Chicago is Danica Patrick's kind of town

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Chicago is Danica Patrick's kind of town

JOLIET Not a whole lot of people know where Roscoe, Ill. is, but it's a pretty safe bet they've heard of arguably its most famous native.
For those of you who may be geographically challenged, Roscoe is a town of just over 10,000 people, sitting just north of Rockford, which is also the hometown of another NASCAR luminary, Chad Knaus, crew chief for five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
But more importantly, it's the hometown although she's long since moved away, now calling suburban Phoenix home of one of NASCAR's most popular and scrutinized drivers: Danica Patrick.
Patrick has returned home to Illinois for this weekend's Nationwide Series (Saturday) and Sprint Cup (Sunday) races at Chicagoland Speedway. And you can best believe she's happy to be back on home ground. In fact, she's already adopted Chicagoland Speedway as her "home" track, even though home is now nearly 2,000 miles to the southwest.
It will be," Patrick said Friday in an interview session with media in town to cover Sunday's Geico 400, the kickoff race to NASCAR's marquee event of the season, the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"Its good to be close to home," Patrick said. "Theres quite a few people coming out to the track. I have family members coming from Canada. So, theres going to be a few people here. I just love Chicago. I love being in the city. I dont have a lot of happy feelings from last nights football game, but other than that its good to be in Chicago.
Of course, the avid Chicago sports fan is still in denial over Thursday night's Bears loss at Green Bay. In fact, she talked about the game over her team radio while taking practice laps Friday at the 1.5-mile racetrack about 50 miles from downtown Chicago.
Not surprisingly, Patrick also took some good-natured ribbing from fellow driver and diehard Packers fan Matt Kenseth, who was gloating all around the race track Friday after what his favorite team did to the Bears.
Patrick will take part in Saturday's Nationwide Series race she's currently 10th in the standings as well as Sunday's Cup race, one of 10 she has or will compete in this season in preparation to shifting to a full-time season in the Cup series in 2013.
Patrick's hometown of Roscoe is about two hours (120 miles) from Chicagoland Speedway. While there will likely be a number of fans from her old stomping grounds that have bought tickets to see her race. That's on top of the free tickets Patrick will be giving to family and friends.
"For people who come out to the track, you want them to have a good time and, if you don't feel like you can help them have a good time, then there's not much point," she said. "But I think, more than anything, the fact it's the second time (the Chase opener) is at Chicagoland is more why there are people coming."
Although Sunday will mark the first time Patrick has competed in a Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland, this isn't the first time she's raced on the track by a long shot. She's competed three times in the Nationwide Series, finishing 24th in 2010, 10th last year and 14th in the June race there.
And in her prior foray in IndyCar racing, Patrick has made six starts at Chicagoland, with finishes of sixth (she also won the pole) in 2005, 12th in 2006, 11th in 2007, 10th in 2008, 12th in 2009 and 14th in 2010.
That's why Patrick comes into this weekend with significant confidence of having a strong showing in Saturday's Nationwide Series race, and potentially a surprisingly similarly strong outing in Sunday's Cup race. While she's not in the Chase, she certainly can make an impact and it couldn't come at a better place, right?
"It definitely wasnt that long ago as I was flipping through my notebook (from June's Nationwide race," Patrick said. "I feel like this year I had to write down what I felt at each track because they are all so similar, to remember what the feeling was.
