DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Danica Patrick was hosting a Christmas lunch for her race team in December when the new guy walked up to her table with a tray and plopped down as though he'd been part of the family for years.
Billy Scott introduced himself, took a bite and joined the conversation. Thus began Patrick's relationship with her third crew chief since her NASCAR rookie season in 2013.
"Billy is just a very relatable guy," said Patrick, whose first regular-season race with Scott is Sunday's 58th Daytona 500. "He's very easy to talk to. He's just a really normal guy, and I think that's important when it comes to a team -- that everyone can talk to him, communicate and feel like they can not only say what they want but have a good time as well."
Scott replaces Ph.D. engineer Daniel Knost, who moved to an in-house managerial position within Stewart-Haas Racing. It's one of a few major changes for Patrick entering the 2016 season: Nature's Bakery replaces GoDaddy as her primary sponsor, and Patrick will race her No. 10 Chevrolet with light blue and white colors, replacing the easier-to-spot bright green, black and orange.
Could Patrick possibly sneak up on some people this year?
"I don't know what a realistic expectation is, but I know what my expectation is," she said. "I'd like to just get back to where I was in 2014. We were solid in the top 15 all the time, had good practices and qualified pretty decently. We were just very competitive and running up into the top 10 sometimes. So, that's where I'd like to get back to when the season starts, and then be able to go from there. I think we'll have a great year if that's the case."
Patrick had three top-10 finishes in 2014, all coming before Stewart-Haas Racing sent her crew chief, Tony Gibson, to Kurt Busch's No. 41 car and brought Knost over from Busch's team with three races left.
Patrick and Knost started out well enough last year, scoring top-10 finishes at Martinsville and Bristol, but they tailed off and didn't finish in the top 15 after May.
Scott, a 38-year-old mechanical engineer from Land O' Lakes, Florida, comes over from Michael Waltrip Racing, where he once worked under Rodney Childers, who's now the crew chief for Patrick's teammate and 2014 Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick.
Waltrip says one of Scott's strengths is being able to weigh both the driver's feedback against the engineering data when they conflict, and he thinks he'll be "perfect" for Patrick.
"He's level-headed and calm, and I think that's something she'll appreciate," Waltrip said.
Scott says his lighter approach comes naturally, and he'll try to keep it up throughout the grueling 36-race season. "We're all together so many weeks out of the year and spend so much time around each other that you've got to be able to be able joke around with each other and have some fun," he said. "There's a very fine line between it being exciting and starting to wear on you. People get burned out pretty quick in this business and we just need to try and avoid that."
Patrick signed a new multiyear contract with Stewart-Haas Racing last August after some conjecture she might lose her spot on one of NASCAR's top teams. She'll have Nature's Bakery and her quasi-Carolina Blue colors on her car for 28 races, with Aspen Dental and TaxAct splitting the remaining eight races.
The pressure is off a little bit at Daytona, where Patrick made history in 2013 by becoming the first woman to win a Sprint Cup pole and lead laps in the Daytona 500 before finishing eighth. As with any other driver, though, there are two major challenges at Daytona: avoiding the inevitable multicar wrecks and finding drafting partners.
"You just have to earn that [reputation] where people want to follow you because they believe in you and they trust you," Patrick said. "I don't think there's a huge substitute for time. I think that's' just what you have to do. Time and proving yourself."
Patrick remembered when her teammate Busch passed her on the outside and took a line of drivers with him during last Saturday's Sprint Unlimited. "I don't think that would happen to me," she said, "but Kurt has been around a long time and he's won a lot of races. And he's won a championship."
Busch says Patrick has put in the time, and now needs to show she can be a factor at the end of races.
"I think it's just a matter of her closing the deal when it comes to restarts and finishing the races stronger," he said. "I think we could pull up some stats -- I don't know them for sure -- but I would say the first three quarters of her races are a lot better [for her] than the final quarter. That's what I've been trying to teach her, is that we have to finish stronger at the end of these races."
Patrick says she actually feels more confident about the second race of the season at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where she had a sixth-place finish in August 2014.
"I feel more confident that I could get a top-10 finish there than I feel confident I could get a top-10 finish at Daytona, just because it's such a crapshoot [at Daytona]," she said. "You have to have so much luck on your side. You have to avoid the accidents, be at the right place at the right time, have some good pit stops and make some good decisions on the track, so there's just a lot you can't count on."
Still, Daytona is the start of something new for Patrick. And for the first time in her career, she comes in just a little bit under the radar.