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Danica looks to rebound from disastrous 2013 and into expanded NASCAR Chase field
Have the GoDaddy domains been taken for “disappointing.com,” “overrated.org” and “myboyfriendkickedmybuttforrookieof…” OK, you get the picture. Danica Patrick’s rookie year on the Sprint Cup circuit peaked early, with a pole at the Daytona 500 and her only top-10 finish (eighth). She led five laps that day, and believe it or not, that was the last time she was up front for a Cup race. Weeks of torturous performances followed, from ugly wrecks involving back-markers like David Gilliland and Travis Kvapil, to handling woes that were never corrected, to a two-laps-down 30th at Indianapolis — the track that transformed her career.
She did have a couple decent runs, particularly at Martinsville, where Patrick posted 12th- and 17th-place head-turners. But the learning curve proved to be a steep one for Patrick, who finished the season 27th in driver points — slotting behind two drivers (Mark Martin and Denny Hamlin) who missed a dozen races total between them.
That said, it’s still hard to overlook “Danica Patrick” off the track. She’s popular with fans, garners plenty of media attention, has a high-profile sponsor and drives a bright green and orange car that’s easily spotted in a crowded field on race day. Her boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., could skyrocket into Chase contention this season. But part of the reason she stands out at Stewart-Haas Racing, a team that has suddenly built a stable of thoroughbreds, is how much worse she performs on-track by comparison.
Can things improve? Patrick will continue to work with crew chief Tony Gibson, a veteran leader with whom she communicates well. Beyond Gibson, SHR has infused some new blood into its other teams; Gibson was the only head wrench to keep his 2013 role. New additions mean new ideas that could benefit the No. 10 team while Patrick enjoys the steadying guidance of a familiar crew chief. She has been very willing to learn, and the team around her will be solid. Further, she’s received a hearty vote of confidence from team co-owner Stewart.
Patrick also has a sponsor eager to back her efforts in GoDaddy.com — along with a couple of races with Aspen Dental — meaning her team is financially set. SHR is also among the sport’s elite in terms of equipment. The cars are as fast as they are durable, with the organization experiencing just a single engine failure last year.
Behind the scenes, a cavalry of elite drivers has been assigned to help her. New teammate Kevin Harvick, in particular, took her under his wing privately last fall, while Martin looks to stay with the organization as a driver coach.
From an on-track perspective, there’s nowhere to go but up for Patrick, whose team and even NASCAR (although it publicly wouldn’t admit to it) are going to give her every opportunity to succeed. But the competition continues to improve around her.
Considering that last season was spent trying to beat those with a sliver of her cash and resources for 30th place, Danica needs to pick it up considerably if the results are to ever come close to matching the hype.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
Despite her sub-par record in NASCAR, few garage insiders can argue that Danica Patrick doesn’t work hard at learning the stock-car trade.
“Very coachable and willing to try whatever it takes to become a better driver,” a rival crew chief says. “The expectations are honestly not that high if she can just improve over last season. GoDaddy is still pumping money into the coffers at SHR. She has two former Cup champions in her organization to learn from and with (Kurth) Busch, (Kevin) Harvick and (Tony) Stewart in the fold, she can actually fly under the radar. She hasn’t driven other stock cars, so her entire frame of reference is the COT/Gen-6 platform.”
And then there’s the “attractive woman” thing: “She’s always going to be viewed as getting her shot because of her looks,” says another. “But most forget that she’s still learning how to race a full-bodied stock car. She’s a small person and these are heavy cars. Even though there is power steering and other amenities in these cars, you still have to wrestle them around the track.”
“She’s not a proven winner,” another contends. “Her one Indy win was a fuel mileage deal. More tracks are going to get tires that wear out, and she’s never had to do deal with tire management.”
No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Sponsors: No. 10 GoDaddy.com/Aspen Dental Chevrolet
Owner: Tony Stewart/Gene Haas/Joe Custer
Crew Chief: Tony Gibson
Years with current team: 3
Under contract through: 2014+
Best points finish: 27th (2013)
Hometown: Roscoe, Ill.
Born: March 25, 1982
Photos courtesy of Stewart-Haas Racing
For complete Speedweeks coverage, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro