If a driver is only as good as his or her last race, then Danica Patrick deserves to be ranked among the top 10 in the Sprint Cup Series — for now.
Patrick’s 2013 coming-out party at Daytona International Speedway was impressive. She started from the pole, led five laps and ran more circuits (113) among the top-three positions than any other driver before finishing eighth.
“This is kind of where the bulk of the season really starts,” Patrick said. "Things like being able to get up to speed quickly, knowing what I want in the car, how to push it to its limit and what its limit is are things that are going to begin to be tested now. That’s something that you don’t really face at Daytona.”
But she did on Friday — particularly after qualifying 40th of 43 cars with a lap of 132.890 mph. As Patrick knows, the style of racing at Phoenix International Raceway is completely different.
"It just wasn’t great,” Patrick said. “We kind of had a similar issue in practice as well. Just couldn’t get the back end to settle down. The first qualifying run, we felt OK. It was just a little tight. The second run, it was just moving around too much and had the same problem in the qualifying run."
Mark Martin earned his 56th career Sprint Cup pole with a speed 138.074 mph. Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top five in time trials.
Patrick will be the first to say that despite calling Arizona home, she never really acclimated to Phoenix International Raceway until last fall.
“I just couldn’t get the hang of it,” Patrick said. “I came here many times, and continued to kind of suck. I feel like at the end of the year was more of a breakthrough in the Nationwide car, and also in the Cup car, it was a good weekend. The best weekend I’d had in a Cup car.”
Last February’s trip to Phoenix wasn’t Patrick’s finest moment. She acknowledged “that frustration and exhaustion” from a bad experience during Daytona Speedweeks carried over to the next week and affected her results.
When Patrick returned to PIR in November, however, she posted a career-best 10th in the Nationwide Series on the one-mile track and had a solid follow-up the next day in Cup.
Still, as part of her stock-car development, Patrick is learning to be more accepting of the setbacks that accompany her stock car training.
“Coming here again in the Nationwide car for the third or fourth time and being like 20th, and just feeling really kind of bad about myself, and storming off from all of (the media) from pit lane, and deciding that I didn’t finish well enough to answer any questions. It is a different perspective. I feel just a little more mature. I feel like even if it would have been a weekend, I was more prepared to handle it.
“But, at this point in time, understanding that it is a whole new race, completely different track, and this is when the real season starts. Maybe I guess coming away feeling a little bit more calm, or humble, or understanding the ebb and flow of racing. I think that comes from having a good team around me that helps me understand that we are going to have good and bad weekends, and we are going to stay together no matter what happens.”
No doubt, Patrick’s on track support system, led by veteran crew chief Tony Gibson, will come in handy as she transitions from the high banks of Daytona to relatively flat, short track. Patrick also will have to deal with the challenges of a new car — the Generation 6 — along with the introduction of a new tire from Goodyear.
Still, the opportunity to work with Gibson at PIR last year should offer the team a solid baseline to build on.
“We can kind of pick up where we left off,” Patrick said. “I feel like we were pretty decent at the end of the race. Is qualifying on the pole, and leading laps what we should be thinking based on last weekend? No. I think we need to keep realistic expectations, and I think everybody else does too.”
WHERE THE RUBBER MEETS THE ROAD
Kahne says he can “definitely feel the difference” with new tire compound Goodyear debuted at PIR this weekend.
Kahne, who will start on the front row with Martin for Sunday’s Subway 500, says the sensation was the most prominent off the wall down to the white line — or the “lowest point in the corners, through the load area.”
“I felt that tire a lot,” Kahne said. “It moves more, to me. And I’ve been trying to figure out which tire. Left front, right front; which one it is that I’m kind of feeling the most there. But left-sides or right-sides.
“But there is definitely a difference and a feeling that I haven’t had in the past. We also have so many differences with the car this year compared to what we were last year when we were here in November. So, there are some variables. But I think the tire is a big part of that and something that I feel.”
Goodyear tested the tires at Phoenix on Oct. 23-24. This particular compound was developed to provide more grip. The Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series will use the same tires this weekend.
For Aric Almirola, who is running double duty for Richard Petty Motorsports during Michael Annett’s recovery from last Saturday’s Nationwide Series wreck, the extra seat should offer a better understanding of the tire.
“Maybe we can pick up information on air pressures or tire strategy,” Almirola said. “But any time I get to race, I’m happy.”
Kahne also hopes to learn more about this tire during Cup practice on Saturday and in Sunday’s race.
“I look forward to Sunday’s race,” Kahne said. “I want it to be from the bottom to three-quarters up the track, and can pass and all that. Hopefully the tire allows us to do that."
UNDER THE WEATHER
Suffering from the flu was the least of Kurt Busch’s problems on Friday after a water line burst during his second lap of qualifying and sent the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevy SS into the Turn 4 wall.
“Something let go,” Busch said after the wreck. “The car just steered right.”
Once NASCAR inspected the damage, the Furniture Row team promptly pulled out a backup car, and Busch will start from the rear of the field on Sunday.
2: Poles in the Phoenix Spring Event — in as many races for Mark Martin.
3: Hendrick Motorsports Chevys qualified in the top five.
4 hours, 19 minutes: The time it took Jeff Burton’s car to clear inspection and line up for qualifying.
11th: The fastest Ford — Brad Keselowski’s.
12th: The fastest rookie — Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Clint Bowyer after qualifying 13th on Friday:
"We weren’t very good today. First day of school, we got an ‘F.’ The good news is there’s a lot more days of school.”