Where's that key? Danica hopes to unlock door to Richmond success
APR 23, 2014 6:30p ET
First, the good news.
Danica Patrick enters Saturday night's Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway on the heels of respectable 22nd-place finish at Darlington Raceway when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last convened on April 12.
While 22nd isn't exactly a home run, Patrick came home on the lead lap -- a vast improvement from her previous two outings at the track "Too Tough to Tame" where she finished five and six laps down, respectively.
Now, the bad news.
Richmond, a three-quarter-mile short track in Virginia, is a place that Patrick admittedly remains baffled by -- despite the fact that she enjoyed modest success there in her days as an IndyCar driver.
"If anybody has the key to Richmond, please pass it along because I have not figured it out yet," said Patrick, who comes into the weekend seeking her first top-10 finish of the season. "I haven't run well at Richmond yet. I loved going there in IndyCar, and I had good success there, I feel like. I had lots of top fives there in IndyCar, or at least running consistently in the top five. It just hasn't been that way in stock cars."
In last year's two Sprint Cup races at the flat, D-shaped Richmond oval, Patrick posted finishes of 29th and 30th, respectively, and was four laps down on both occasions. Prior to her RIR Sprint Cup debut last spring, Patrick recorded a best finish of 18th in three Nationwide Series starts at the track -- but never finished on the lead lap.
"I have a really hard time getting into Turn 1," she said of Richmond. "I feel like the car is going to spin out the whole time, so I don't know. Hopefully, this time will be different.
"I have said in the past when people ask me what my favorite track is, I say, 'Whatever I've done well at,' and I've gone from hating to loving a track in one day. So, hopefully, that will be the case at Richmond."
Now eight races into her second full season in NASCAR's top series, Patrick's statistics bear a remarkable similarity to those from her rookie year of 2013. Despite showing marked improvement at some tracks -- Darlington included -- Patrick has continued to struggle at others.
Her average finishing position of 26.2 so far this season is almost identical to her 26.1 average for all of last season. Patrick has, however, enjoyed a nice bump in qualifying, where her average starting position has improved from 30.1 to 26.5.
"I really feel like it has been a lot better than last year as far as the race goes, and qualifying, even," said Patrick, whose best finish of 2014 has been 14th at Auto Club Speedway. "It's been, I feel like, a lot better. It's still not great but it's definitely getting better. We started off the year really well in practice and running like top 15 in practice, and Las Vegas was great. We were one of the fastest cars for most of the time we were on track in practice. But that didn't lead to good results in the race. With getting crashed and not having great races, that kind of puts a damper on the whole weekend.
"I've had other weekends where I'm not running well at all in practice, but then I go out in the race and the car seems to be OK. So I guess I would rather struggle through the weekend and then have a good race than the other way around. At some point in time, you've got to put it all together and you've got to run fast, qualify well and run great in the race."
No matter what happens at Richmond, at least Patrick, crew chief Tony Gibson and the entire No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing team come into the weekend feeling good about their gains at Darlington.
"I think we learned a lot from the last time we were at Darlington with Danica, as far as being patient and just what she needed with the car. I think that helped us be more patient," Gibson said. "Like I told her, that's a place where, if you can just be patient and race the racetrack, you'll end up with a good finish. We fought all night and, as a team, we worked well together -- pit stops and everything -- so I feel like it was a win for our team.
"Each week, we build on what we know from last year, and we learn more, and I think we're able to definitely take positives from each race we've run and build on that. I'm really proud of what we accomplished at Darlington, and I think we're going to have to have that same kind of focus heading into Richmond."