Danica ready for a fresh start

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Danica Patrick's gaze had turned to 2014 before she reached the final race of her rookie season Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, before she tore the yellow tape symbolizing her first-year status from the bumper of her No. 10 Chevrolet in a solitary ceremony in the darkened garage area.

The season began with a historic flourish as Patrick became the first female to win the pole, lead laps under green and finish as high as eighth in the Daytona 500. That she completed her final race with a heartening 20th-place finish only emphasized her desire to reset and start another season at Stewart-Haas Racing with greater understanding, new teammates in Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, and, perhaps most important, faster cars.

Kevin Liles/USA TODAY Sports

The season couldn’t have gotten off to a better start as Danica Patrick won the pole for the Daytona 500.

"I'm ready for '14. I'm ready for new teammates," Patrick said. "I'm ready for all the new people coming in to the team, and I'm eager for all the new things we're going to come up with for next year. I'm not tired from the season, I'm a little tired of the season, and I'm ready for a fresh start."

EspnW.com spoke with key players about Patrick's rookie season at NASCAR's highest level and expectations for her much-anticipated sophomore campaign.

What went right

Danica Patrick: In the middle of the season we started getting better, I think, as a team, and everybody started getting better. And then we kind of hit a point in the season where I learned a lot about patience. We were having quite a few runs during the summer where it was going to be good, solid top-20 finishes, and it didn't materialize for various reasons, through mistakes or frustration, bad luck.

And then toward the end of the season, I think we started finding a little bit more of their sweet spot. You can't make it better every time, but we started qualifying a little bit better and sort of finding a certain pattern to why that happened.

Tony Gibson, crew chief: Everybody always wants to do better and more, but we set our goals at the beginning of the year to accomplish certain things, and we accomplished them. We ran really good top-15 and top-20 in places I never dreamed we would, so I feel like we have made gains as a team. Communication, pit stops, working together, just getting confidence with her, us -- I think we made huge strides. I give it a B-plus on the year.

What went wrong

Patrick: I think we got off to a slow start as far as the team goes, and that was frustrating. Cars were not where they needed to be. I think the pole was a great way to start the year. It was a great morale kind of pole victory because it's so much about the preparation of the car, so I thought that was a great way to start the results of the season anyway, but then after that it showed that we needed to work on the cars a lot.

Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

Crew chief Tony Gibson gave Danica Patrick a B-plus on the year and cited communication as her most improved area.

Greg Zipadelli, SHR competition director: Where she is in practice, where she is in the race, in terms of speed, I don't think the results are near where they should be for the amount she's picked up. But as she gets better, as she races different people, she learns because she is racing better cars and better people. It's just kind of how it works.

Biggest improvement

Gibson: Communication, I think, being able to help go from Friday's practice to Saturday to Sunday closing that gap, so that we raced a little bit better on Sunday. Obviously, that's gotten better, so I would say that's the biggest thing.

Zipadelli: She does a good job getting on and off pit road. A lot of those things she's really done good. She's done a really good job of learning to be a little bit more of a leader and a team player in the role. I think that's one of the things that she's really matured on, which is a big deal. You've got to have someone who is a little bit of a leader and helps keep everyone uplifted, especially when you're not getting the result that you want. She's done a good job of that.

Mark Dyer, agent: I think one of the things she's learned the past couple years with the much bigger schedule is to kind of let a tough weekend run off her back. By Monday or Tuesday she's looking forward. I think she would say she let some of the tough days bother her a little too much a couple of years ago. And I think she's done a much better job of processing that, of bagging it up and throwing it away and moving on because [in] a 36-week season, you can't bounce up and down like that.

Biggest need for improvement

Gibson: Qualifying, hands down. It's something we've got to fix. We have good race cars. Our cars are fast. The problem is we start in the back. It's so hard to pass here, and before you know it, you're a lap down, even though you've got a good car. All of a sudden it's halfway through the race before we get our lap back and we're sitting in the top 20 again. If we get our qualifying better, it's really going to help our whole weekend.

