Danica Year 2: Learning Curve

In her second season in NASCAR, Danica Patrick looks to apply lessons learned to prove she has what it takes to make a career in stock cars

<p> In her second season in NASCAR, Danica Patrick looks to apply lessons learned to prove she has what it takes to make a career in stock cars</p>

In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.

Article originally published in 2011 Athlon Sports Racing annual

— by Bryan Davis Keith

Moments after taking his record sixth ARCA Series victory at Daytona International Speedway, race winner Bobby Gerhart walked all but unmolested from Victory Lane while a throng of reporters — the likes of which even Dale Earnhardt Jr. seldom sees — swarmed around the evening’s sixth-place finisher.

After all, Danica Patrick had just made her stock car racing debut.

The following week, IndyCar’s hottest driver stepped up to the NASCAR level at Daytona, a week ahead of schedule. Prior to the green flag dropping, ESPN’s pre-race coverage was dripping with images of fans buying No. 7 merchandise from a bright green GoDaddy.com hauler. On pit road, there wasn’t even room to walk. The crowd was so thick that Mike Boeschinger, crew chief for Joe Nemechek’s No. 87 team, reminded his crew during the pace laps to “realize we’re going to have the Danica masses (on pit road), so remember to be professional dealing with them as we work.”

Danica-mania had come to stock car racing.

Danica-mania had come to NASCAR.

Following the conclusion of the 2010 season, there is little question that Patrick’s first foray into NASCAR had every bit as big of an impact off the track as anyone expected. Souvenir sales were sky high; she outsold both champion Jimmie Johnson and bad boy Kyle Busch in her first NASCAR month. Her debut in ARCA competition at Daytona resulted in the single highest-rated series event SPEED Channel had ever broadcast, even exceeding the numbers surrounding Juan Pablo Montoya’s 2006 stock car debut. NASCAR’s Nationwide Series opener followed suit with final numbers so powerful they set an all-time series record, beating roughly half of this year’s Sprint Cup Chase events in the Nielsen Ratings. And GoDaddy.com’s exposure during Nationwide Series telecasts throughout the season rivaled even that generated by Mark Martin’s GoDaddy.com entry at the Sprint Cup level.

From a marketing and branding standpoint, 2010 was a certain success. But as for on-track performance, for Patrick’s development and ability to transition from open-wheel to stock cars, both fans and critics alike were left with as many questions as answers in what could easily be described as a roller coaster of a rookie season.

There were some definite high points. Patrick was running solidly in the top 15 with less than 10 laps to go in Fontana’s fall race before late-race contact with James Buescher sent her machine hard into the backstretch wall, relegating what would have been at worst a career-first lead lap result to a 30th-place finish. And there was a season-finale performance at Homestead that was by far Patrick’s best showing in NASCAR, a top-5 qualifying effort parlayed into a 19th-place result, on the lead lap with a car that improved throughout the day.

But the low points seemed to dominate a year in which speed proved elusive. For all the hype and TV coverage that Patrick’s Daytona debut in a Nationwide car produced, the No. 7 was about as uncompetitive as a JR Motorsports entry had ever been in a restrictor plate race, with Danica nearly losing the draft, battling the underfunded rides of Danny Efland and Josh Wise before falling victim to the “big one” scarcely halfway through the event. Then, there was a nasty wreck at Las Vegas between Patrick and Michael McDowell’s already damaged racecar. McDowell took responsibility for the incident, though it’s also worth noting that he had committed to running the bottom line, protocol for damaged cars making laps off the pace, while Danica jammed him down from the top. Regardless of fault, the incident was avoidable, and the resulting crash cost her over 100 laps of valuable seat time.

And then, there was Dover in September. Despite turning over 100 laps and scoring a top-10 finish in the K&N Pro Series East race at the same track the day prior, Patrick’s inexperience as a stock car driver was never more evident than on the banks of the Monster Mile. The Saturday morning during qualifying, Patrick timed in 42nd of the 48 cars that showed up, proceeding after her slow lap to throw a tantrum over the radio ... because she couldn’t find her way to the garage entrance. Despite numerous instructions from crew chief Tony Eury Jr., Patrick eventually parked her car on pit road, where it sat until the JR Motorsports crew came to direct her.