"It came back pretty quick. I know its going to be different in the Cup car for sure. Everything is more difficult in the Cup car. I think the weather will help. Six or so weeks ago, whenever we were here, it was very hot. I think the cool weather will hopefully help with the grip and make things a little bit easier, a little less slippery and greasy."
Still, Patrick proved quite capable at handling what Chicagoland Speedway threw at her during both Nationwide and Cup practice Friday.
On the Cup side, she was 18th fastest in the morning practice but trailed off significantly to 44th fastest in the afternoon practice. She and the rest of the Cup drivers will qualify for the race on Saturday morning.
She'll also qualify for Saturday afternoon's Nationwide Series race, her current full-time job, so to speak. In practice Friday for that race, she was 13th in the initial morning session and then improved to seventh fastest in the afternoon session, giving her hope that she may qualify quite strongly for Saturday's Nationwide race.
Obviously, while she'll get a significant share of attention herself, Patrick knows that this weekend is more about the start of the Chase. And she readily admits she's a bit torn on whom to cheer for.
On the one hand, there's Tony Stewart, who co-owns the team she races part-time for in the Cup series and which she'll jump to full-time next season. Stewart won the Chase kickoff race at Chicagoland last season en route to five wins in the 10-race playoffs, culminating by winning the Cup championship by a mere one point over Carl Edwards (who didn't even make the Chase this season).
Then there's Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is co-owner of the Nationwide Series team that Patrick has raced for the last three seasons, including a full-time effort this season.
But when pressed for an answer, Patrick doesn't waffle.
Well, I guess since Ill be driving for Stewart-Haas next year, I guess it would mean I would probably be cheering for Tony a little bit more since that will be my full-time team next year, if I had to pick one," Patrick said.
But, in the typical feisty fashion that has both earned Patrick fans and also criticism over her eight-year pro racing career, she added with a quick quip, "Thats a really unfair question."
Still, Patrick's development as a NASCAR driver particularly in preparation for her full-time effort in the Cup series next season is significantly predicated upon the learning curve she has gone through so far in her part-time schedule. And helping her a great deal is Stewart, for whom she will drive a third car for full-time next season with continued sponsorship support from GoDaddy.com.
Like a sponge, Patrick is soaking up all the information and lessons that Stewart imparts upon her, hoping that someday soon perhaps as early as her first full Cup season next year that she, too, will be a Chase entrant. And what better place to start off the Chase yet again but also actually to be part of the 12-driver field than her home track.
"When the Chase comes around its about momentum and who is coming into it with momentum," Patrick said. "Then again, you look at what Tony (Stewart) did last year and just came in.
"I can remember watching the interviews and the few races leading up to the end of the regular season and into the Chase, and he was getting put on the spot every weekend about making it in. Then he came in and just kicked ass. Thats what can happen, and thats what makes it exciting. Thats what creates good story lines for these last 10 races of the season and obviously the ones before it leading up to it. So, its a good marketing thing and good for PR what NASCAR has created.
"I think its going to be a tough championship. You can never count guys like Tony out for sure. Youve got Jimmie (Johnson) and Denny (points leader Denny Hamlin) has been on a roll, and I think Dale Jr. has got a good shot. Its going to be interesting to watch. Im looking forward to it.
As for her own chances in both races this weekend, Patrick can say the same thing about her hopes and expectations, as well.
"I'm really looking forward to this one," Patrick said. "We're hoping to have some fun."

