There was little doubt the Stewart-Haas Racing cars were going to be strong during Saturday night’s 5-Hour Energy 400 at Kansas Speedway, as all four of the team’s cars qualified in the top 10.
However, few would have imagined that Danica Patrick would have a career-best night.
Working closely with teammate Kevin Harvick throughout the weekend, Patrick qualified her No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet in the ninth spot, and was a factor in the top 10 all night.
The polarizing driver caught the attention of many when she drove past Dale Earnhardt Jr. and team owner Tony Stewart to move into third on Lap 172.
Continuing to run up front, Patrick slid back a bit in the later stages of the race when a lug nut hung up on late-race pit stop.
When the checkered flag flew for race winner Jeff Gordon, Patrick brought her No. 10 car home in the seventh spot to record her best NASCAR Sprint Cup Series finish to date.
"It felt good," she said. "My goal at the beginning of the race was really just to stay up in that lead group. You’re going to move up, you’re going to move down, but generally to average out where I was starting. I feel like we did all that.
"I’m overall proud of the team for building cars like these," she said. "This is a new car, and it was so good. I think it shows when the runs were long and I would keep coming. That just shows this is a good car."
For Harvick, he believes the biggest thing for Patrick is her confidence in knowing what the car is going to do throughout the race.
"There’s a lot of hurdles to overcome for her to make up that experience. I feel like we can help her speed that process up by just telling her some of the things that she should expect and do," Harvick said. "As she went through the weekend, she kept her track position on the restarts. That’s probably the biggest thing.
"I guess the one thing I did tell her was just to quit thinking about it and smash the gas," he said. "Sometimes your car is never going to be perfect, and you just have to take what it’ll give you and expect that every time you pit it’s going to be better, and if it’s not you adjust and move on."
"Honestly the most rewarding part of my night was probably when I drove around the outside of the No. 48 (Jimmie Johnson) on a restart," she said. "That was probably my most rewarding thing of the night. I say that with all the respect in the world. It’s a big deal because he is Jimmie Johnson. Aside from that I was really just overall proud that we stayed up front all day. That was the biggest thing."
Her career-best run led to a congratulatory tweet from GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving.
"So happy for GoDaddy, for always being behind me. I know we haven’t had the best of times, but it’s days like today that we work hard for and it’s days like today that if we do this enough will materialize in wins. We just have to keep hanging around and do what we’re doing. I’m just proud of everyone for working really hard and believing in me.