Danica learned from last year

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Last year, top-20s were the goal for Danica Patrick and that was tough to meet; this year, she's shooting for top-15 finishes.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Danica Patrick leaned forward in her patio chair, pointing toward the clump of cars on the laptop screen. Under a crystal-blue sky two days before Daytona 500 qualifying, relaxing at a table beside her motor coach, the second-year Sprint Cup driver was quickly drawn back into the mayhem of her final laps of the 2013 Daytona 500.

"Five to go ... where am I, third, here," she said, counting the running order with a finger. "Yeah."

After becoming the first woman to win the pole for NASCAR's prestige race, Patrick had led for five revolutions around the high-banked, 2.5-mile oval, and had restarted third after a caution with five laps left. The entirety of the restrictor-plate race, where advancement is largely determined by alliances and relationships that allow cars to exploit or be exploited in the rivers of air that tow them around the canyons of asphalt, had been merely prologue. Patrick had negotiated that fickle diplomacy well for a rookie, but the true measure of these self-serving relationships is never more tested than in the final laps.

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Danica Patrick was third in last year's Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. dropped off her bumper, formed a new line and freight-trained past her.

"I'm just trying to run as fast as I can without having to lift," Patrick said, her brow furrowing, "because when you start lifting, you sort of start pushing the air and pushing cars away from you. You get really close, so just trying to stay right behind them without bouncing off their back-end air."

Three laps wind down. Two laps remain.

"As we got to the last two laps it seemed everybody is just in line and what are you going to do at this point?" she pondered. "Because if you pull out and nobody else pulls out? ... Honestly, if I'm in line, I'm thinking, 'See you later.' I'm waiting until the next one."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. remained behind her. A 2004 winner of the Daytona 500, Earnhardt, like Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, is a prime instigator of late-lap politics. Fast, instinctual and brazen, he attracts the helpful and helpless in need of his assistance. He was directly behind Patrick, in fourth place. Patrick was behind second-place Greg Biffle.

"Junior doesn't really work with other people out there on speedways. He does his own thing," Patrick said. "But people know that he will try things."

Race-leader Johnson somehow bores away without help on the final lap.

"That's so crazy Jimmie can pull away like that, isn't it?" she marveled. "So fast."

It was time to go. Earnhardt began dropping off Patrick's bumper, back to Mark Martin, signaling his intent to link up at the front of a line behind him and receive an aerodynamic push, past Patrick and toward the front as Johnson pulled away.

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Crew chief Tony Gibson said he already noticed a difference in how Danica Patrick raced in the Sprint Unlimited on Saturday.

"Yeah, it starts here," she said, leaning forward. "He's getting a run and I thought, 'Man, we're going to pull away here on this last lap.' So here goes. So he's going to take it. Oh, wow. Man, at this point in time, when they ... you're getting air packed on you. It's all bad.''

Earnhardt shepherded a low line that freight-trained past Patrick, whose car, buffeted in air and alone in the draft, wallowed with Biffle. She finally tucked in, finishing eighth. Earnhardt was second, Martin third.

An ultimately unrealistic hope that she would be included in the final rush had been replaced with the reality that she had been left behind.

"What are you gonna do?" she said. "You just wait. It's a frustrating feeling, for sure. If I were to pull out on the back straight, if I pull out in front of Junior, he could have just hit me, and also he could have just gone lower, and all of a sudden I'm in the middle going errrrrrrrrrrrrrr ... nothing."

Something, as in a teachable moment. Patrick and crew chief Tony Gibson dissected in-car video of the race during the offseason, not so much attempting to formulate what she should have done -- because the ambitions, tempers and car capabilities of 42 other drivers present too many variables -- but what she could have done.

"I think it's going to help," Gibson said. "A lot of the things she picked up in restrictor-plate racing helped her [in the Sprint Unlimited on Saturday], getting out of bad situations where guys dump her and don't want to run with her, getting stuck in the back," Gibson said. "'How do I get runs on guys? How do I manipulate them, how do I run? Do I trail break, stay in the gas? Do I lift? How much throttle do I run?' These are the things she's learning. The other night, she showed she's better at that. Got a long way to go but getting better."

And that was the remainder of her rookie season in microcosm, as the subsequent 35 points races were far more rookie-like and far less exhilarating. Stewart-Haas Racing emphasized a need for Patrick to improve in qualifying -- she had an average start of 30.1 -- and the team tested exhaustively to hone that area this offseason, Gibson said. Having a wealth of experience and success around her in teammates Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick, as well as adviser Martin, already has helped her in terms of grasping data and how it relates to her car.

You need at least five years over here to figure out what's going on, understand these cars, be competitive. You really need five years to kind of get yourself where you need to be in this sport and find those last few tenths. It's one thing to get within a couple seconds, but the last few tenths are the hardest thing to find.
Jimmie Johnson

Johnson said Patrick should not yet be expected to have mastered the nuances of stock car racing. Patrick has made 106 combined starts in the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series since transitioning from IndyCar full time in 2012.

"You need at least five years over here to figure out what's going on, understand these cars, be competitive," he said. "You really need five years to kind of get yourself where you need to be in this sport and find those last few tenths. It's one thing to get within a couple seconds, but the last few tenths are the hardest thing to find."

Gibson said a successful sophomore season for Patrick would entail qualifying in the top 25 of the field 75 percent of the time, with 10 to 15 top-20s. A new group qualifying format, he said, likely will not help improve Patrick's qualifying, as the most productive laps are usually the first, on freshest tires, and heavily taped cars. Patrick and Gibson bemoaned the quality of their race cars before last season, but Patrick said there is a marked improvement.

"Last year top-20s was the goal and it ended up staying the goal because we weren't strong enough to run better than that or run there to create a new goal," she said. "I really feel like if we can get running in the top 15 consistently, more consistently, that's not even necessarily me meeting my previous goal, that would just be something I think would be really great, because your good days turn into top-10s and your bad days turn into my old good days."

One good day could put Patrick into the Chase for the Sprint Cup years before she considered it possible. A new NASCAR points system in which 16 drivers qualify for the Chase and a victory virtually assures a spot makes her -- and scores of others -- wild cards at the four races at Daytona and fellow restrictor-plate track Talladega Superspeedway. Patrick and the team will push to improve at all tracks, but Gibson said that restrictor-plate racing has become even more of an emphasis now.

"It changes the risk you're going to take, for sure. At least for us it does," he said. "We feel like these four, it's probably your best opportunity to win one. It's going to put other guys in the same situation. Guys who otherwise wouldn't have a shot to win a race are going to put themselves in positions to make it happen, and if it doesn't, so be it."

Patrick could therefore become the first driver to qualify for the Chase on Sunday in the Daytona 500. Starting from the back -- with Stewart -- because of an engine change will force her to find gaps and opportunities from the outset. And if she works her way back to the front, when the time comes to make a move this time, maybe someone will push her right into the postseason.

"I think you have to be around these drivers enough without doing something wrong," she said. "Maybe next time they will be there."

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