Lee Spencer profiles NASCAR’s very own First Lady, Danica Patrick, as she gets set for this weekend’s Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono.
If nothing else, Danica Patrick is determined.
Some pundits questioned whether the former IndyCar driver would survive after making the jump to stock car racing full-time in 2012. Sure, Patrick had won in open-wheel racing but could she muscle the heavier, slower ‘stock’ cars? Four years later – after a season in NASCAR’s lower tour and three years making headway amongst the elite in the Sprint Cup Series – not only has the 33-year-old superstar survived, she is on the verge of signing a new contract with Stewart-Haas Racing.
No, Patrick hasn’t set the stock car world on fire. In 102 Cup starts, she’s posted just six top-five finishes; with a sixth-place run at Atlanta Motor Speedway accounting for her top result. But Patrick has been a trailblazer for female racers. In her rookie year, Patrick became the first woman to win a pole as she led from the front of the grid at the 2013 Daytona 500. Among female competitors at Cup level, Patrick has surpassed records previously set by Janet Guthrie for both starts (33) and top-10s (five).
With every race, she continues to add to her totals. And as the seasons build, Patrick continues to show improvement. As a freshman, although Patrick was running at the finish in 31 of 36 races, only in on 12 events was she able to maintain a position on the lead lap. In her sophomore season, she posted 19 lead lap finishes and improved her average finish by 3.4 positions.
Team owner Gene Haas is willing to be patient. With three champions under his roof – Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and current Sprint Cup title-holder Kevin Harvick – it would be unrealistic to hold Patrick to their standards.
“She’s in a very tough sport,” Haas said. “So I think, if we’re sitting here saying that we want her to be as fast as some of these Cup drivers that have ten years’ experience, that’s just not really fair.
“Danica is a special person. She has so much demand for her image and we like that. We really like that. That’s a good balance. Even if her performance is taking longer than we’d like, she has so much consumer demand that it balances it out really well.”
With three races remaining in the 2014 season, SHR swapped Patrick and Busch’s teams. Under the direction of crew chief Daniel Knost, Patrick has elevated her position in the point standings from 28th last year, to 22nd after 20 races this year, with an average qualifying effort of 22nd and an average finish of 22.4.
Haas has been pleased by the pairing of Patrick and Knost.
“Daniel is a real meticulous engineer,” Haas said. “He looks at things very microscopically and he tells Danica, and she seems to respond to that. I think their relationship – as far as trying to figure things out – sounds like it works pretty good.”
Patrick characterizes her association with Knost as “a very good business relationship”. While the driver and crew chief share lighter moments, Patrick admits there’s not a lot of “emotion” involved in their exchange. Although, like most drivers, Patrick can get a little hot in the heat of the battle.
“Nobody feels like it’s personal as we go,” Patrick said. “It’s really just about making it better. It’s hard because (in) this sport, we spend so much time together, and everything we do we put our heart into. It’s everything we’ve got and so, when things don’t go right, it can feel personal.
“But I think we have a very good working relationship, and I don’t want that to sound cold. We get along great and we have a lot of fun. I think that the balance – in the front of the hauler with all the engineers – I think it’s really good, and I think we have a lot of fun, but we also do good work. I’m lucky I have three really, really, really smart engineers on my car, and I think that that shows because every weekend when we arrive, we’re in the ballpark.”
Still, Patrick has endured her share of growing pains. Despite feeling the support of the fans last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and putting up a solid 15th-place qualifying effort, Patrick slid through the field in the closing stages of the race and finished 27th. Nevertheless, it was her best career finish at the Brickyard 400.
With half of the Cup season in the books, Patrick now has the luxury of returning to 12 tracks for a second time with Knost, one of which will be Pocono Raceway this weekend. At Pocono, Patrick will be looking to improve upon last month’s performance which saw her wrecked after 135 laps. She finished 37th, tying her worst result at the track.
Patrick acknowledges she still has a lot to learn at the ‘Tricky Triangle’; a 2.5 mile track with three distinct corners.
“It’s a neat place, definitely a unique track,” Patrick said. “It’s still a place I don’t have a ton of experience at. It’s just an odd place to set the car up because the corners are so different. If you are really good in turn one, then maybe two and three are a little off. Or, if you’re good in three, maybe one and two are different. I will say that the straightaway is enormous. There’s a lot of distance between turns three and one.
“My favorite corner at Pocono is honestly – it’s probably – turn one. You can make up a lot of ground if you’re good through there. It comes into a pretty good compression and you can drive off down into the corner. If the car turns pretty well, you can pick up the throttle really hard. And while I like turn one, the most important corner is probably turn three, leading onto the front straightaway.”
Come Sunday’s race, as the prospect of victory in Pennsylvania looms ever closer, Patrick will be hoping she’s turned a corner of another kind.