The race itself didn’t go any better. Already three laps down by lap 71, Patrick cut a right front tire and pounded the Turn 4 wall, limping to a 35th-place finish in perhaps her worst performance of a 2010 season that included three DNFs in 13 starts.

Speaking before the media at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Patrick noted: “It’s been an up and down year. It’s been a character-building year, a humbling year. I did know coming into this season that it was going to be the hardest year I have ever had.

“Still, nothing can really prepare you for the hardest year you have ever had. It sucks at times. It’s still challenging. But I’ve learned a lot.”

Patrick’s “educational” analysis is not without merit. It took her five races to finally crack the top 25 in a NASCAR event, a feat she accomplished in four of her last five starts. Comparing her first five starts to her last five, Patrick’s average finishing position improved by eight spots, from 31.2 to 23.2. Even more important, Patrick made dramatic progress at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana upon her return visit in the fall (ACS was the one track that Patrick made two Nationwide Series starts on). Whereas in February, she finished three laps down while at times running laps 10 miles an hour off the leader’s pace, September’s event saw the No. 7 car a fixture on the lead lap and a top-15 car for most of the day.

Patrick’s performance that fall Saturday also caught a big-time eye, that of Mark Martin. A Cup veteran with ties to JR Motorsports through the Hendrick Motorsports camp, Martin went a long way to further Patrick’s education throughout the back half of 2010. After she wrecked out of the Dover race, Martin visited Patrick in her hauler while the No. 7 team worked on the damaged car, chatting for nearly an hour about setups, use of practice time and other elements of stock car racing that Patrick is still trying to familiarize herself with.

A few weeks later, following Patrick’s performance at Fontana, Martin spent two hours shaking down her Nationwide CoT machine in a test session at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October.

“Something that has stuck with me since he said it to me was that the front end of the car should do what you ask it to do,” said Patrick. “I thought it was a fantasy in my mind, that it would do what I wanted it to do. He said that that should be the point it gets to.”

The time Martin spent aiding Patrick was invaluable; her four best finishes in 2010 all came after Martin assisted her with the Charlotte test.

With the continuing support of JR Motorsports, Eury Jr., and drivers the caliber of Martin, Patrick is in a situation in terms of equipment and surroundings that tops even those of big-name, open-wheel converts Juan Pablo Montoya and Sam Hornish Jr. during their transitions. In terms of equipment and personnel, all the pieces are in place for driver No. 7 to handle one of the most difficult learning curves in all of motorsports.

There’s no overstating how tough the jump from open wheel to stock cars really is. It’s a challenge that has chewed up and spit out drivers far more accomplished than Patrick, be they three-time Indy Racing League champion Dario Franchitti or 1997 Formula 1 world champion Jacques Villeneueve. The two most notable open-wheel converts in recent memory would be Montoya and Hornish, who have found homes in the Sprint Cup ranks the last few seasons but enjoyed limited success. The Colombian has just two victories, while Hornish couldn’t even score two top 10s last season and is likely on the outside looking in for 2011.

How do Patrick’s first race starts compare? The evidence is inconclusive. Her results, as unspectacular as they may have been on paper, were in fact better than those of Hornish. Her average finish was stronger, a 28.0 compared to Hornish’s 32.8 in his first 11 Nationwide starts. She had just as many lead lap finishes, and just as many top 20s in that span. And for as often as she found trouble on the track in 2010, Patrick had half the DNFs of Hornish.

Based on the duo’s respective IndyCar résumés, those results should never have been that close. Patrick has only won once in IRL competition, while Hornish is both an Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time IRL champion. And yet, when it comes to stock cars, after one year Patrick is, statistically at least, further along than Hornish was at that point in his career.

On the other hand, Patrick’s results don’t come close to stacking up to those of Montoya, also an Indianapolis 500 winner and perhaps the most successful open-wheel convert to stock cars since Tony Stewart. Montoya, who made only four Nationwide starts in his debut stock car season before jumping to Cup full-time in 2007, remains the model that the next wave of open-wheel converts, including Patrick, will need to follow.

