Danica Patrick won’t let anyone -- especially snarky critics who’ve never turned a lap in anger -- judge her rookie season in NASCAR’s elite Sprint Cup division. Granted, she has only one top-10 finish in 31 races and is 28th in points, but they aren’t the yardsticks she uses to evaluate her season.
“I’m right where I need to be and right where I was going to be,” stock car racing’s most successful female driver said Friday at Talladega Superspeedway. “It’s just my own personal progression, and everyone is different. I’ve done everything I can to prepare for the year, to learn throughout the year, and that’s what’s going to lead into next year.
“I don’t think you can ever plan how it’s going to go or give yourself a grade because everybody learns at a different rate. There are times I probably was unexpectedly better than they thought and [times] when I was worse. What I would like is for having good races to not be a surprise.”
At best, her season has been -- let’s be kind here -- mediocre. Driving for a Chevrolet-based organization with deep pockets, she’s finished one race in the 40s, seven in the 30s and 19 others in the 20s. Even with the tricked-up “lucky dog” and “wave around” rules, she’s finished only 11 of 31 races on the lead lap. Despite one pole and one top-10 finish, she’s averaged starting 30th and finishing 26th. She’s finished between 20th and 43rd in her last 13 races.
Even so, Patrick remains a strong marketing presence, one that NASCAR never hesitates to roll out at every opportunity. She’s scheduled for more weekly at-track media sessions than anyone, even drivers with legitimate championship hopes. Similar to the reality TV star Kardashian family, she’s in the news as much for who she is as for what she’s accomplished. It’s easy to understand why hardcore fans who appreciate on-track excellence have grown tired of her.
But, in fact, she has accomplished more than many of them expected. Conspiracy-theorists and skeptics aside, she won the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500, the first woman to start P-1 in a major NASCAR event. (She qualified 11th at DIS in July, but has qualified no better than 21st in the season’s other 29 races.) She ran well and finished eighth in the 500 after being third at the white flag. Rarely has NASCAR and its marketing juggernaut made such a fuss over any eighth-place finisher.
She was a remarkably credible 11th in March at Martinsville Speedway, a take-no-prisoners bullring where virtually each of the 500 laps is spent in full-contact traffic. She was 13th at Michigan in June and 14th at Daytona Beach in July, her most recent finish not in the 20s, 30s or 40s. Considering her eighth and 14th at Daytona Beach -- she crashed out at Talladega in May -- might this weekend’s 500-miler at Talladega be her best chance for a win this year?
“Having a good attitude always helps [at restrictor-plate tracks],” she said after introducing Aspen Dental as a two-race sponsor next year. “As I’ve said before, IndyCar racing on mile-and-a half tracks was much like this kind of racing: flat out, close quarters, trying to do whatever it took to keep the momentum up. I feel that visually, it’s very familiar racing. Aerodynamics work differently, but as far as the visual of how it goes and needing to keep the momentum up, it’s very similar. Then it’s important to be with good teams with good speedway cars. That’s been seen in qualifying, and obviously with Daytona qualifying on the pole, you need to have a really fast car.”
On the other hand…
“There’s a certain level that is, of course, a little bit of a crapshoot, but there are also patterns. One of my patterns is that [plate races] tend to be better for me and I find a way to the front for a majority of the race. Hopefully, this will be another one of those [because] I know Stewart-Haas Racing builds great speedway cars. I feel very comfortable and confident on these tracks. Everybody wants to be your friend when you are fast, so the best thing I can do is go be fast is this weekend.”
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