Baby steps: Danica is improving, and the numbers don’t lie

Danica Patrick's results have steadily improved since the first race of the 2014 season.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

In her second full season of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing, Danica Patrick is absolutely improving and showing progress after a disappointing rookie campaign in 2013.

The numbers don’t lie.

If you throw out Daytona, where Patrick was taken out in a crash not of her own making, Patrick is doing much better this year than last. In the four races from Phoenix to Auto Club Speedway, Patrick’s average finish this year was 22.50, compared with 30.75 for the same four races a year earlier.

In all four of the those races — Phoenix, Las Vegas, Bristol and ACS — Patrick finished better than she did in the same event last year. And for the first time in her Cup career, Patrick has finished in the top 25 three races in a row. She’s also improved her finishing position in each of the last four races, culminating with a 14th-place run at ACS.

Is she challenging for victories yet? Nope.

But she’s improving, which is the critical first step. And she’s moved from 39th to 27th in points in the last four races.

This weekend, the Sprint Cup Series races at tiny Martinsville Speedway, a place where many top drivers struggle, yet a place where Patrick feels at home. Last year, she finished 12th in the spring race here and 17th in the fall race, making Patrick’s average Martinsville finish 14.5. That’s her best at any Cup track to date.

With all that in mind, Patrick and crew chief Tony Gibson are looking forward to Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville.

"Our finishes have steadily improved the last three weeks, which has given the team a good boost," said Patrick. "We had two good runs at Martinsville last year, so I feel good heading into this week. Tony Gibson has had a lot of success there and knows how to set up a car for Martinsville. It’s a tough place, very tight with a lot of beating and banging, but hopefully we can stay out of trouble and have a good run."

Photos: Crash takes Danica Patrick out of Daytona 500

Patrick attributed her improving finishes this year to faster cars, which she said have made her more competitive.

"We’ve had really good cars every week and have been fast," Patrick said. "We just didn’t have any luck in the first two weeks. We’ve rebounded nicely and have been able to get everything pointing in the right direction. I’m proud of the team for the hard work and effort to help dig us out of the hole we were in. We’ve improved each week and hopefully we can keep doing that."

Gibson said testing at the short oval at Rockingham Speedway in North Carolina helped prep Patrick for the rigors of Martinsville.

"We went and did some testing at ‘Little Rock’ and that really paid off," Gibson said. "It really helped us get her in that rhythm. We knew when we left there that it might not be a bad deal for us. She was pretty sporty at Little Rock. We were able to go up to Martinsville and get a good 12th-place finish and I think we were all kind of looking at each other going, ‘What just happened here?’ We went back in the fall and had another good run — we didn’t finish as well, but were still strong. Our car was really good again and she did a really good job."

Now the challenge is to build on what the team has done in the past and continue to improve.

"We’re pumped to go there, but Martinsville is a place where you can go and think you’re going to run really well and it will dish out a case of ‘humble’ to you," said Gibson. "It’s a tough place and you’re fighting the beating and the banging all day. But we’re positive and excited to get there."