Danica Patrick will ‘always be behind,’ but is she improving?
Danica Patrick finished 27th in the standings as a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie in 2013.
With five races left in the 2014 season, Patrick is 28th in the standings.
Sound like progress?
Probably not so much.
But according to her crew chief, along with several of the drivers with whom she shares a racetrack on Sunday afternoons, Patrick has improved considerably more this season than her points position would indicate.
As it turns out, there are numbers to validate this claim.
While Patrick’s position in the standings is actually worse than where she finished as a rookie, her on-track results suggest she’s hardly the same driver who struggled mightily in her first full year in NASCAR’s premier division.
"Danica can run in the top 15 every week and … really at any style racetrack if it all goes right," said Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick, whom Patrick has credited this season for some of her development.
"She has the speed and she has qualified way better, and just experience is going to go a long ways in this sport.
"She’s improved in every category, her cars are better than they were last year, but she’s improved in every category on the list."
Last season, Patrick posted only one top-10 finish — an eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500 — over the entire 36-race campaign. This season, she owns three top 10s, including a career-best sixth-place finish recorded at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Labor Day weekend.
And that was just a few months after Patrick’s seventh-place finish at Kansas Speedway in May.
Patrick’s average finish over 31 races this season is 23.3 — almost three positions better than her average finish of 26.1 from a year ago.
"I would say to me she just has more speed, especially in qualifying and even in the race," said Kasey Kahne. "You will see her there are times, I think it was Atlanta, and I feel like we lapped her maybe the first run or two. And then they worked on her car, she had speed and drove back the rest of the race, made her way back to the front and ended up fifth or sixth.
"I don’t remember her ever doing that in the past, so I would say she has definitely improved figuring our cars out, figuring out the feel that she needs in order to go fast."
There have even been a few occasions this year — most notably the spring Talladega race — when Patrick appeared to have a shot at a top-five finish or even a win, but something beyond her control took her No. 10 GoDaddy-sponsored Chevrolet out of contention.
Crew chief Tony Gibson believes her improvements can be traced in large part to getting more comfortable in the car, and figuring out which changes improve the car and which ones don’t.
"It’s gotten better because she’s started to build a little bit of a notebook of her own about what changes do, whether it’s in the race or in practice, that seemed to help the car," Gibson told FOXSports.com last weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "I try to keep her up to speed on what we’re changing so that when she does feel it — whether it’s a spring or a shock or a track bar — that she can kind of correlate that to, ‘OK, well, that helped me here or hurt me here,’ and that way during the race and during practice other places she can say, ‘Man, I remember when you dropped that track bar and it really helped me here.’
"So she’s starting to build that little bit of a notebook for herself, which will help her long-term, so that is a key to her feedback getting better, too."
But the area where the Stewart-Haas Racing driver has made the biggest leap is qualifying. Her average starting position this year is 21.1 — a whopping nine spots better than last year’s average starting position of 30.1.
While others have struggled adapting to this year’s new knockout-style qualifying, the format seems to have played right into the open-wheel veteran’s hands.
She’s qualified in the top 10 six times in 31 events this season. Last year, she qualified in the top 10 only once — when she became the first woman to win the pole for the Daytona 500.
At Daytona, however, the driver has historically had little impact on qualifying position. Rather, it’s been primarily about holding on and pushing the gas pedal to the floor — unlike most other tracks, where braking and how a driver approaches the corners are critical components to going fast.
"I would say obviously qualifying was our biggest hurdle that we were trying to overcome and get better at this year, and I think she’s overachieved in that department — which that translates into racing good," Gibson said. "If you start up front, you have a better chance of staying up there and racing up there, and that’s been the case, so qualifying has been the biggest thing that I can sit there and look back and say we were hoping to make a 20 percent improvement on, and I think she’s made at least a 50 or 60 percent improvement, and that, like I said, has helped our racing."
Four-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon has taken notice of Patrick’s performance at tracks where she ran miserably as a rookie but has fared much better this season.
A prime example would be Darlington, where she finished 28th and five laps down last season, but came home 22nd and on the lead lap this spring.
"I’ve just seen speed out of her, which is impressive," Gordon said. "I think that some of the tracks that you think, ‘Oh, man, this is the toughest track out there,’ she’s stepped up and performed well at, so you definitely see that performance coming along nicely."
Harvick believes the biggest obstacle Patrick still faces is her background — she raced full time in IndyCar from 2005 to 2011 and had never stepped foot in a stock car until 2010 when she drove a part-time schedule in the Nationwide Series.
"She will always be behind. She’s never going to catch up to what I do, she’s never going to catch up to what Jimmie Johnson does, she’s never going to overcome those hurdles, because we’ve all done this for 20-some years," Harvick said. "You’re never going to make up that experience in knowing that if the track slows down, you’re going to have to do this or you’ve been in this position before and you have to move up the racetrack or down the racetrack or whatever it is.
"She’s very good at digesting information and trying to overcome those hurdles by listening to the people that are around her."
Gibson concurs with Harvick’s assessment.
"She comes from go-carts and then IndyCar. I know (Tony) Stewart has come from IndyCar, too, but he also raced the sprint cars and the ARCA cars and the Nationwide cars," the veteran crew chief said. "He’s driven so many different vehicles that he adapts really quick, and I think it does hurt her not having any of that Saturday night Late Model run-what-you-brung, beating-and-banging racing. I think that has put her behind a little bit, and she’s having to learn that now against the best in the world, and that’s tough to do.
"So that says even more about how far she’s come in a short period of time and about the obstacles she’s up against trying to make that happen."
And based on Patrick’s rate of progress from last season to this one, Gibson has heightened expectations of his driver for 2015.
"I think this time next year we need to be a threat to sit on the pole every week," he said. "Everywhere we go we need to be a top-five qualifier and more of a threat to win a pole. Right now I feel like we’re top 15 to top 20 race team — that’s pretty much where we run every week. There’s times that we run better than that, but we feel like our goal was to be a top 20, and I feel like we’ve achieved that.
"Next year we need to be a 10th to 15th and we need to be sitting there bouncing off maybe five top fives a year, four top fives a year and in position to win one. I think that’s a reachable goal for her and that’s what we’ve done — we’ve tried to set reachable goals, because if you set them too high, you get frustrated and lose that drive."