Bears' best rookies will have another learning curve

Bears' best rookies will have another learning curve

There's a sense of irony and, to a certain degree, concern about what changes the Bears' coaching staff has undergone.

Think of the best of Ryan Pace's 2016 rookie class: Leonard Floyd, Cody Whitehair, and Jordan Howard. They were brought along under the position group tutelage of outside linebackers coach Clint Hurtt, offensive line coach Dave Magazu and running backs coach Stan Drayton. The latter was the first to depart, shortly after the season ended, to return to the collegiate ranks on Texas' new staff.

He's been replaced with former 49ers and Bills offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins (also serving as that position coach in Detroit, Buffalo, Arizona and Kansas City). Howard certainly adapted to the NFL game well, more than anyone expected, as the NFL's second-leading rusher. One would think Drayton played a part in that.

Longtime John Fox assistant Magazu was also let go after the season despite the impressive move of second-round pick Whitehair to center the week of the season opener after Josh Sitton was signed following his release by Green Bay. Whitehair was sold as a "quick study" following his selection out of Kansas State, where he was a four-year starter at three different positions (but not center).

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Like Howard, he wound up making the All-Rookie team, but whether he remains in the middle of the line or not, he'll be getting his orders now from Jeremiah Washburn.

Rounding out the trio of All-Rookie selections was Floyd, who was brought along by Hurtt. He impressed Fox enough to be kept around from Marc Trestman's staff, and moved from defensive line to outside linebackers.

That's where he assisted Willie Young in morphing to a foreign role, yet still managing 14 sacks over the last two seasons. The Bears have yet to name a replacement for Hurtt, who's joined the Seahawks in taking over one of their strengths in recent years, the defensive line.

These three were already good, and the jewels of last year's draft. But if they're to grow and ascend into impact contributors if and when this team becomes a regular playoff contender, it'll come from new faces, new voices in their respective classrooms and position groups.

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' shutout win over Bruins

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' shutout win over Bruins

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 1-0 victory over the Boston Bruins on Friday night:

1. A sluggish start.

The Blackhawks have gotten off to some solid starts lately, scoring the game's first goal in the opening frame in five of their last six contests heading into Friday. But they were lucky to get out of the first in a 0-0 tie this time.

They had 15 shot attempts (six on goal) through the first 20 minutes while the Bruins had 30 attempts (17 on goal). Fortunately for the Blackhawks, Scott Darling stopped all of them that came his way.

Boston's third line of Ryan Spooner, Riley Nash and David Backes dominated possession, leading all skaters with a plus-12 Corsi in the period.  

2. Scott Darling steals two points.

Joel Quenneville decided to go with Darling in an effort to give a slumping Corey Crawford a chance to reset, and the Lemont native an opportunity to play in front of his father away from home, where he's used to watching him shine. It's safe to say he made his papa proud by putting on a great show.

Darling turned aside all 30 shots he faced, including 17 in the first period, for his second shutout of the season and fourth of his career. He has now allowed two or fewer goals in eight of his last 12 starts. 

Asked after the game whether he will earn a second straight start Sunday when the Blackhawks host the Vancouver Canucks, Quenneville responded, "We'll see."

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

3. Special teams not a factor.

In a game that featured only one goal, you'd think the way to crack the scoresheet would be on the man advantage. That didn't happen.

The Blackhawks went 0-for-3 on the power play, while the Bruins failed to cash in on their only two opportunities. Boston entered the contest by going 7-for-17 on the power play in their previous five games, good for a 41.2 success rate.

It was a nice bounce-back game for the Blackhawks' penalty kill unit, which allowed a goal on the man advantage in their previous two games.

4. Third line steps up at crucial moment.

The Blackhawks' third line of Vinnie Hinostroza, Marian Hossa and Tanner Kero had the worst possession numbers among all skaters, each registering a 24 percent Corsi or below. But when their team needed them the most, they stepped up.

With 1:26 left in regulation, Hossa ended his 10-game goal drought by burying home a terrific feed from Kero to snap a 0-0 tie and give the Blackhawks their second consecutive win. It's Hossa's 17th goal of the campaign, which ties Artemi Panarin for second on the team, and his fifth game-winning goal of the year. His 83 career game-winning goals now ranks 24th in NHL history, surpassing Mike Bossy, and remains fifth among active players.

Hossa's goal also moved him within a tie of Pierre Turgeon for 37th on the all-time goals list with 516.

Kero has six points in his last six games, while Hinostroza has two goals and one assist in his past two.

5. Despite recent struggles, Bruins in good hands with Claude Julien.

It seems like this is a discussion every year, but firing Julien would be a huge mistake for a Bruins team that fell to 3-5-2 in their last 10 games. They're still the No. 1 possession team in the NHL, controlling 55.42 percent of the even-strength shot attempts, and give up the fifth-fewest high danger scoring chances with 326, according the naturalstattrick.com. They average the second-most shots on goal per game at 33.9, and allow the second-fewest at 26.5.

To back it up, their PDO is 97.5 percent, the sum of a team's even-strength save percentage and shooting percentage that usually works it way toward 100, which indicates they're due for a fairly large correction. They're not getting bounces right now, but they're playing the right way and a change behind the bench would be a step in the wrong direction, considering Julien is easily a top-five coach in the NHL.