NASCAR

Danica realistic in move to Sprint Cup

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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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CONCORD, NC

By the end of testing on the first day of Preseason Thunder at Daytona International Speedway, crew chief Tony Gibson realized that Danica Patrick had become one of the boys.

As soon as Gibson picked his driver up for dinner, she flipped the radio over to the country station on the dial.

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That’s when he knew.

While Patrick has yet to conform to Gibson’s other requests to fish and hunt deer, the bond has already begun to form. And Gibson feels that building a comfortable environment for NASCAR’s most recognizable driver will help her persevere as she makes her jump to the Sprint Cup Series.

“I don’t want to put any more pressure on her to do anything outside of her ability,” Gibson said. “She — and the fans — already put more than enough pressure on her.”

If Patrick is feeling any pressure, she didn’t show it with her “bring it” attitude as she strolled into the media tour in spiked Christian Louboutin heels ($1,495 at Bergdorf Goodman). She quickly deflected questions regarding her life outside of racing and pending divorce — and put the focus back on racing.

“I’ve always kept that personal and don’t talk about,” Patrick said. “So, I think it’s pretty easy to go about my business in the same fashion. There’s going to be plenty to talk about when it comes to racing. There are going to be some exciting weekends. There are going to be some challenging weekends. But there are going to be some good ones; that’s what I believe with Tony Gibson and the team, we’re going to have good weekends.”

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Patrick and Gibson hitting it off so quickly portends future success. Gibson was immediately encouraged by his driver reaching the initial goals he set at Texas Motor Speedway in November — their first race together.

Patrick saw tremendous promise in their season-ending race together at Phoenix. She nearly finished 12th in that race before contact with Sam Hornish Jr. relegated the No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet to a 17th-place finish — a result that exceeded the expectations Patrick set for herself at the start of the year.

Plus, Patrick enjoys the NASCAR’s new Generation 6 ride — particularly at high-grip tracks — and finding comfort in the seat for a driver is half the battle.

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Certainly, Gibson’s simple nature complements Patrick’s analytical disposition. How has the pair hit it off so quickly? Gibson’s quick response: “Opposites attract.” During the offseason, Patrick asked her father why she enjoys working with “straightforward, redneck” types such as Gibson and her former Nationwide Series crew chief Tony Eury Jr.? He explained, “They don’t overthink things.” For Patrick, a light-hearted approach by a crew chief who trusts his driver’s input suits her best.

And when her personal and professional lives are in sync, nothing is better.

“It’s great when both are great, but when I’m not doing well on track things just feel worse,” Patrick said. “The on-track stuff is the stuff that dictates my mood a lot and just my general mood. I just feel like at the end of the year when I was getting on with Tony Gibson and everybody and having fun, that’s what translated into good results.”

For Gibson, the game plan is simple — baby steps. After talking to both Eurys — Tony Sr. and Tony Jr. — he adopted that approach starting at his first race with Patrick at TMS and the following week at Phoenix.

“We set small, achievable goals — like if we qualify in the top 30 and at the end of practice on Saturday be on the left side of the (practice speed) board,” Gibson said. “We accomplished those the first weekend out, so now we set more goals. We want to be in the top 20. We want to qualify in the top 20 and be on the left-hand side of the board. We’re not going to set the world on fire. We’re not dumb. We’re pretty smart how we’re approaching this deal, and we have to be methodical.

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“You have to give your driver time to adapt. It’s a tough sport, and it moves fast. The competition is frickin’ out the roof. You have experienced drivers that are struggling to run 20th every week. That’s the part that we have to realize and accept. If we can set goals and achieve them each week, then we’ll just keep raising the mark.”

Still, while Gibson believes the “sky’s the limit,” Patrick remains realistic. She’s not expecting to take the sport by storm. Patrick realizes there’s still a lot to learn, but she’s not afraid to try. Like many newcomers to the Sprint Cup Series, Patrick just wants to be competitive.

“I don’t know what is going to be deemed successful at Homestead at the end of the year, but small goals along the way are going to be top 20, then top 18, then top 16,” Patrick said. “It’s going to be small goals like that, as opposed to, ‘Oh we had a good race so we’re always going to shoot for a top 10.’ I don’t think that’s realistic.

“It’s the small goals that (are) going to keep our moods up, keep our heads up and keep us positive. That’s going to allow us to have fun this year — is being able to achieve those goals.”

Together, Patrick and Gibson appear ready for the challenges that lie ahead. Although Patrick is doing her best to conform to Gibson’s world, however, it might take the veteran crew chief time to get used to hers.

“I don’t think all the shoes I have in my closet add up to the cost of her shoes,” Gibson said. “I buy my shoes at Bass Pro Shop. But maybe by the end of the year I might get her in a pair of camouflage heels.”

Tagged: Danica Patrick, Sam Hornish Jr.

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