Danica Patrick gets sponsorship help days before Daytona 500

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — One of Danica Patrick's sponsors has stepped up to fill a sudden funding void created when Stewart-Haas Racing sued her primary backer for $31 million in a breach-of-contract lawsuit.

Aspen Dental said Tuesday it will be the lead sponsor for Patrick and debut on her car during the Feb. 26 season-opening Daytona 500. Teams arrive this week to begin preparations for one of NASCAR's showcase races.

Patrick and SHR were left with 20-some races to fill less than two weeks before teams report to Daytona International Speedway because of a nasty split between the team and primary sponsor Nature's Bakery. SHR is suing for money it says is owed for the final two years of the Nature's Bakery contract.

Aspen Dental sponsored four races on Patrick's No. 10 last season, and that total will be raised to "double digits" in 2017 the team said Tuesday. The team is not giving an exact number of sponsored races because there is additional inventory Aspen Dental could take on as the season progresses.

Nature's Bakery was on target for a minimum of 20 races this year.

Aspen Dental has been a partner of SHR since 2012, then aligned with Patrick in 2014. There are nearly 600 Aspen Dental practices across 35 states.

"Our commitment to Danica Patrick goes back almost four years and our relationship with SHR even further," said Bob Fontana, chairman and CEO of Aspen Dental Management Inc. "We look forward to our enhanced partnership."

The partnership has put Patrick in an active role promoting oral health across a multitude of channels.

"I love working with organizations that care about people, and teaming up with a group that has such an important mission," Patrick said.

SHR filed a scathing lawsuit earlier this month that accused Nature's Bakery of having "cash flow issues" that required the company to repeatedly ask for modified payment schedules. Then the company simply missed payments outright. SHR accused the company of eventually concocting "a scheme to avoid further payments" by claiming Patrick had been endorsing competing products and was not using her social media presence enough to promote Nature's Bakery. The company has not responded to requests for comment.

Patrick has 154 starts at NASCAR's top level, with six career top-10 finishes. She won the pole for the Daytona 500 in 2013, and finished 24th in the standings the last two seasons. She led a career-high 30 laps last year.

She's twice led laps in the Indianapolis 500, finished a career-best third in that race in 2011 and won her only IndyCar race in 2008, in Japan.

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More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

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