Danica Patrick has encouraging stretch

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Danica Patrick finished 13th at Michigan, where she had never raced in a Cup car, and three weeks later, finished 14th at Daytona, racing as high as second.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Danica Patrick's confidence and outlook on a race are usually evident in her enthusiasm for game-planning on team radio. With a scheduled seven laps left in the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday, as cars prepared for a restart, Patrick quizzed her spotter and crew chief for which alliances were likely to hold as she attempted to improve on seventh position, at that point one spot better than her historic finish in the Daytona 500 in February.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. wouldn't commit. Tony Stewart thought he had the fastest car on the track and therefore wasn't likely to wait for anyone, not even a teammate. There were plenty of Chevrolets near the front, so Patrick reconciled to follow any she could that would drag or push her into the now-preferred lower line.

"Y'all feel it?" Patrick radioed, as if channeling the anticipation around her pit box. "Here we go."

Crew chief Tony Gibson, who sounds and looks like a football coach in moments such as these, cued back, "Roger that. Go get 'em, girl."

Patrick slipped to ninth before a final caution prompted a green-white-checkered finish and 14th when she was enveloped in a last-lap crash that was a normal product of restrictor-plate, finish line mayhem.

She had reached the midpoint of her first 36-race Sprint Cup season with a clatter. But, as she had vowed, she was more aggressive at Daytona this time around. She was out to go get 'em.

Five observations

1. Things are getting better: Stewart-Haas Racing's busy early summer of testing appears to be benefiting the entire team. Stewart broke through with a win at Dover, Ryan Newman has produced some encouraging finishes and Patrick had a 13th-place finish at Michigan and 14th at Daytona, marking her most productive four-race stretch of the season. That one of these performances occurred on a 2-mile track where she had never raced in a Cup car has to be encouraging.

2. Danica Patrick won't be considered a race car driver until she wins: And then she'll be considered the one who has won only once. Former driver/analyst Kyle Petty's recent comments that Patrick was a "marketing machine" but "not a race car driver" reaffirmed that the Sprint Cup rookie is held to a different standard than her peers. That mindset will be hard to change. It didn't after Patrick's only IndyCar win in 2008. "I think I got to stop hearing the comparisons to Anna Kournikova," Patrick said, referring to the former tennis star who never won a WTA singles title. "That's pretty much all that really changed."

3. Nationwide road course experience not likely to translate: Patrick produced two of her more encouraging efforts in the Nationwide Series on road courses. She finished 12th at Road America -- she was fifth on the final lap before being punted by Jacques Villeneuve -- and led 20 laps at Montreal before mechanical problems relegated her to 27th. Adjusting to the faster Sprint Cup car on road courses proved difficult in her first trip to Sonoma, and the ever-improving quality of non-oval racing in the Cup series will continue to make things difficult.

4. Nationwide races will be scarce: Patrick has competed in just two races in NASCAR's top developmental series -- with Turner Scott Motorsports -- and is extremely unlikely to reach the target of 10 that Stewart-Haas Racing discussed before the season.

5. Star power advantage: Alyssa Milano came to Daytona hawking her new NASCAR clothing line, Touch, and displaying Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. shirts. Shaquille O'Neal declared during a prerace news conference that Patrick was his favorite driver because she is "hot, smokin'." Sheryl Crow proclaimed that Patrick has "made us females real proud" and watched some of the early laps of the Coke Zero 400 from her pit box. No other driver commands such cachet right now.

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