Source: USA TODAY
Danica Patrick’s results have fallen well short of where she had expected them during the second half of her first season in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series.
Heading into Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Patrick isn’t going in the direction she expected as the circuit visits tracks for a second time. It has been more than four months since her last top-15 (a 14th at Daytona International Speedway), and she improved in only five of 13 attempts at the tracks that play host to a second annual stop on the premier stock car circuit.
“I really was kind of hoping that the end of this season was going to be a chance where I could start to really get some better finishes,” Patrick told USA TODAY Sports. “I knew I was going to have a really good end of the year. It just didn’t happen.
“A lot of times we were better but didn’t finish there. Something would happen. We’d crash. Sometimes we were just terrible. That’s just the challenge of Cup. It’s just harder.”
The silver lining of an extremely trying rookie year might be her cultivated relationships — particularly with crew chief Tony Gibson — that offer promise that 2014 will bring improvement.
A recent practice session at Texas Motor Speedway illustrated the faith Patrick is granted despite posting an average start of 30.2 and finish of 26.3 As she battled with the handling of her No. 10 Chevrolet, Gibson played the dual roles of cheerleader and confidante while ordering major suspension changes.
“He was just very supportive and saying, ‘Good job,’ and I said, ‘Thanks for trusting me,’” Patrick said. “Because it would be fathomable that a crew chief would be like, ‘You need to drive in (the corner) harder.’ He doesn’t ever show that to me. He trusts what I say and goes with it.”
Gibson prefers to grade Patrick by the races in which she exceeded expectations. Most notable might be two top-20 finishes at Martinsville Speedway, the tricky 0.526-mile oval that Patrick took to quickly and earned compliments from veterans Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson.
“Those are the days that I judge our team and judge her,” Gibson said of Patrick finishing 12th in April at the short track after losing a lap. “If you look at those days, we’ve done extremely well. I’d say a B-plus.”
But aside from becoming the first woman to lead the Daytona 500 and win a Sprint Cup pole position, much of the attention surrounding Patrick’s results has been less than complimentary — whether a public feud with David Gilliland after the race at Kansas Speedway in April, a crash with boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July or a pit strategy miscommunication with her team that took her out of contention at Talladega Superspeedway last month.
There also have been flashes of her fiery temper, and Patrick said emotions had hindered her results.
“I always thought I was a patient driver and methodical, but I really realized this year how getting a little overly excited or anxious or frustrated can bite you so hard,” she said. “You push that limit, and bad things can happen. I’ve had to be more patient than I am normally. As far as a personality in the car, that has surprised me a little bit.”
Gibson has tried to keep the focus on small gains, such as holding the accelerator wide open for a full qualifying lap for the first time at a 1.5-mile track.
“I’m trying to help her realize it’s not about, ‘Did we go from 20th to 10th or 30th to 20th?’; it’s, ‘Did we improve?’ I’ve seen lots of improvement,” Gibson said. “Our goals are a little lower than others. We’ve showed lots of speed at different places we never thought we’d run good at. We’ve overcome a lot.”
Car part of problem
In her first three Cup races after being paired with Gibson late last year, Patrick successively posted the best finishes of her career to that point — a 24th at Texas and a 17th at Phoenix International Raceway in last year’s partial schedule that led into her career-best eighth in the Daytona 500.
When the bottom dropped out with 27 of her next 33 finishes outside the top 20, it hurt her confidence, Gibson said. “The two races last year, we hauled ass. She was like, ‘I can do this. I’m a top-10 driver.’ And it made me nervous, because I knew reality would check in a little bit, and it knocks you down. It worried me; ‘How is she going to take this disappointment?’”
Though she is reluctant to cite them as reasons for her struggles, there have been mitigating factors at Stewart-Haas Racing.
The team struggled with adapting to the new Generation 6 car and expanding its staff for the addition of Patrick’s full-time No. 10 Chevrolet.
There also was the setback of a season-ending leg injury to Tony Stewart that sidelined the three-time champion for the final 15 races. Before the injury, she asked her team owner and mentor for guidance.
“I just wanted to hear from him what I needed to work on,” she said. “He told me, ‘Look, I’d tell you if there was something. Right now we need to work on these cars and need to make them better for all of us.’”
Mark Martin, who has counseled Patrick intermittently since her first NASCAR season in 2010, has been substituting in Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet since August and said the team’s cars were slowing her improvement.
“She’s driving her tail off, doing an amazing job,” Martin said. “But if we can feed her faster race cars, she will reach her full potential. I don’t think she needs one ounce of coaching. She’s driving fantastic.”
Next year will provide new sources for advice with the addition of Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, and Patrick said both already had been good sounding boards.
“I’m looking forward to the whole dynamic,” she said. “I feel like we have a chance to make something really great if we do it right.”
Gibson still believes Patrick, who became the first woman to win a major-circuit oval race with an IndyCar victory in 2008, will become the first female winner in Cup.
“If I didn’t, we wouldn’t be here,” he said. “She has as much talent and want to and the heart and desire more than anybody out here. That’s half the battle, dude. She really wants to do this. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be so pissed when she qualifies badly and makes a mistake like Kansas and wrecks with a fast race car on lap one. These are the things she’ll learn, and it’s our job to support her and nurture her and help her grow.”
But Patrick said the sense of urgency would grow next year. As she said in mid-July, “There won’t be a next thing if I don’t make (Cup) work.” That makes 2014 crucial.
“They all get more important,” she said. “The rookie year is stressful, but there’s some peace, too, in taking it as it comes. The longer you’ve been around, the more the expectation level,” she said. “Next year will be more important, and we’re trying to prepare for that now.”
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