and his three-race absence, Hamlin said he had no problem with the three-time Sprint Cup champion being eligible should he win one of the remaining two regular-season events. "I don't know. It's a very vague thing," Hamlin said. "I know that originally, you had to have some kind of medical note or something like that, and that's kind of what happened to me with my eye when I met with Mr. Helton and the doctors at California. They said that this is kind of why they've built this program in place to just get better and come back when you can and just win a race. We did that and got ourselves in, but it's tough to say what's considered medical and not, but either way, I'm fine with Tony either in or out, it's good with me." Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said he was pleased that NASCAR could be flexible to allow exemptions and that he hoped that course of action would be used going forward. "Obviously, they're setting a precedent here and we'll see what other extreme circumstances develop in future years and how NASCAR looks at that," Johnson said. "I'm happy that they're sympathetic to situations and look at it and are giving a team and driver that opportunity. But again, they've set a precedent here that we're just going to have to be aware of, and hopefully they can continue to evaluate these and handle them in a similar manner." MORE: READ: Latest NASCAR news WATCH: Latest NASCAR video PLAY: NASCAR Fantasy Live FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
Kevin Harvick wins his sixth pole award of 2014 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, leading the field to green for the Oral-B USA 500 .
Three-time Sprint Cup champion has missed past three races MORE: NASCAR statement on Tony Stewart's return RELATED: Full coverage of Tony Stewart incident Tony Stewart will return this weekend in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and make his first Sprint Cup start since Pocono Raceway on Aug. 3. Stewart will speak to the media at 1 p.m. ET at the infield media center at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He will be joined by Stewart-Haas Racing Executive Vice President Brett Frood. That availability will be streamed live on NASCAR.com . In a statement, NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O'Donnell said: "Tony Stewart has received all necessary clearances required to return to all racing activities, and therefore is eligible to compete this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. NASCAR has remained in constant contact with his race team, and we will stay very close to this situation as Stewart returns to competition." NASCAR President Mike Helton will participate in a media availability in the Atlanta Motor Speedway media center on Friday at 2 p.m. ET. NASCAR will have no further comment until that time. That availability will be streamed live on NASCAR.com . Stewart was involved in a sprint car racing incident earlier this month that resulted in driver Kevin Ward Jr. suffering fatal injuries at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, a half-mile dirt track on the Ontario County Fairgrounds. The investigation regarding the incident is ongoing. Stewart's racing plans outside NASCAR have been canceled and will not resume until further notice. Stewart has not raced in the past three Sprint Cup events. Jeff Burton filled in at Bristol and at Michigan, guiding the No. 14 team to finishes of 15th and 37th at each track, respectively. At Watkins Glen, NASCAR Nationwide Series regular Regan Smith piloted the No. 14 Chevrolet to a 37th-place finish. Stewart was on the initial entry list for Atlanta that was released Monday. Stewart-Haas Racing officials said at Michigan on Aug. 15 that there was no timetable for Stewart's return to NASCAR racing and that the decision would be the driver's call to make. After sitting out the past three races, Stewart is 26th in points. To be eligible for this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, a driver must attempt to qualify for all 26 races leading up to the Chase and be in the top 30 in points. However, according to NASCAR, for rare instances the requirement can be waived as long as the driver is in the top 30. It is not known if Stewart would receive a waiver. Stewart currently has 537 points while 30th-place David Gilliland has 376. Stewart is returning to a track where he has fared well in his career. In 26 starts, he has three wins, 10 top-five finishes, 15 top-10 finishes and a pole. In the past nine years, he also has the third-highest driver rating at the track (100.2). The Oral-B USA 500 is scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 31, at 7:30 p.m. ET, with coverage on ESPN. MORE: READ: Latest NASCAR news WATCH: Latest NASCAR video PLAY: NASCAR Fantasy Live FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
See where your favorite driver will pit in the Oral-B USA 500 (Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
'This is something that will definitely affect my life forever' RELATED: Full coverage of the Tony Stewart incident For the first time since his involvement in the sprint car accident that claimed the life of Kevin Ward Jr., Tony Stewart spoke publicly before his return to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway . "This has been one of the toughest tragedies I've ever had to deal with both professionally and personally," Stewart said in reading a prepared statement. "This is something that will definitely affect my life forever. This is a sadness and a pain I hope no one ever has to experience in their life. … But I know the pain and mourning Kevin Ward's friends and family are experiencing is something I can't even imagine. " ... I want to thank all my friends and family for their support." Stewart, who was set to practice for Sunday's Oral-B USA 500 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), was at the track preparing to compete for the first time since the fatal incident on Saturday night, Aug. 9 at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York. Since then, Stewart-Haas Racing has used replacements Regan Smith and Jeff Burton to drive the No. 14 Chevrolet, finishing 37th at Watkins Glen with Smith behind the wheel and 37th at Michigan and 15th at Bristol with Burton. On Thursday, SHR announced that Stewart would end his three-week hiatus and return to action at Atlanta. NASCAR released the following statement from Executive Vice President Steve O'Donnell regarding Stewart's announced return: "Tony Stewart has received all necessary clearances required to return to all racing activities, and therefore is eligible to compete this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. NASCAR has remained in constant contact with his race team, and we will stay very close to this situation as Stewart returns to competition." NASCAR President Mike Helton is scheduled to participate in media availabilities at 2 p.m. ET on Friday at Atlanta, a session that can be seen live on NASCAR.com . MORE: READ: Latest NASCAR news WATCH: Latest NASCAR video PLAY: NASCAR Fantasy Live FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule