Trouble in practice, difficulty qualifying, late-race wrecks and even a shoe – yes, a shoe – that she ran over while leading has defined Danica Patrick’s first full Nationwide season.
She has only two top-10s through the first 29 races for JR Motorsports, and has yet to crack the top 20 during the first seven races of an abbreviated Sprint Cup slate for Stewart-Haas Racing, where Patrick will run full-time next season for team owner Tony Stewart.
Now she comes to Kansas, where she’ll be running both series this weekend, hoping that some of the success she had here in the IndyCar Series rubs off on the recently repaved track.
”Ultimately, I’m disappointed with the results,” Patrick said before qualifying 41st for Sunday’s Sprint Cup race. ”I wish there were better results on the record books, but there are a lot of drivers that can say that at the end of the year.”
The season couldn’t have started out any better. Patrick won the pole for the season-opening Nationwide race at Daytona, and finished eighth a few weeks later at Texas.
Never did she think that’d be the high point of the season.
She blew an engine at Fontana and crashed at Iowa, and for one frustrating stretch this summer wrecked in five of the 12 races she started. Her head-first crash into the inside retaining wall at Daytona in July led to a 31st-place finish after leading laps earlier in the race.
At Road America, Patrick was battling with Jacques Villeneuve on the last lap when they got together, causing her to spin out. Villeneuve finished sixth and Patrick ended up 12th.
”I feel like we’ve been overall much faster than what our results have showed, and performed better in the race that what our results have showed,” Patrick said. ”We definitely had a pretty long stretch of bad luck over the summer, and that’s where I felt we had the most speed.”
Patrick had plenty of speed at Montreal, too, where the most bizarre twist of fate occurred.
She was in the lead and keeping an eye on Villeneuve in her rearview mirror when her No. 7 Chevy hit a shoe thrown on the track. Patrick eventually broke her rear axle and finished 27th, and her crew chief later said the shoe had nothing to do with the mechanical failure.
”There were a bunch of races that things happened that were not completely out of my control, but definitely not always in my control,” she said. ”With that in mind, it’s been an OK season. We recognize as a team we need to find speed. That’s why you’ve seen the changes in the team.”
Along the way, JR Motorsports parted ways with competition director Tony Eury Sr. and Patrick’s crew chief, Tony Eury Jr. Ryan Pemberton has been the crew chief the past three races.
The results haven’t been a whole lot better in the Cup car, either, where Patrick’s best run was 25th at Chicago – even though her primary goal has always been to simply gain experience.
That’s why Stewart laid out a 10-race plan that put Patrick on some of the more challenging tracks in the series, including Darlington and Bristol, where she crashed late in the race.
”It’s going to be hard to be competitive right off the bat,” Stewart said. ”Having gone through those lessons and going through those experiences, that’s where we can keep her confidence up and remind her, `Hey, there’s a reason we brought you into this program.”’
Stewart-Haas Racing announced Friday that Tony Gibson will move to the No. 10 car as Patrick’s crew chief next season, and get a jump on 2013 by working her final two races at Texas and Phoenix.
Patrick is 10th in the Nationwide points with four races remaining.
”Next year, she’ll see the benefits of that, and it’s hard,” Stewart said of her schedule. ”She’s running against top-notch guys, top-notch teams, and there’s not enough time to let her get caught up at this point, but she’s still learning. She’s a confident person.”
Confidence has never been an issue, of course. This is the same driver who’s brazenly starred in a series of racy Super Bowl ads for her sponsor, Go Daddy, the past few years.
Go Daddy announced this week it had signed New York agency Deutsch Inc. to produce its Super Bowl spots this year, which means Patrick may not be involved. But the website domain provider is still committed to sponsoring her Sprint Cup schedule next season.
”My sponsors and partners have always been great,” Patrick said. ”They don’t just sponsor me and put their name on the side of the car. They go beyond that. They use my platform and my reach with fans. I always believe that’s what makes the relationship really work.
”While they want me to do well,” she said, ”I want to do well, and that’s the primary goal.”