Key for Danica Patrick: Patience

CONCORD, N.C. -- Small goals.

Remember those two words. You will hear them a lot this season when anyone involved in the No. 10 Chevy talks about expectations this season for its celebrity driver.

Those words were the theme Monday for the woman onstage at Stewart-Haas Racing's media day event.

Small goals. Team owner Tony Stewart, crew chief Tony Gibson and, of course, the driver in the spotlight -- Danica Patrick -- said those words over and over about her upcoming season in Sprint Cup.

"Small goals along the way are going to be a top 20, then top 18 and top 16," Patrick said. "Small things like that. It won't be, 'Oh we had a top 10, so we're going to do that every week.' That's not realistic. It's small goals."

Maybe those words are a way of lowering expectations for Patrick and deflecting some of the attention. Patrick is used to plenty of attention. She is one of the most recognizable sports figures in the country.

However, this year will be different. Barring injury or suspension, she will become the first woman in history to run a full Cup season, not counting the six-race inaugural NASCAR season in 1949, when Sara Christian raced in every event. America's top auto racing series now has the world's most popular and most successful female racer competing every week.

"We are going to be intelligently patient," Patrick said. "We know it's a process. I don't think any of us really know where we should start our expectations for competing."

Competing is a relative term. Now at age 30, Patrick is making the biggest transition of her life, on and off the racetrack.

She is taking on the big boys in racing's most competitive series. And she's going through a divorce after a seven-year marriage.

It's a lot to ask, even for someone as media-savvy and as racing-accomplished as Patrick. She is the only woman ever to win an IndyCar Series event. She is the first woman to lead a lap in the Indy 500. She finished third at Indy in 2009.

She finished 10th last year in her first full season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. She started on the pole for the Daytona Nationwide race.

I could go on, but even with all of her unprecedented achievements, many people believe she's in way over her head now. Cup drivers are the best of the best. They are ruthless, especially with rookies.

And Patrick will always have detractors who believe she has this opportunity because of what she is in pop culture -- an attractive woman who marketed her beauty into mainstream popularity -- more than what she has accomplished as a race car driver.

"I can honestly say she has as much talent as any rookie I've ever worked with," Gibson said. "And it's so exciting to have a driver that is so pumped up each day to get in the car."

Patrick will need that enthusiasm. This is a step like no other she will face in racing. They say the biggest jump for a professional baseball player is from Triple-A to the big leagues. The same is true in NASCAR, from Nationwide to Cup.

Patrick is in the deep water now. It's easy to drown. So everyone at SHR is keeping it real, so to speak.

"We are setting small goals for ourselves," Gibson said for the first time of many times Monday. "We set goals we can reach, and when we achieve them, we will go to the next one. We want to come out of each race with a positive, no matter what happens."

Gibson, a veteran crew chief who welcomes the challenge, understands what he's in for. Gibson has been in the fishbowl before as a former crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

But it's new for some of the No. 10 Chevy crew, which worked with Ryan Newman last season. It's a veteran group, but Gibson has warned them about what's ahead.

"I've told them that everything they do will be under a microscope now," Gibson said. "Every move they make in the pits and every decision they make will be scrutinized. But they want this. They see it as an opportunity."

Gibson had a meeting with Patrick and the crew.

"We told her that we are behind her no matter what happens," Gibson said. "We are in this together, good or bad. We have her back."

Patrick said those words meant a lot: "They believe in me and I believe in them. That's all I can ask for."

Making this move more difficult is the transition in Patrick's personal life. Patrick has Hollywood status when it comes to her appeal, so people will speculate on her life off the track. Rumors already have started about whom she's dating.

We told her that we are behind her no matter what happens. We are in this together, good or bad. We have her back.

-- Tony Gibson

Patrick wisely skated past those questions Monday when asked if her personal life was as good as her professional life.

"It's nice when both things are great," Patrick said. "But the on-track stuff is what dictates my mood the most."

And Patrick can be moody at times.

"She's a spitfire," Gibson said. "She's a lot like Dale Jr. They are not afraid to speak their mind. But it's up to me to keep her calm and level-headed."

Patrick raced 10 Cup events last season in preparation for this year. It wasn't pretty. She finished 28th or worse in seven of those races, but things improved late in the year when Gibson became her crew chief. Patrick finished 17th at Phoenix in her last Cup race of 2012.

A realistic goal for this season could be to top Janet Guthrie's mark in 1977, when Guthrie finished 23rd in the Cup standings in only 19 starts, the best in history by a woman.

Patrick's boss is confident she has what it takes to get the job done.

"Danica has done a lot in a very short amount of time," Stewart said. "Her feedback is way better than mine was when I started in Cup. She understands what the car is doing and what she's feeling. That's a sign she's going to do well.

"This stuff takes a while [to learn], but all of a sudden, there's a day when it clicks and you finally get that feel you're looking for. That day will come for her."

Just don't expect too much too fast.

Small goals. For a woman making history and changing her life, that's enough for now.