Danica looks to continue hot start

Thank you, Danica, for living up to the hype.

After stealing the spotlight from the boys in the Sprint Cup garage for most of Speedweeks, when the checkered flag flew on the Daytona 500 Danica Patrick’s overall performance and eventual eighth-place finish over the 10-day stretch was respectable — and historical.

“She’s going to make a lot of history all year long,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., her former Nationwide Series team owner and a fellow competitor. “It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch her progress. I think she’s done her best work in the Cup car myself. I think for whatever reason she seems to get a lot more out of that car.

“Every time I’ve seen her in a pretty hectic situation, she always really remained calm. She’s got a great level head. She’s a racer. She knows what’s coming. She’s smart about her decisions. She knew what to do today, as far as track position and not taking risks. I enjoy racing with her.”

Certainly, the TMZ-style buzz of her budding romance with fellow NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. overshadowed her professional accomplishments at times.

But on Sunday, when Patrick addressed the media after finishing as the top rookie in the Daytona 500 — an accomplishment she earned in her 2005 Indianapolis 500 debut before going on to win the IndyCar rookie title, as well — it was clear she had been accepted into the club.

“It was just another car on the track,” Daytona 500 winner and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson said of Patrick’s effort. “I didn’t think about it being Danica in the car. It was just another car on the track that was fast. That’s a credit to her and the job she’s doing.”

Last year, when Patrick won the pole for the Nationwide Series race at Daytona, she showed her proficiency at the 2.5-mile track. Throughout testing and practice, it was clear that she had quickly acclimated to restrictor-plate style racing. So when she won the pole for the Daytona 500 with a speed of 196.434 mph, given her prowess and Stewart-Haas Racing equipment powered by Hendrick engines, it really came as no surprise.

Team owner Tony Stewart knows first-hand how stellar the No. 10 GoDaddy Chevy SS was that Patrick drove to her pole position. But even the three-time Sprint Cup and IndyCar champ couldn’t match her line in time trials.

“We can watch each other’s laps,” Stewart said, referring to the Dartfish program, which lays one driver’s line upon another. “Her car, she just did a really good job of carrying speed off of turn two, where she made all of her time up was down the backstretch. Carrying that speed off of two is a big key to that.

“It’s easy to come down here in your first or second year as a driver and clip the apron trying to run too tight a line or do something and scrub speed off. That’s something she did an awesome job (with). Watching her lap, she runs so smooth.

“We talked about it two years ago when we ran the Nationwide race together, I said she was probably one of the easiest people to push around the racetrack, she runs such a smooth line. That’s what you have to do here. She did her job behind the wheel, for sure. She did a good job.”

Over the course of eight days, starting with time trials to the Daytona 500, Patrick annihilated the records originally set by Janet Guthrie in the 1970s. She backed that up by not only running in the top five for most of the race but Patrick also became the first female to lead a green flag lap in NASCAR’s top division, doing so for a total of five circuits. Guthrie led five laps in the Los Angeles Times 500 at Ontario (Calif.) Motor Speedway on Nov. 20, 1977, but it was under caution.

Patrick also became the first female to post a top 10 in the Daytona 500. Although she’s the only female to score a top-five (finishing fourth at Las Vegas 2011 in the Nationwide Series) in any of NASCAR’s top three touring divisions, Patrick fell just short of the top Cup female finish — a sixth-place finish by Guthrie in the Volunteer 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on Aug. 28, 1977.

While Patrick’s accomplishments are on course with her stock-car racing development after 11 Cup events, she’s adamant about not getting ahead of herself. Despite finishing eighth at Daytona, Patrick acknowledges there is still a lot to learn.

“I think that would be unwise to sort of start telling myself that top 10 is where we need to be every week,” Patrick said. “I think that’s setting up for failure. The list of drivers in the Cup Series is deep. This is a unique track. These tracks are different and unique — (there’s) a lot (to learn) about the car. I mean, you have to be smart enough to do the right thing at the right time. But it’s very much about the car.

“I feel like I’m still sticking to let’s see how these first five races go where we go to a bunch of different kinds of tracks, see where we settle in, start to establish goals from there on out. “

Patrick sits seventh in the Sprint Cup point standings — but again, it’s early. For now, Patrick says the goal is to use last year’s performances as a baseline and build from there. If she ran in the top 20 at certain tracks, then shoot for top-15 finishes.

“That’s really all I can think right now,” Patrick said. “That’s all I can think. It might change after five races. It might be better. Who knows? It might be worse. We’re going to kind of pick up where we left off.”

Patrick will be in solid hands under the direction of crew chief Tony Gibson as their relationship evolves. His experience and patience will go a long way in Patrick’s development.

And although Patrick insists she “was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl,” when this season is over the sport might also select a new nickname for the affable driver: “first lady.”