I would like to see the qualifying pick up a little bit. She’s been better in practice. Hasn’t necessarily been able to close the deal. But that’s progress. The next step is to practice better and then to qualify better and read it and learn.
Greg Zipadelli

Zipadelli: I would like to see the qualifying pick up a little bit. She's been better in practice. Hasn't necessarily been able to close the deal. But that's progress. The next step is to practice better and then to qualify better and read it and learn.

The thing she's still learning is how much of it does she have to compensate for. When you go out for qualifying and the racetrack is slicker, you've got to learn how to drive it. I think she's done a really, really good job learning how to drive it during the race.

Offseason imperative

Zipadelli: I think we look at how we help her qualify better. How do we help her start the race better? We can do those two things. If she doesn't lose that lap in the first stint or two, there's been a lot of places in the second half of the year where she could have run 12th to 20th, pretty solid consistently.

That's where we need to figure out how to help her. Part of that is time. If you look at her starts, even in IndyCar, the number of starts she has does not equate with the number a lot of these people have around here [in Sprint Cup]. She's been doing a good job dealing with that.

Gibson: We want to build some better race cars. We know we've got to build lighter cars, faster cars as a company. Our company is not where we think we need to be on race cars. Better aero, try to figure out this new package when NASCAR comes up with it, try to be one of the first ones to get on it so we're not so far behind like we were this year.

Second-year expectations

Gibson: My goal is to be a solid top-20 car. Don't sporadically get in the top 20 or whatever, be a top-20 car every week and if you can consider yourself a top-20, every once in a while you're going to pop a top-10 or a top-5 here and there. You're going to have things knock you out of it, but I want to know that our performance is in the top 20. I think that's realistic.

Zipadelli: We would certainly like to see her in the top 20 on a regular basis, and if she does that, she will have the opportunities at times for top-10s and a solid top-20 in points. That would be a realistic expectation. [But] we always want more than that.

Danica debrief

espnW: How much did having Tony Stewart unable to pursue his own racing duties help yours?

Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images

Danica Patrick ran surprisingly well in some difficult places, most notably finishing 12th at Martinsville.

DP: Having him on the radio was nice, at Martinsville [saying] something simple like, "Calm down." It's so easy to get pissed off at a place like that, and then just telling me to try different lines and do different things. I think there is the immediate help that it gives me, and I think the other one is being able to see a little bit closer what it is I need to work on because I want to know.

I ask everyone. I sat down with Greg Zipadelli a couple months ago, and I talked about things I thought about the year and my thoughts going into next year, because I don't pretend nothing is my fault. I said I want to hear what I need to work on for next year. And I mean it.

Sometimes the easiest person to fix is yourself. I have said, "If you don't have anything right now, you can make a list and come back to me." We haven't had that meeting. I don't know if it means it's a short list. I don't know.

espnW: Do you ask more micro questions now that you've been a stock car racer for a while?

DP: Shoot. I usually ask [2013 Cup rookie of the year/boyfriend] Ricky [Stenhouse Jr.] the technical questions. "What's the one in the left-rear thing mean again? You know?'' It's just a lot of stuff that seems very elementary to other people, and it's not to me. I don't understand completely.

But I do ask a lot of questions, and I'm getting, especially from the testing I am getting in the middle of the year, learning more about what I like. I really took that time to kind of ask, "OK, what do we do? What are we trying to do here?"

espnW: What if Ricky is setting you up with bad info just to mess with you?

DP: If he is, then we've got bigger problems.

espnW: When did it feel good in the car this year?

DP: The first Martinsville [a 12th-place finish], that thing was good. Totally in control, comfortable. The last Charlotte [20th], I really felt like we had a good car there at the end. Any time the car handles well, basically, you feel good.

espnW: Your knack for performing on the big stages continued, not only at Daytona, but Martinsville, a place where your experience level didn't suggest such a strong run. What's the secret?

DP: I don't know. I guess I'm just grateful that on the weekends where there is a lot on the line or maybe a lot of attention paid to how I might do, it goes better. I really can't explain it. I can only explain that it happens like that a lot of the time.

espnW: Did you surprise yourself at all this season?

DP: It never feels like enough because you are always going for the next level. It almost seems like the days that you do better, you're even more frustrated because the car was good and it was there to have a really good day. I feel like I'm always looking for how it could be better. That's my job. If anything, sometimes I feel more frustrated.

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