Four Wide: Danica’s back with no expectations

After a four-month break from NASCAR, Danica Patrick will be back in a stock car this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

With her return will come renewed attention – Daytona, at times, felt paparazzi-ish – and increased interest in a typically routine summer Nationwide Series race.

What there won’t be, though, are expectations.

Patrick is heading into the fourth race of her NASCAR career with no preconceived notions of what she’ll accomplish after a four-month hiatus as she tended to her full-time job in the IndyCar Series. She shifts into the JR Motorsports No. 7 Chevrolet on a bit of an IndyCar roll, coming off second-, 10th- and sixth-place finishes in her last three outings.

“I think I need to have realistic expectations during my NASCAR weekends, rather than the kind I have with Indy Car, which is to win or get on the podium,” she said this week.

Danica Patrick's last race ended with her wheeling a crumpled up car back to the garage at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Patrick took the same attitude into her first three NASCAR starts, finishing 35th in her debut at Daytona, then 31st at California and 36th at Las Vegas. She crashed at Daytona and Las Vegas, but neither was her fault as she was caught in somebody else’s mess both times.

“I didn’t set expectations for those first three races,” she said. “It’s probably better for me to say, ‘Let’s qualify in the top 20 and finish in the top 15,’ and build myself up from there. I think it’s best for my confidence and morale to set those kinds of expectation levels.”

If she doesn’t have any expectations, well, then it’s pretty unfair for anyone else to demand a certain performance level from Patrick. People like to look at her stats and dismiss her ability. After all, she has just one career victory in IndyCar, and that’s made her a target for critics.

But there’s no real way to judge her yet in NASCAR because nobody outside of Patrick, crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and the management at JR Motorsports has any idea what kind of talent she has or even if she has the capability to adapt to a heavy stock car.

I don’t think she’s going to win this weekend at New Hampshire. I don’t even think she’s going to crack the top 10, and maybe not even the top 20. That doesn’t mean she’s awful, nor does it mean she doesn’t have any right to be out on the track.

Accept Patrick for what she is: a driver trying to learn a new trade in the most demanding form of American motor racing. And be grateful for the exposure she brings the sport, even if that’s not her intention.

“I don’t have any responsibility for that,” she said. “I’m just a driver out there, getting my opportunity and experience. I’ll just do my best to put on a good show, smile and be cheerful. Just do my job.”

Here’s a look at what else will be going on this weekend at New Hampshire:

1. Is Jeff Gordon going to have a target on him?

Gordon upset a good many drivers last weekend at Sonoma, where Martin Truex Jr. went so far as to vow retaliation Sunday at New Hampshire.

So are drivers going to be annoyed to race around him all weekend? Absolutely.

Is anyone going to do anything about it? Probably not.

It would be far too obvious for Truex or any of the other drivers who felt they were wronged by Gordon to purposefully exact their revenge this weekend. That’s not to say it won’t ever happen, but the trick to getting away with it without drawing the ire of NASCAR is to have some finesse about it.

In other words, NASCAR is going to be watching for Truex, et al, to do anything unseemly to Gordon this weekend. If they do, it will likely earn them an in-race punishment a la Denny Hamlin, who was black-flagged after announcing and following up on his promise to spin Brad Keselowski in a Nationwide race last season, and Carl Edwards, who was parked for intentionally wrecking Keselowski in a Cup race this season.

For as much as NASCAR wants its drivers to “have at it,” the sanctioning body would prefer it not be so obvious.

2. Joey Logano returns to the sight of his only Cup victory:

Logano won last June at New Hampshire, only now he returns a year older and a year wiser.

Joey Logano became the youngest driver ever to win a Cup Series race with his victory a year ago at New Hampshire.

“I think as a driver I’ve changed a lot from that moment,” he said. “I think as a person I don’t think I’ve changed much at all. I’m still the same Joey that’s been growing up my whole life. So nothing’s changed there. But as a driver, I’m night and day different.”

I’d agree with Logano that he is indeed a better driver than he was this time last year. If he’s as talented as Joe Gibbs Racing officials insist he is, then of course seat time is going to improve him behind the wheel.

But it’s a bit naive to believe he’s the same person he was a year ago. In some ways, Logano isn’t even the same person he was a month ago.

No longer the only teenager racing in the Sprint Cup Series, the 20-year-old Logano has learned some hard lessons over the past few weeks. His confrontation with Kevin Harvick and the participation of his father in that incident put Logano and his family under scrutiny they’d never before experienced.

And if his point that day in Pocono was to prove to the other competitors that he won’t be pushed around, Logano apparently failed to get that memo to Juan Pablo Montoya, who deliberately moved Logano out of his way Sunday in Sonoma.

Learning the nuances of NASCAR racing – in particular, how politics and personal relationships actually come into play on the race track – makes it impossible for Logano to not have changed at least a little bit over the past year. It’s called growing up, and not in the way people say Kyle Busch needs to do.

