Patrick gaining ground in Nationwide

Danica Patrick offered a glimmer of her potential in a stock car at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last March.

In only her 16th NASCAR start, Patrick finished a career-best fourth in the Nationwide Series race. Not only was Patrick’s accomplishment a personal best, the 29-year-old driver became the top-finishing female among NASCAR’s top tours.

And Patrick continued the trend throughout the season with two additional top-10 finishes and an average finish of 17.4 in 12 Nationwide starts.

Patrick’s crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., noticed a dramatic difference from her first season. With every bit of seat time, Patrick’s learning curve accelerated significantly.

“The biggest thing I’ve seen is her comfort with the car as far as getting up to speed when we get to a track,” Eury said. “That really helped us at the end of last year. When we get to a track, instead of it taking us 30 laps to get (up) to speed, it takes us probably eight. She lets things play out — the way the cars develop, like when some tracks get looser and some tracks get tighter. She understands that, ‘My car isn’t going to be perfect in practice, but I have to calculate that this is how the track is going to be,’ like after (Sprint) Cup practice is over with.

“So she started understanding that and then that’s made the cars better. When we do ask her a question like, ‘What direction do we need to go? Or do you think we’re going to get you too loose here at the start? Or do you want to, play it safe?’, her input has been more critical to that area, for sure.”

In an effort to elevate her game, Patrick sought Eury’s advice before selecting which Sprint Cup events to run among her limited 10-race schedule this season. Eury suggested tracks that would “challenge” his driver as well as new tracks so she could acclimate to unfamiliar surroundings.

“She can go to Daytona and have a legitimate shot because she’s been there and performed so well there before,” Eury said. “But when she goes to Darlington, where she’s never seen the place, that’s going to be a challenge.

“I asked her, ‘When you run your first full season in Cup, do you want to pull into Darlington and that’s the first time you’ve seen it then throw your whole season away?’ ”

Patrick experienced one of those “challenging” races last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. She had issues in the pits and throughout the course of the event, dropping three circuits off the lead lap. Patrick finished 22nd and declined media interviews before leaving the track.

In Patrick’s defense, the mediocre outing comes on the heels of three miserable finishes at Daytona, where the expectations were high, particularly after she won the pole for the Nationwide Series race. However, Patrick was collected in crashes — none of her making — in all three of her races.

After surviving Speedweeks, Patrick found the humility to laugh at her misfortune.

“You know how bad things come in three,” Patrick asked. “Well, I crashed all three times so let’s hope that’s my three. But it just happens like that. There’s been other times when I’ve been incredibly lucky and gotten through things and had great results and especially good times at Daytona. So, it’s just the way it goes.”

Former Nationwide Series champion Brad Keselowski, who also raced for JRMotorsports, Patrick’s current Nationwide team, believes Patrick is at a disadvantage considering NASCAR’s current testing ban.

“She has a long road in front of her, and I think she understands that,” Keselowski said. “I hope she does at least. But you know that’s a tough deal for anyone on the Nationwide side to be successful with the testing ban in place. Look at drivers — you’ve got Sam Hornish and guys like that — who have come from similar backgrounds, and I would say that you could quite easily argue who were more successful and it hasn’t been easy for them. You could talk to Sam and he would tell you this has not been easy for him and now he’s over on the Nationwide side, too.

“The biggest challenge she has is somehow finding a way around that testing ban and getting experience. Everyone will tell you that race experience is the best experience. It is and it isn’t because you don’t really get a chance to learn on what you need to do to get more speed. You can learn on what you need to do to survive the race, that’s great, but that’s only 50 percent of it. You’ve got to be fast and talented, as well. And so she’s obviously behind before the weekend ever starts, as is every Nationwide rookie, and there’s challenges ahead for her.

“I guess at the end of the day, if she can overcome those challenges and find a way to be successful, then she will have really earned a spot in this sport. But the odds are very much stacked against her.”

Eury believes the additional Cup races will further help Patrick get up to speed as she visits new tracks, drives a variety of cars and works with different crew chiefs, car chiefs and pit crews.

“That will be more knowledge for her, but you can’t beat track time. Any time she’s in that seat it’s going to be to her benefit.”

Eury also has been instrumental in Patrick’s off-track development. Certainly, given Patrick’s popularity, the demands on her time have been substantial, not only from the media but NASCAR and sponsors, as well. While Patrick also was the “it girl” in IndyCar, she didn’t face the challenges inherent with NASCAR, specifically the longer schedule and greater spotlight.

Eury acknowledges his driver’s demeanor has been a work in progress. But the crew chief, who has worked with two of NASCAR’s most popular drivers — Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — has used lessons from his former racers to help Patrick make the adjustment with her current situation.

He truly believes that Patrick is having fun and enjoying her time in NASCAR.

“When she first came here, I think her expectations of what she was going to accomplish and what she could accomplish were very far apart,” Eury said. “We had discussions about setting realistic goals and where you need to go to meet those goals to keep a positive attitude and keep things going forward.

“Once we talked about that and she realized it, I think it made her a better person and a better race car driver. It’s done nothing but help her, so she doesn’t have an expectation she’s not going to meet. We know what we can do. We know what we want to do, but ‘wanting’ and ‘can do’ are two different things.”

Patrick , who took that advice to heart, admits she didn’t “have any goals” upon entering NASCAR, and she knows now that “was a negative.”

“You need some expectation levels that aren’t, ‘I want to go win,’ ” Patrick said. “Everyone wants to win. That’s clear. But some realistic ones, some (goals) you can actually make happen.”