Danica Patrick entered Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway with elevated expectations after three consecutive outings from which she and her team gleaned significant positives.
But Patrick, who had never been able to get much of a handle on The Monster Mile, remained true to her traditional Dover form.
Entering the race having never finished fewer than four laps down in three Sprint Cup Series starts at the 1-mile concrete oval, Patrick came home 23rd and bettered her career-best Dover finish by just one position while finishing four laps down just as she did in the same race one year earlier.
Preventing the Stewart-Haas Racing driver from perhaps a slightly better outcome was a drive-through penalty for speeding on pit road on Lap 322 of 400.
"It’d be interesting to see where we would have finished had we not had that penalty," Patrick said. "It didn’t kill us, but it’d be interesting to see. We were pretty rough at the beginning of the race, but we got it better in the later going. Actually we’re running really good laps. We’d just lost a few laps by that point and couldn’t get them back. But we battled through and did OK. It’s our best finish here, and I think we’re getting better."
Patrick, who has shown improvements this season in several key areas — most notably qualifying — hopes to continue the trend this weekend as NASCAR’s top series moves to Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.
Pocono’s 2.5-mile triangular layout — with three distinct corners each featuring a different level of banking — is one of the toughest to master on the entire Sprint Cup Series schedule.
Patrick knows this as well as anyone, having finished 29th and 35th here last season as a Sprint Cup Series rookie.
"Well, on Friday of the first weekend, it rained so I didn’t get to run," she recalled. "So that put us in a tight box for Saturday, having two practices and then, ‘Let’s go race.’ We were 20th or 21st and the final restart came with three laps to go, and we got shuffled back to 29th. It was pretty disappointing because we should have been much better.
"It was the same feeling I had in the second race. We were almost to 15th with about 50 to go and got in an accident and ended up 35th. So there was some good to the races but not the finishes we wanted. Hopefully, this week we’ll get the better finish and have a good day."
Patrick’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, has two Pocono victories — the first coming in June 1992 as a car chief for the late Alan Kulwicki, and the second in July 1998 as a car chief for Jeff Gordon.
Patrick is optimistic that her third try at Pocono’s "Tricky Triangle" will be a charm.
"It’s a neat place, definitely a unique track," the Roscoe, Ill., native said. "It’s still a place I don’t have a ton of experience at. I know Tony Gibson has won there a couple of times and does a good job setting up the car. It’s just an odd place to set the car up because the corners are so different.
"If you are really good in Turn 1, then maybe (Turn) 2 and (Turn) 3 are a little off. Or if you’re good in 3, maybe 1 and 2 are different. I will say that the straightaway is enormous. There’s a lot of distance between turns 3 and 1."
Patrick, who finished a career-best seventh at Kansas Speedway in May, is looking forward to the upcoming summer slate of tracks.
"I am ready for it," she said. "Pocono and Michigan are always fun and I actually really like going to New Hampshire. It’s a fun stretch of races and it’s nice that the weather is good. Hopefully, we can continue to run well and continue to improve. It is a long season, but the summer stretch is always fun."