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Previews, predictions and stats for Danica Patrick and the No. 10 team
Well this could get awkward. Or not. Danica Patrick’s offseason revelation that she is dating fellow Rookie of the Year candidate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. confirmed to the public what most in the garage already knew.
So how will all that work? Despite the many NASCAR media members who will tell you otherwise, her on- and off-track relationship with Stenhouse will be an ongoing subplot strictly for the fact that it’s Danica.
But we’ll worry about that as it comes. Now, to the racing: Patrick enters her first full Sprint Cup season shouldering very high expectations despite a Nationwide Series career that failed to show promise until late last season. Armed with competitive equipment, high-powered sponsorship and top-tier crewmen, she’s frequently garnered as much media attention as Cup superstars. However, it’s important to keep in perspective that Patrick is a Cup rookie with little-to-no Nationwide, Truck or even Late Model experience, which means a steep learning curve lies ahead even in a best-case scenario.
Stewart-Haas Racing equipment should give her a chance to progress, but beyond that, it’s up to Patrick. In 10 Sprint Cup races last season, she did show improvement, with finishes in the 30s turning into the 20s, leading to a season-best 17th at Phoenix. But even that finish was tainted by an ugly last-lap crash (though not of her making).
Owner Tony Stewart hopes that fresh faces will help in her progression. With veteran crew chief Tony Gibson replacing Greg Zipadelli, Patrick will once again have quality experience on the pit box. Gibson will immediately need to improve Patrick’s qualifying efforts; her average start in 2012 was 36th, and at times it was obvious that she was hesitant to run the car on the ragged edge. With the demise of the top 35 rule in Sprint Cup, such efforts could result in her sitting on the sidelines early, as Stewart’s points protect her for only the first three races under 2013 provisional rules.
Patrick will also need to learn to pick her battles. Veterans won’t push her around too much, but she can’t drive over her head trying to get back at them when they do (see: Landon Cassill, Sam Hornish Jr.). Wrecking yourself, as Patrick often does when the temper boils over, does nothing but diminish respect both in the garage and on the track.
The major issue remains that Patrick is still uncomfortable with close-quarters racing. If she can take the car past her comfort zone, upping her speed earlier in the race, she could find some degree of success on the Cup level.
Patrick enters 2013 as the underdog in the Rookie of the Year race, but she has the right pieces for a solid (by rookie comparisons) season. If she’s given the chance to be a rookie, with emphasis on improving qualifying, completing races and earning respect, she can lay the foundation for a decent Cup career. Either way, you know she’ll be a front-page story far more often than her finishes warrant.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
Perhaps no driver in the Cup Series will be more closely watched — and debated — than Danica Patrick.
“As good of a race car driver as one-third of the wheelmen in the garage,” one crew chief says. “She’s under five times the scrutiny of anyone not named Earnhardt, and has gotten better every time out in the car. Is she going to be a champion someday? Probably not. Will she make the Chase? Don’t bet against her. …
“With Hendrick equipment at Stewart-Haas and a team that has been in the Chase before, she very well could be there in the next three years. She’s put up with a ton of junk the last couple of years while trying to make this transition, and she’s still got a good attitude. She may flame out and never amount to anything, but I would be willing to bet she’ll make the Chase before she hangs up the helmet.”
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