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Sprint Cup notes: For NASCAR’S sake, Danica needs to do better

Fans love stars, and not many in NASCAR have more appeal than Danica Patrick.

The attention Patrick drew on social media when she had a late lead at Talladega last week came as no surprise. She eventually faded down the stretch, but the spike and interest she created among casual sports fans spoke volumes.

If Patrick can somehow win a race or at least consistently contend, it’d be a major boost for the sport. It hasn’t happened yet, though.

Patrick has 78 career races under her belt and no top-five finishes. Something had to change, right?

Well, it did, and the initial results will be seen next week at Texas Motor Speedway.

Stewart-Haas Racing announced that Patrick and Kurt Busch will switch teams for the final three races this season. Tony Gibson and his crew are moving over to Busch, while Daniel Knost and his crew are headed to work with Patrick.

Maybe this is the answer to get Patrick going on racing’s top circuit.

“Everybody’s looking for some magic and a relationship that takes you to the next level,” Patrick said. “I know I get along with him [Knost]. Now it’s time to see if we get along in a competitive atmosphere where it becomes more technical than just friendship.

“I’m definitely open-minded and looking forward to the opportunity to see how it will go with him.”

Patrick went on to joke that the only thing she isn’t open-minded to is changing her haircut. It was one of a couple of witty remarks she made during a news conference Friday and showed that she has everything NASCAR could possibly want from one of its most popular drivers.

The glaring thing missing for Patrick is results on the track.

That rubs some the wrong way, of course — her results do not justify her popularity. But that’s a story for another day.

For now, Patrick and her racing team are focused on changing that. They believe pairing her with Knost has more potential than her being with Gibson.

Knost, 35, has an engineering background, something that Patrick is accustomed to from her IndyCar days and hasn’t had since making the transition to NASCAR. Gibson, on the other hand, is viewed as having more of an old-school approach.

For his part, though, Gibson did help Patrick. She won her first career pole with him at the 2013 Daytona 500, and had a career-best sixth-place run at Atlanta Motor Speedway in August.

She also has led 15 laps this year compared to five last year. Those marginal gains, however, and coupled with Busch’s underwhelming season, were simply not enough .

Busch qualified for the Chase, but was knocked out in the first round. SHR feels as though he, as well as Patrick, should be faring better.

So the switch was a relatively easy decision.

“We are just basically looking to try to get both teams to be a little more consistent. They have had speed throughout the year, but haven’t necessarily put the whole season together all the races at the level that we expect from them,” said Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at SHR.

“This is a good opportunity for us to switch things up for Texas and the last three races. Just see how things go.”

For Patrick and the sport’s sake, hopefully it works out. A successful Patrick in future years could make every race a must-see much as Tiger Woods did for golf. If not, fans will keep wondering how much growth has been left untapped.

McMurray takes pole

A non-Chase driver will be the pole-sitter for the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 on Sunday.

Jamie McMurray had the top time during qualifying Friday afternoon, clocking in at 18.954 seconds.

“Our cars have been so quick the past two to three months and ... this is a great track for me, and we had a real good test here,” McMurray said. “It was great we were able to take that test and use that toward earning the pole today.”

But the bigger storyline out of qualifying was Kevin Harvick’s disappointing day. The Chase contender is starting 33rd, a position that could easily put him in a significant hole early on this round.

“We just missed it today,” Harvick said. “We were way too loose. We struggled in practice and just missed it in qualifying. We have to get better [Saturday] and be ready to go on Sunday.”

The rest of the Chase contenders fared all right. Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano will start second and third, respectively. The rest: Denny Hamlin (fifth), Brad Keselowski (sixth), Ryan Newman (ninth), Carl Edwards (11th) and Jeff Gordon (13th).

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