When Danica Patrick finished eighth at Daytona International Speedway on July 6, optimism abounded in the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing team’s camp about the second half of the 2014 Sprint Cup season.
In addition to scoring her second top-10 of the year, Patrick showed signs of considerable improvement in the season’s first half from her 2013 rookie season when she recorded only one top-10 finish over the entire campaign while consistently lacking the speed to run near the front.
Patrick, who posted a career-best Sprint Cup finish of seventh back in May at Kansas Speedway, seemed poised to continue climbing the ladder and maybe — just maybe — steal a victory and land a berth in the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
But instead of continuing to make gains, Patrick has gone virtually out of sight. In the six races since Daytona, her best finish is 18th at Michigan two weekends ago.
The frustrations continued for Patrick last Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, where she battled an ill-handling car from the start, fell a lap down on Lap 38 and ultimately finished 27th, seven laps off the pace.
"It pretty much sucked," crew chief Tony Gibson told FOXSports.com immediately after the race. "We got the fender tore off of it right off the bat. And then we got spun out. We were like a ping-pong ball all night. Disappointing. It’s one of my favorite places to race. We’ve always had good success here and it’s just miserable. So I don’t know."
Patrick, meanwhile, echoed Gibson’s sentiments.
"It was just a rough night," she said. "Our GoDaddy car just wasn’t that good from the beginning, and that kind of put us behind. The guys kept working on it with their adjustments, and they got it headed in the right direction, but it was just too late by that point.
"I think we all just did the best we could to hang in there, make the car better and try to make a good night out of it. It wasn’t the finish that we wanted, but we didn’t give up."
Patrick, who sits 28th in points — one spot below where she finished in her rookie season — is obviously hoping for a turnaround in Sunday night’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, a fast 1.5-mile track where she has finishes of 29th and 21st in two previous Sprint Cup starts.
"The first time I raced there was in 2012 and I did both Nationwide and (Sprint) Cup," Patrick said. "That seems like a long time ago and that was only my fifth Cup start, so I feel a little more confident and knowledgeable than I did then. It’s a fast place. The tires definitely go off with the surface and the line moves around a lot.
"It’s a big weekend with a lot going on for GoDaddy, Coke Zero and Chevrolet, so there’s a lot off the track, as well. But I’m looking forward to it."
Gibson hopes to be a source of encouragement to his driver, but admits it’s not easy when the team is in a slump.
"It’s tough, dude," Gibson said. "The last month-and-a-half have been tough for us. I do my best to try to encourage everybody but after a while you get beat up so bad that there’s not much you can say anymore. That’s about all I’ve got."