Saturday night’s Southern 500 at historic Darlington Raceway is a critical race for second-year NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Danica Patrick, who will be looking to turn her recent misfortunes around.
After opening the season with a disappointing 40th-place finish in the Daytona 500, Patrick improved her finishes in each of the next four races, culminating with a solid 14th-place run at the fast Auto Club Speedway last month.
Since then, though, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver has backslid badly, finishing 32nd at Martinsville, a track that was one of her best last year, and then 27th during Monday’s rain-delayed Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Patrick has three prior starts at Darlington, finishing 12th in the NASCAR Nationwide Series there two years ago and 31st and 28th in two Sprint Cup starts there in 2012 and ’13, respectively. Now the Cup finishes might not be world beaters, but logging a lot of laps helped Patrick come to grips with one of NASCAR’s toughest tracks.
"Having those starts is definitely a help not just to me but also to the entire team," said Patrick, who comes into the Darlington race 29th in points. "I think it makes me more comfortable behind the wheel, and it also gives the guys information about what I like or need in the car, which is huge."
Patrick said she was expecting a better result last year at Darlington, but had to race her backup No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet SS after wadding up her primary car in practice.
"I know that last year we were far better off unloading and hitting the track because we had a baseline to go off of from my previous start," said Patrick. "Unfortunately, I crashed in practice and that kind of put us behind. But, what we learned last year just gives us more to build on as we go there this weekend."
And having something to build on at the Lady in Black is important, because the egg-shaped South Carolina oval is one of the least forgiving circuits in all of NASCAR.
"Darlington is definitely a challenging track," said Patrick. "And I think I’ve learned a lot in the few starts I’ve had. Each time we go back there, I’m more comfortable. The first time I raced there, I had never seen Darlington until that actual race weekend. So that’s always a bit interesting when you go somewhere you’ve never been.
"But I accomplished all the things I wanted to accomplish over the weekend. Things went well on the Nationwide side. On the Cup side, my goals were to be respectable out there. I think I held my own. And the other goal was to finish, and both of those things happened. So, overall, it was a good night. Hopefully, my experience from that first weekend and last year will pay off for us this weekend."