Danica has room for improvement

Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR/Getty Images

Saturday's race at Richmond International Raceway was Danica Patrick's 36th since her Sprint Cup debut Feb. 27, 2012.

Danica Patrick required 1 year, 6 months and 12 days to complete her first full season -- or at least the equivalent of one -- at NASCAR's highest level.

Not surprisingly, it was a rigorous one. And the numbers bear it out.

From her Sprint Cup debut on Feb. 27, 2012, at the Daytona 500 -- made notable not only because of her participation, but the race was moved to Monday because of rain, and delayed further when Juan Pablo Montoya's race car detonated a jet drier under caution -- to her 36th event Saturday, at Richmond International Raceway, Patrick has competed at every track on the schedule in a Cup car at least once. The lone exception is Homestead-Miami Speedway, the venue for the season finale Nov. 17.

The results? Very much like a driver completing the first full season in NASCAR's major league after being groomed for a professional career in open wheel.

In 36 Cup races, Patrick has 1 pole, 1 top-10 finish and 5 laps led, all of which came this past February in the Daytona 500, where she restarted third late in the race and finished eighth after being abandoned in the draft.

The broader collection of numbers she has produced lays out the breadth of work to be done everywhere, however.

Average start: 32.1. Average finish: 26.5.

Running at the finish 30 times, on the lead lap 10 of those. Her results on tracks two miles and longer -- specifically the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega -- have been better, with half of her lead-lap finishes coming there, an average start of 26.9 and finish of 24.9, both bests among the different track types.

The improvement opportunity remains on the tracks of one to two miles that make up much of the schedule. On these tracks, she has an average starting position of 34.6 and a finish of 27.9 (worst of the different track types).

If the 36 races comprising her career had been strung together as one season, she would have finished 28th in points. She's currently 27th, with 10 races remaining in her first continuous campaign.

Five observations

1. The rookie of the year battle is a slog, but the other guy is edging away: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. accrued two championships and a copious amount of experience in 106 races in the Nationwide Series, but he, like Patrick, continues to find his way in fits and starts as a Sprint Cup regular. Through 26 races this season, the Roush Fenway driver has one pole (at Atlanta two races ago) and earned his first top 10 with a 10th-place finish at Richmond on Saturday. He's 20th in driver points. Through the same span, Patrick has a pole and a best finish of eighth. With a pole and a top 10 in recent weeks, however, Stenhouse Jr. may be showing signs of exploiting his experience for a strong burst through the final races.

2. Cooking show: Patrick remains a mainstream champion as her peers prepare to contest the Chase for the Championship. She scored a high-profile victory this week, albeit in a kitchen, on the Food Network show "Chopped," defeating former NFL running back Tiki Barber, celebrity bodyguard Chuck Zito and Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin. Using ingredients from a secret basket, Patrick combined the likes of salmon filets, kale and chocolate-covered marshmallows into an appetizer, main course and dessert to win $10,000 for the COPD Foundation. Her "Gram" Barb died at age 61 in 2001 because of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and Patrick has been a frequent spokesperson for the foundation.

3. Bad break, good break: An ancillary result of Tony Stewart's season-ending broken leg was the hiring of veteran Mark Martin to replace the three-time series champion for most of the remainder of his 2013 racing schedule. Martin's veteran presence around Stewart-Haas Racing stands to not only benefit the entire organization, but Patrick in particular. She joked at Bristol that she would be amenable to Martin hopping into her No. 10 Chevrolet to provide feedback to her and crew chief Tony Gibson, who, coincidentally, held the same post with Martin. Last week, Martin said he expected to continue with SHR next season, consulting, testing and working with Patrick and Gibson.

4. Growth potential: SHR will swell to four drivers next season with the acquisition of 2004 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch engineered by co-owner Gene Haas. In Stewart, Busch and another veteran, Richard Childress Racing performer Kevin Harvick (two Nationwide titles), Patrick will be surrounded by a wealth of talent and information. The osmosis factor should be extremely beneficial.

5. All-Bears fantasy team? Patrick learned last year in the JR Motorsports shop league she was no fantasy football keeper, but she's hoping the auto-pick function in the league set up this year by her and boyfriend Stenhouse improves her stock. A Bears fan, she'd rather not have to root for any Packers -- she has met former Green Bay wide receiver Donald Driver and found him friendly, though -- and admittedly has to expand her knowledge base beyond the upper Midwestern teams that serve as Chicago's rivals. The question is, Jay Cutler or Aaron Rodgers? How strong is that Bears loyalty?

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