So far, these changes for Logano, who is currently 17th in points, all seem for the better.

3. Matt Kenseth gets yet another new crew chief:

The chemistry has been lacking since Robbie Reiser climbed off of Kenseth’s pit box following a win in the 2007 season finale. Now, in an apparent effort to get the former series champion back at a consistent pace, Roush Fenway Racing has sent Jimmy Fennig over to lead Kenseth’s No. 17 team.

Fennig becomes the fourth Kenseth crew chief since Reiser moved into a research and development role, and he replaces Todd Parrott, who replaced Drew Blickensderfer following the season-opening Daytona 500.

Kenseth and Parrott seemed to have clicked early in their pairing – seven top 10s in 15 races – which sometimes happens with a new crew chief. (Remember, Kenseth and Blickensderfer won their first two races together before that pairing went cold.) But the performance has tailed off of late, and Kenseth has only two top-10 finishes in the past nine races.

The hope for RFR officials is that Fennig, who guided Kurt Busch to the 2004 championship in the inaugural Chase, can get Kenseth rolling again. The two have a relationship, winning three races and grabbing 18 top-10s in 21 Nationwide Series races in 2006.

“These guys were both instrumental in our back-to-back Sprint Cup championships in 2003 and 2004, with Matt driving us to our first Cup championship and Jimmy of course being instrumental in the 2004 championship as the team’s crew chief,” team owner Jack Roush said. “We would expect this pairing to yield strong results as both of these guys are extremely talented and among the best in the business at what they do.”

Kenseth isn’t one to sit quietly through mediocrity, so the first test for his fourth crew chief begins this weekend.

4. The buzz: Old Kyle Busch vs. New Kyle Busch:

In this social media-crazed society, Kyle Busch made it way too easy for someone to have a little fun at his expense.

He threw the door wide-open following his May win at Richmond, where he was asked how he was able to not lose it during mid-race stretch when his exceptional car turned mediocre.

“For the old Kyle Busch, he would have folded,” Busch later admitted. “The new one, he stuck in there, he dug hard. He kept going.”

As we all know now, good ‘ol Kyle is really still a work in progress. Sometimes he’s a better person, other times he’s still rough around the edges.

So it made it all to perfect when his split personality showed up on Twitter.

Under the user names @oldkylebusch and @newkylebusch, the two sides of Busch became satire in a masterful way.

“I lactate excellence,” @oldkylebusch tweeted the night of Tony Stewart’s charity race.

“I need more words and ways to express how Awesome I really am,” he posted this week.

“I would like apologize to every man in America – but it’s not my fault that you all look effeminate compared to me,” came out of Sonoma.

Each tweet shows the arrogant and sinister – Keselowski is a frequent target for @oldkylebusch – side of Busch.

But his alter-ego is very rainbow and butterflies.

He likes long romantic walks with his fiancée, can’t wait for buddy Scott Speed to watch the season-finale of “Glee” with him, and constantly supports his team.

“it is really tough out there; the team and I have a lot of work to do. but if anyone can do it, my team can,” tweeted @newkylebusch after a particularly frustrating practice last week at Sonoma.

The tweets are so spot-on to the differing sides of Busch that the two Twitter accounts have developed a decent following – even Busch said he’s a fan – and the identity of the poster stumped everyone.

No more.

It was revealed last weekend that the man behind the spoof is Michael Myers, who started the Queers4Gears Web site last season as a way to “make a place for gay NASCAR fans to come and more importantly, bring new fans to the sport.”

Myers was trudging along best he could with his weekly “Gaynalysis” of each race, but his following didn’t quite explode the way it did when he picked up his alter egos. The idea struck him at the height of the post-Richmond analysis of Busch.

“I thought [the media] were dragging it out, and trying to get “serious” with their psychological profiles of Kyle,” Myers explained. “It needed some silliness. I decided to see if NKB and OKB were available on Twitter and they were, so I created the accounts, found some appropriate profile pics and started Tweeting.”

Myers has rules for each account.

For @oldkylebusch, he must:

• sound as arrogant as possible.
• Call out other drivers on Twitter and constantly makes fun of new Kyle.
• Misuse words and berate the media.

“OldKyleBusch would bump his own mom off the track,” Myers said.

For @newkylebusch:

• He’s very new age, into fashion and his fiancée.
• He’ll drop a sponsor plug into anything.
• He loves his bff, Speed.
• He’s appreciative of everyone around him.

Now that he’s been “outed,” Myers said he’ll continue to Tweet from both accounts because it’s a decent outlet for his humor, and it seems the fans have liked the two sides of Busch.

“Secrets are not kept in NASCAR nation,” he said. “It would have been more fun to keep my identity a secret.”

Jenna Fryer covers NASCAR for The Associated Press and is a regular contributor to Yahoo! Sports. Follow her on Twitter. Send Jenna a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Jun 25, 2010