New year, same goal: Danica eyes strong finish to Speedweeks

Danica Patrick speaks on pit road at Daytona International Speedway.

Jasen Vinlove/Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The action leading up to the Daytona 500 heats up Thursday with the running of the Budweiser Duel 150 qualifying races (FOX Sports 1, 7 p.m. ET) that will set the field for Sunday’s Great American Race.

Pole-sitter Austin Dillon and second qualifier Martin Truex Jr. are locked in to the front row of the 500 and 11 other drivers are guaranteed starting spots after qualifying last Sunday. That leaves 36 drivers attempting to secure 30 spots in the Daytona 500. Fifteen drivers from each of the Duels will race their way into the 500.

One of the drivers who will have to race her way in to the Daytona 500 is Danica Patrick, last year’s pole-winner. Patrick has a tough task ahead of her, because even if she make the field for the big race, she will have to start from the back of the field on Sunday.

Photos: Daytona 500 qualifying gallery

That’s because her Stewart-Haas Racing crew had to change engines after her powerplant exploded in practice on Saturday, as did the engine in teammate Tony Stewart’s car. NASCAR has what it calls a "one-engine rule" and teams who change engines during practice have to start the race at the tail end of the field, no matter where they actually qualify.

"It’s definitely a departure from where we were last year when we unloaded and were very quick and really we made one run in each practice and everything was perfect," said Patrick. "This is different, but it’s a different year and that’s what happens. That is why when y’all ask what you expect for the year, you have to really get into the year to start to set expectation levels because this is very different than the last time."

Patrick is but one of several big storylines this year at Daytona.

Pole-sitter Austin Dillon took the top qualifying spot in a car owned by his grandfather, Richard Childress. More importantly, Sunday will mark a return to the track of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, which will appear in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race for the first time since Feb. 18, 2001, when Dale Earnhardt crashed to his death in the last corner of the last lap of the Daytona 500.

Also, the Daytona 500 will be the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points race for Patrick’s boss, Tony Stewart, since the three-time champion suffered a gruesome double compound fracture of his right leg in a dirt-track crash last August.

But all eyes will be on Patrick, who will be looking to make a significant leap forward this year after a 2013 rookie campaign that saw her struggle. She seems to optimistic about her prospects.

"I just feel like I know the car much better than I did at this point last year, have been to all the tracks now, have a general idea of a better way to go about the race weekend," said Patrick. "That leads to better results, whether it be qualifying, practice or race, and just what it takes to get there. I think those are the things I learned from last year that make me feel more comfortable going into this year."

Play Now!