Bad luck, poor qualifying irk Patrick

Danica Patrick has little trouble clicking through the reasons why she's off to the worst start of her IndyCar career.

Poor qualifying. Missed opportunities. Bad setups. Even worse luck.

Never, however, does Patrick use the word "NASCAR" while trying to explain what she admits is largely unexplainable.

Sorry. The superstar driver isn't about to place blame on her part-time gig driving in NASCAR's Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports.

"It just a really easy thing to look at, an easy excuse," she said. "I don't think there's anything to it."

Patrick is quick to point out that she's simply the latest in a long line of drivers who have split time between different series. Tony Stewart did it. A.J. Foyt too.

If anything, Patrick figures the additional seat time should be making her a better driver. She has no doubt it will. It's just not leading to better results, at least not yet.

Patrick is 16th in points heading into the Indy 500 and has finished outside the Top 10 in four of five races. She had seven such finishes all of last season, when she soared to a career-best fifth in the points standings.

She re-signed with Andretti Autosports to compete for a title. Two months into the season, she's not even competing for the top spot on her own team.

Patrick is currently looking up at teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay (fourth), Tony Kanaan (eighth) and Marco Andretti (13th) in the standings.

"It's just an unfortunate situation, and there's no other answer," she said.

She's hoping to find some solutions at the Brickyard. Patrick has been steady at the historic 2.5-mile oval, cracking the Top 10 in four of her five starts there. She finished third last year, the best-ever finish by a female driver.

Another solid performance on Memorial Day weekend could help end the slump.

"It happens," she said. "There's nothing you can say about it. Every now and again I imagine a lot of athletes aren't where they thought they were going to be. ... If the answer was simple, I'd have it."

What she does have are theories.

She got caught up in an early race accident in the season-opener in Brazil and never got her track position back. It forced her to gamble late in the race and she spun out, finishing 15th. She bounced back in St. Petersburg, moving up to seventh despite a poor qualifying effort.

The momentum came to a screeching halt in Alabama, where she started and finished 19th. Long Beach was more of the same. Moving to the ovals, where she's historically been strong, helped a little. Her crew began to figure things out at Kansas two weeks ago. Unfortunately things didn't start clicking until she was already a lap down, and she wound up 11th.

"There's been a series of things that have gone wrong," she said. "I can't put my finger into exactly one thing."

Her struggles weren't exactly the kind of spring she had in mind following her largely positive NASCAR debut. She signed a deal with JR Motorsports last December to drive part-time on the Nationwide Series.

She drove capably in her stock car debut, finishing sixth in an ARCA race at Daytona in February. The next week she rolled out alongside Sprint Cup regulars Stewart, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch. Patrick made it 58 laps before getting caught up in an accident that wasn't her fault and finished 35th. She improved to 31st a week later in California before ending her first Nationwide stint with a 36th-place finish in Las Vegas.

Great? Not exactly. But hardly an embarrassment. Running at the back of the field has never sat well with Patrick, but she understood it would take awhile to get a handle on the bulkier stock cars.

Although the NASCAR job raised her already high profile, Patrick says it's nothing she can't handle. She's been scheduled to within an inch of her life for years. NASCAR didn't change that.

What has changed, however, are her results when she's in the cockpit of her No. 17 Honda.

Patrick thought this would be the season she and the rest of her Andretti teammates could break the stranglehold superteams Penske Racing and Target/Chip Ganassi Racing have held on the series in recent years.

She might be right. Hunter-Reay won at Long Beach and is just 31 points behind series leader Will Power.

At this point, Patrick's more realistic goal is trying to make sure the worst start of her career doesn't become the worst season of her career. She was 12th in the standings as a rookie in 2005. It's not a mark she imagined flirting with this year.

"I'm trying not to get upset, trying not to take the focus away from what's important and that's working hard," she said.