Patrick welcomes faster learning curve
A little over a month away from making her first start as a full-time driver In NASCAR’s top division, Danica Patrick admitted the obvious.
“I know I have a lot to learn,” Patrick said as the annual Charlotte Motor Speedway NASCAR Media Tour got underway in Concord.
Such it is for a former Indy Car driver whose status as a woman in a man’s game has far outweighed her performances.
In three seasons, just one of them full-time, and 58 races in the Nationwide Series, she has one top-five finish. In 10 Cup races last season as preparation for becoming a tour regular for Stewart-Haas Racing, her best finish was a 17th last November at Phoenix in her final start of the season.
Despite the struggles, team co-owner and former Cup champion Tony Stewart thinks Patrick is learning about stock cars much faster than he did when he made the transition from Indy Car to Nationwide to Cup in the late ‘90s.
“Danica has done a lot in a short amount of time in this series,” Stewart said. “She gives a lot better feedback than I did. I was driving the car and didn’t know what was going on. She understands what the car is doing and she understands what she is feeling and that indicates comfort. That’s a sign she’s going to do well that she is that comfortable that quick. Watching her drive the car, I see a lot of great potential.”
Tony Gibson, who is Patrick’s crew chief, likes her fire and enthusiasm.
“The biggest thing I like is her desire and want-to,” Gibson said. “The first 30 minutes we talked last year, the thing that came out was her desire. She wants to race and she’s done it since she was little. I see she’s in it to win it.”
She claimed that she started having fun when Gibson became her crew chief late in the year. That said, she will have more fun once she doesn’t struggle coming up to speed.
“The middle of last year, it started making sense how to get up to speed,” Patrick said. “I think it came from driving the Cup car, have to handle more horsepower with less grip. I’m not there in a Cup car yet. When I’m finally fast from the start of practice will be a sign that it is starting to click.”
For now, Gibson and Patrick are looking for small, steady progress.
Gibson started taking that tactic late last season when he set the goals for the November race at Texas as qualifying in the top 30 and being in the top half of the field in practice. Patrick did both and then finished 17th at Phoenix after crashing on the last lap.
“We’re not trying to win the championship,” Gibson said. “We’re trying to build a top-20 car, a top-15 and then a top-10 car. We’ve got time. We don’t have to set the world on fire. I have to keep her from doing too much too fast.”
She will be trying to get up to speed in a new generation of Cup car that looks more like street models than those of the past few years.
“I enjoy high-grip tracks,” Patrick said. “Getting a car with more traction on intermediate and short tracks is going to be good for me. That’s going to be nice especially on those hot summer days.”
The hardest track for Patrick could be Martinsville, with its tight turns at the end of long straightaways – a combination that results in heavy braking for 500 laps.
“The biggest concern is can she push the brake pedal for 500 laps at Martinsville,” Gibson said. “Even Ryan (Newman, Patrick’s teammate), his leg is worn out from pushing the brake pedal at Martinsville. So we’re going to test and work on those things.”
First the work begins at Daytona, where Patrick wants to be one of the top six qualifiers so she won’t have to rely on getting into the Daytona 500 solely on her finishing position in one of the 150-mile qualifying races.
That will also be the start of the battle for rookie of the year with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who comes into the season as the Nationwide champion.
The rookie title is decided by a complicated system that includes finishing positions and subjective voting by a committee.
“We’re going to being trying to put out the best results on the track and whatever happens, happens,” Patrick said. “I read through what it takes to be rookie of the and it blew my mind. It was a lot of stuff. I quit reading and decided I’m just going to go out there and do the best job possible. If rookie comes from it, so be it.”
Let the learning begin.