Danica Patrick's Signs of Progress Tempered By Crew Change
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Momentum is a tenuous proposition in auto racing. Positive attitude and confidence can brew in a driver and crew during an offseason, but forward progress is all too often dictated by parts and pie charts and calculated decisions that determine whether race cars will go fast their next time on the track.
There was every indication Danica Patrick would go into her second offseason as a full-time Sprint Cup driver with at least the notion of momentum, and a mining of her statistics reveal the reason: She has improved.
Patrick had three top-10 finishes this season after producing one as a rookie. She had 14 top-20s compared with nine last year. She led three times as many laps, 15-5. She produced her two best career finishes, and more importantly, they were away from the restrictor-plate venues that had staged her greatest previous successes.
But the final three weeks of her season have seemingly left her, at best, flat-footed entering a crucial third season where drivers often indicate where they will fit in the strata of a competitive driver pool. Crew chief Tony Gibson, who had demonstrated the proper mix of gritty motivator and mechanical innovator to stoke Patrick through an encouraging sophomore season, was transferred to underperforming Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch. The 2003 series champion responded immediately, using Patrick's re-branded crew and race cars to finish the season well and push off into 2015 with that whiff of possibility.
Patrick, meanwhile, was assigned Daniel Knost, Busch's former crew chief, on an interim basis. No results, no momentum.
It remains unannounced whether Knost will remain with Patrick into 2015, but if he doesn't, she will enter next season starting anew as NASCAR has banned offseason testing that would have provided a baseline for their working and professional relationship.
Patrick isn't starting over. She has acquired enough of her own experience through 143 combined starts since 2010 in the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series -- her IndyCar and open wheel developmental career consisted of 127 races. But she is starting again.
"We did improve this year, and I hope we do better in 2015," she said. "Looking forward to next year."
A look at her 2014 season:
The Good ...
1. Atlanta march: Patrick produced her career-best Cup finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway in August, advancing from a starting position of 27th to finish sixth. "The most impressive thing was that run she had at Atlanta," Gibson said. "It was a racetrack with no grip, really, really fast speeds, multigroove racetrack. To go there and be successful as we were and be as fast as we were, that was probably the highlight of my deal. It was incredible. To us, it was like winning the race."
2. Kansas surprise: Patrick had finished no better than 14th and floundered in her comfort zones at Daytona and Talladega before producing a remarkable seventh-place finish at Kansas Speedway in May. The result, in part attributable to a testing breakthrough, was heartening because it occurred on the type of 1.5-mile track -- like Atlanta -- that comprises much of the Cup schedule. The result was a beach head for the season, prompting Gibson to ramp up expectations for a win or top-5 before the end of the campaign.
3. Running with the herd: Patrick gliding past defending series champion Jimmie Johnson to the lead at the Talladega fall race was perhaps her signature snapshot of the season. Johnson needed a victory to advance to the next round of the Chase, but she was able to move past him anyway in the closing stages, holding the front for seven laps until being consumed in a late restart and finishing 19th. That Patrick raced well on a restrictor plate track was no surprise, but wresting the front spot in a pivotal time of the race and the season was perhaps an evolutionary moment and was an exhilarating scene judging by fan reaction.
4. Trend line: In 2013, Patrick had an average starting position of 30.1, and average finish of 26.1 and led five laps. In 2014 those figures improved to 22.3, 23.7 and 15 (13 of which came in two races at Talladega).
5. Under the radar: In a chaotic and distracting season for Stewart-Haas Racing, Patrick was able to discreetly go about her work. That's a feat for one of the most high-profile drivers in the sport. Other than blasting NASCAR for a qualifying quagmire that kept boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. out of the race at Talladega, she was hardly ever the storyline. Team co-owner Tony Stewart dealt with striking and killing Kevin Ward Jr. in an August sprint car race, eventual series champion Kevin Harvick was involved in a fracas at Texas Motor Speedway and Busch was accused of domestic abuse by his former girlfriend late in the season.
The Bad ...
1. Hovering: Patrick will finish her second season at NASCAR's highest level at 28th in driver points, a spot worse than her rookie season, unless NASCAR penalizes 2013 rookie of the year Ricky Stenhouse Jr., as expected, following a possible rules infraction in the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And even if she jumps ahead of him, the points jump is modest.
2. Not hovering: Patrick finished races this season, on average, worse than her starting position by nearly two positions.
3. Restarts must improve: "The biggest thing that holds her back is her restarts," Gibson said. "She's got to really figure out a way to race better and be more aggressive on restarts. And that's hard. Because when you're one of these guy racers that have grown up around short tracks or Saturday night racing, they do it every week. They restart and beat and bang. That's the part she doesn't have the experience with, coming from that style of racing she was doing. If she can ever figure out how to get her restarts better here, she can hold her position or gain two or three, she will be more successful. It's just experience. Hopefully she will give it time enough to learn it, and learn and get better, but it will take a while."
4. The end fizzled: Patrick was 36th, 22nd and 18th with Knost.
5. And the beginning was tough, too: An engine failure in an early Daytona 500 practice relegated her by the race's quirky rules to the back of both the qualifying event and the feature, and she finished 40th after crashing.
That said ...
"I think she'll win a race," Gibson said. "Will circumstances have to be just right? Probably so. But I think she will win one."
She gets to try again in fewer than 100 days.