Danica needs quick recovery

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Danica Patrick's cars have been better this year, but she needs to avoid trouble to prove it.

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Hands thrust deep into the pockets of her fire suit, brim of her baseball hat pulled down low over her brow, Danica Patrick delivered a prescient bit of context for a benchmark moment of her season.

Patrick had qualified 10th Friday for the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway, advancing to the second round of the new knockout qualifying format and producing the best -- by far -- non-restrictor-plate start of her Sprint Cup career.

Progress, certainly, in her main area of need. But she had been pedestrian in practice, she said, interjecting "You have to nail it on game day."

They did not, and Patrick fell quickly in the running order Sunday to a 32nd-place finish, six laps off the pace. After improving her finishing position each week since the Daytona 500 -- including a season-best 14th at Fontana -- Patrick left Martinsville flat, in need of a stabilizing effort this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Recovering quickly is imperative, crew chief Tony Gibson said.

"It's important," he said. "You have to ride the highs when they're in there and absorb the lows, know how to manage that and keep everybody's morale up. We really had high hopes coming in here running good, and qualifying really good we really thought we had something to have another top 15, but it wasn't to be."

Five Observations

1. Stewart-Haas Racing still has work to do: Despite placing half of its driver lineup in the Chase for the Sprint Cup after just six races, SHR is struggling to find consistency throughout its four-car fleet. Kevin Harvick, who joined the team from Richard Childress Racing, won at Phoenix but finished 41st, 39th and 36th in ensuing races before recovering for a seventh-place finish at Martinsville. Kurt Busch won at Martinsville and was third at Fontana but has two finishes of 35th or worse. Tony Stewart needed consecutive top-5s at Bristol and Fontana to help improve him to 15th in points before this week. Patrick is 29th in the standings. The team has been befallen by various maladies -- recent tire problems among them -- but has failed to run well collectively.

2. Patrick's cars are better: Part of the disappointment of Speedweeks, Patrick said, was that her blown engine ruined a chance to showcase a car she thought was markedly better than the one she used to win the pole and finish eighth in the previous Daytona 500. Though calamites have prevented her from showcasing them, the cars have been constructed better and will perform as such, Gibson said.

3. She's due some better luck: Patrick's 2014 could hardly have begun in a more deflating fashion. An engine failure in a Daytona 500 practice relegated her to the back of her 150-mile qualifying race and of the Daytona 500, in which she was snuffed out in a chain-reaction accident caused by someone else. She was caught in an incident with Justin Allgaier at Phoenix and another with Cole Whitt at Bristol. Certainly, the occurrence of the accidents was influenced by the company she was keeping in the middle of the running order, but she also experienced more than her share of misfortune.

4. She has surprisingly taken to short tracks: Patrick doesn't have an explanation for why she has performed reasonably well in a form of racing so alien to much of her training and career. She qualified 10th at Martinsville this weekend, the best non-restrictor-plate start of her career, and finished 12th and 17th in the two trips there last year. She finished ninth in a Nationwide race at Bristol last season and a respectable 12th at Darlington in the underseries in 2012. Certainly, her 32nd-place finish Sunday at Martinsville was a regression, but was because of a missed setup and quirky track conditions, Gibson said.

5. NASCAR will soon comprise most of her résumé: Patrick contested 115 IndyCar races over seven seasons. With 52 Sprint Cup starts, 61 in Nationwide and one in the K&N Pro Series East, Patrick has made 114 in NASCAR since 2010. Though less than half of her NASCAR starts have come at the series' highest rung, her body of work is about to become stock car-centric.

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