The Racing Capital
of the World
July 03, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
When Danica Patrick left the Daytona 500, she had good reason to feel satisfied.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie Patrick – the only woman to win an IZOD IndyCar Series race – achieved another first in February as the first female to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pole, in the season-opening Daytona 500. She backed that up by running in the top three for most of the race – including in the lead – and was challenging Jimmie Johnson for the victory before she got shuffled on the final lap and finished eighth.
Patrick and her supporters were buoyantly confident after that performance that she was off to a great start in her first full year of Cup competition. But since that time, Patrick hasn’t matched that lofty performance.
She hopes a return to Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola on Saturday night, July 6 will help turn her season around for the latter half of the 2013 Sprint Cup campaign. But she will have to do it in a different car.
“Well, we lost that poor car at Talladega, so we are going back with our backup, which is a really good car anyway,” Patrick said. “We tested with it at the beginning of the year, and I expect it to go in a similar fashion. I think we will still be pretty fast. Will we qualify on the pole and run in the top-three or five all day? I don’t know, maybe. But the heat always changes a little bit, but it’s a different car, and it’s going to be a different Hendrick engine. All that stuff just leads to a slightly different weekend. But I expect it to be somewhat similar at least from a good standpoint in my head.”
In addition to her historic pole run and finish in the Daytona 500, Patrick also led five laps to become the first female to lead NASCAR’s biggest race and the first woman to lead Sprint Cup Series laps under green. Janet Guthrie led five laps under caution in 1977 at Ontario (Calif.) Motor Speedway.
Patrick also joined an elite club of only 13 drivers to have led both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. The other drivers to accomplish this feat are A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Bobby Unser, Bobby Allison, Jim Hurtubise, Johnny Rutherford, Tim Richmond, John Andretti, Robby Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Stewart. Of those 13 drivers, only Patrick, Foyt, Andretti, Gordon, Montoya and Stewart have led at least five laps in each race.
Patrick’s eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500, coupled with her six top-10 finishes in the Indianapolis 500, make her one of only 15 drivers to have top-10 results in each race. The other drivers are Foyt, Montoya, Gordon, Rutherford, Stewart, Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Bobby Johns, Cale Yarborough, Dan Gurney, Donnie Allison, Jerry Grant, Paul Goldsmith and Tom Sneva.
She gets to compete at the two biggest tracks of her career in one month as she starts the month of July at Daytona and finishes it Sunday, July 28 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the Crown Royal Presents the Samuel Deeds 400 at the Brickyard Powered by BigMachineRecords.com.
“I’ve always liked the superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega,” Patrick said. “It’s a high-speed chess match. Obviously, it’s a big weekend with it being the Coke Zero 400 and me having a good partnership with Coke Zero. Hopefully, we can build on what we had at Daytona in February and have a good run with the GoDaddy Chevrolet SS.”
Patrick drove a smart, steady race at Daytona. But the five positions she lost on the final lap were a learning experience.
“I was disappointed at the end of the race that I just didn’t have a better grasp as to what I needed to do to shoot for a better finish than where I was,” Patrick said. “Although, if they had just thrown that yellow, you know? Third. But you have to finish the race, I understand. That’s good for the sport when we finish under green. It makes it exciting. It really helped teach me, I feel, what happens at the end of the race and how to set them up. (Dale Earnhardt) Junior is really good at those big speedway races and knowing how to set things up. But I just felt like I was just frustrated that I didn’t have a better plan.”
Patrick drives for Indiana racing legend Stewart, a three-time Cup champion and two-time Brickyard winner. He helped explain to Patrick what happens in the last-lap battles on a high-banked restrictor-plate speedway that she can use in the future.
“Tony said to me, ‘I really feel like you had more to lose in your position than you had to gain by trying something, so I think that you did the right thing,’” Patrick said. “That made me feel better – a little bit. Was I still mad that I went from third to eighth on the lap? No, I was still disappointed in it. But to have somebody like Tony Stewart say something to me like that was very kind, and it put it in perspective.
Patrick’s crew chief is Tony Gibson, who is from Daytona Beach, Fla. He helped prepare a front-running race car for Patrick in February, and that is his mission for the race Saturday night.
“Well, it was obviously extremely gratifying to go down there and run well,” Gibson said. “To go to your hometown, where I grew up, to be in front of all your friends and family, and to go there and to do something that is pretty amazing, to make history, to just be a part of that is incredible. It was something that obviously will never be done again, and I feel real fortunate to be a part of that. I’ve got to thank Go Daddy, Danica and Stewart-Haas Racing and all my guys for sticking through the testing and the building of cars and going and doing all the things it takes to go down there and put those two laps together and make history.
“It was pretty crazy, too, with all the media and all the hype going into it, and the pressure of actually testing well and going down there and repeating and making it happen, it was a huge relief. But it was also very gratifying and ranks up there as probably one of the greatest things I’ve accomplished in my career. Goals for this July race are the same as they were in February when we went to Daytona. We want to go down there, and we want to make a statement. We want to try to sit on the pole again, obviously, and this time finish a few spots further up. We felt like we had a shot to win it, ran in the top-three or four all day and had a fast car, and it came down to the last lap and kind of got snookered a little bit there at the end. But we felt like we were definitely in contention to win it, so we’re going back there with the same mindset, to try to be the fastest car in qualifying and try to close the deal at the end of this thing.”
Since her impressive performance at Daytona, Patrick has struggled at times. Her eighth place at Daytona is her only top-10 finish of the season. She finished 12th at the demanding Martinsville Speedway and 13th at Michigan, and that gave her hope that she was showing signs of improvement.
Patrick always has dealt with high expectations – sometimes to an unfair standard. But she is in NASCAR for the long haul, and considering this is the early stages of her Sprint Cup career, she believes she has made progress.
“This is my second full year in NASCAR and it’s in the Cup Series, so it’s definitely jumping in the deep end on some level,” Patrick said. “I’m grateful that I was recommended to do Nationwide before Cup; I think that was a good idea.
“You talk about the curve, and the curve is different for everybody. I think at times on some level I think I am ahead of it, and at times I feel like I am behind it. And that is just because the curve is different for everybody, and I don’t know at what time it flattens out and you are where you are, but it’s not yet. I know from my perspective that I feel like I am feeling the car better, and I think that over time being able to feel the car better is going to result in a car that is set up for me and will allow me to driver harder and faster and to be better. So that what I am learning now, the feelings about the car.
“Shoot, if I got tight off the corner last year, or any other time I drove the car, I would have said it was just ‘tight off’. I would have had no idea the splitter was coming up. Now it just seems simple and straightforward to me. These are the things you learn over time, and there is no set amount of time that you get to flatten that curve out, but it will someday. I have no idea when.”
But is it enough to ever silence her critics?
“You really think that I will silence naysayers?” she said. “That is the answer, you don’t. I am sure every driver has them on some level. There are going to be people that believe in you and those that don’t. You surround yourself in people that believe in you. And that is what matters.”
Not only is Patrick surrounding herself with those people who believe in her, but she also gets to compete at the two tracks she believes in the most – Daytona and Indianapolis.