In speaking to the driver herself, there’s no shortage of confidence that results will come. Addressing home state media at Gateway International Raceway in October, Patrick said of her progression: “I know that I’ve learned as I’ve gone along. That’s important, and I feel more comfortable in my car for sure. I feel a little more under control. I feel like it’s coming slower at me than it did in the very beginning.”

With Patrick committed only to the first four races of the 2011 Nationwide Series, and planning to run a maximum total of 14, the jury remains out on whether Danica the driver will be able to make the jump from a back marker to a top-15 fixture next year. What also remains to be seen is whether the impact that GoDaddy’s fastest girl had on the Nationwide Series in 2010 is in fact the “good thing” for NASCAR that sanctioning body CEO Brian France proclaimed in November 2009, well before Patrick ever took the green flag for a stock car race.

There’s no doubt in terms of TV viewership that Patrick helped NASCAR’s second-tier series. The large ratings boost ESPN received televising her debut at Daytona was instrumental in the networks’ Nationwide Series ratings ending 2010 with an increase over the season prior, even as the Sprint Cup Series saw its ratings continue to flounder despite the drama of a three-way battle for the title heading into the season’s final race. Ticket sales also saw an uptick. New Hampshire Motor Speedway reported its Nationwide Series demand went up 30 percent after confirming that Patrick would be competing at the racetrack.

Her part-time campaign led to a full-time entry that the Nationwide Series field desperately needed as well. To ensure that her No. 7 car would remain in the top 30 in owner points — and locked into the field as a result — JR Motorsports decided at Bristol in March to run the car full-time, sponsored or not. And if Travis Pastrana and Brian Deegan are any indication, NASCAR, for all its current attendance and ratings trouble, is still proving an attractive market for motorsports’ biggest names.

The other side of the coin, though, surfaced even before the 2010 Nationwide Series took its first green flag. Addressing the media at Daytona, ESPN’s Vice President of Motorsports Rich Feinberg was questioned as to how his network planned to balance coverage of Danica’s debut with that of the 42 other story lines that would take to the racetrack. His response: “It’s our strong belief there will be people that turn on Saturday’s Nationwide telecast that perhaps don’t watch a lot of Nationwide races or NASCAR at all, because of the interest in her. We want to serve that curiosity.”

If the ratings were any indication, it was mission accomplished for ESPN, and for Patrick as well. But as for the other competitors, it was harder to find a positive to the massive influx of Danica-maniacs who tuned in. Because, frankly, the exposure wasn’t necessarily there, regardless of what the ratings said.

“The only thing I will say is that TV has been doing a horrible job,” said Kyle Busch of the media frenzy that saw Patrick dominate airtime throughout Speedweeks. “They’ve been covering her way too much.

“If you’re going to have all this attention drawn on the series, let’s put it towards all the people. If you’ve got all these people watching TV that want to hear about Danica, well, take advantage of that and show the less-funded teams, the underprivileged that want to have funding so they can race the rest of the year.”

Robert Richardson Jr. echoed those sentiments when questioned that weekend about his family-owned team’s experience regarding TV coverage, noting that the narrow window the networks offered is “why half of us don’t have sponsorship.”

To be fair to ESPN, the overwhelming focus on Patrick’s first few races subsided as the season progressed. But the question as to whether the decision to promote nothing but Danica-mania will actually have a lasting impact on the Nationwide Series remains to be seen. After all, just as 13 races provided an incomplete grade for Patrick’s NASCAR experiment, 13 telecasts may well be too small a sample size to determine just what kind of impact her rookie year actually had on NASCAR’s minor leagues.
No matter how many questions surround Patrick as she prepares for her second year as a stock car driver, one thing is for certain: Every high and low will be painstakingly broadcast in front of millions.

“Everybody has to face a learning curve,” summarized fellow NASCAR female racer Jennifer Jo Cobb. “Danica has to face hers, unfortunately, in front of the world with a big spotlight on her.”

That spotlight is not going anywhere for 2011.

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