DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Story by Race Chaser Online Mid-Atlantic Correspondent Marshall Gabell — Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images North America photo —
The time is now.
With confidence flowing at an all time high — Danica Patrick carries an inspired attitude into 2016 knowing that this season is not just her best chance to silence critics, but also the time she needs to prove her place in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Hailing from Roscoe, Ill., it has now been four seasons since she transitioned from open-wheel racing into the stock car ranks, and the expected product is still unfinished.
In 118 starts at the Sprint Cup Series level, she has reined in a scant six top-10 finishes and one Coors Light Pole Award for the powerhouse Stewart-Haas Racing team, who has won two of the last five series championships — with Tony Stewart (2011) and Kevin Harvick (2014).
Her best season (points-wise) was registered in 2015 after she finished 24th overall in the standings.
For her, elusive is the perfect word to describe her recent struggles.
It has been eight disheartening seasons since her last triumph in motorsports — the 2008 Indy Japan 300 — which came during her time in the IndyCar Series. Since joining the highest level in NASCAR three years ago, not only has she been denied a win, but also a top five finish, something that has eaten at her.
On the flip side, however, it is hard to win in the top series — especially given the talent of this era. Right now there are 13 full-time Sprint Cup drivers still looking for their first win, including Patrick.
“It’s very challenging (to win). There’s lots of great drivers. Experience definitely helps. I’m working on getting that,” the driver of the No. 10 Nature’s Bakery Chevrolet said at Daytona 500 Media Day on Tuesday. “There’s 40-plus cars in the field. It’s twice as hard as it used to be to get to Victory Lane. It was hard to do it back when I was in IndyCar. I did it once in seven years.”
Along with the experience factor, she also knows it takes a perfect, error-free performance to get into the winner’s circle. It is no walk in the park.
“It’s very hard to win in Cup, it just is. Everything’s got to go your way and be right and be clicking. That’s what also makes it so great when it happens — the blood, sweat and tears to get there.”
With or without a win though, Patrick still suits up each weekend and walks with a little swagger in her step — because for her, the motivation of not having a win is what drives her desire.
“It’s always frustrating, but it’s frustrating to just keep wanting to do better. But that’s what drives you.”
But foremost, before a win is even in question, Patrick first wants to put together consistent finishes this season — and that realistic goal comes from renewed confidence, as the 33-year-old feels she has completed her stock car learning curve, even if it took some extra time.
In fact, her comfort in these cars is drastically different now than compared to her rookie season — which has helped her learn how to drive the car to the absolute max and not hold anything back.
“I’m far more confident. I’m far more confident and comfortable,” Patrick said. “I’m understanding the car properly and able to help in making it better quickly on the race weekend.”
“Also, the comfort of getting up to speed fast helps that learning curve, too. I remember there was lots of times in the very beginning when I wasn’t able to drive the car to the very limit. We’d come in and make changes based on the way that I was driving it. Once I was driving it the way it needed to be, all of a sudden we ended up back where we started.”
She does still, however, see the need for improvement. She does not ever look to hide that fact.
“[There is] always room to improve. I’m still working on doing a better job at that. I think as a driver, we all tend to have our general weak areas and general strong areas,” Patrick expressed.
Patrick’s first chance at showcasing her improvement — and capitalizing on her still growing experience, along with her fresh attitude — will come in the 58th Annual Daytona 500 this weekend, a race she finished eighth at in 2013, the year she won the pole.
But like typical restrictor plate races, she understands nothing is guaranteed going into the race due to its crash-heavy nature.
“Daytona is such a crapshoot,” Patrick said. “You have to have so much luck on your side. You have to avoid the accidents, be at the right place at the right time, have smooth pit stops, make good decisions on the track. There’s just a lot that you can’t count on.
Even though the race can hold a lot of unknowns — Patrick enjoys the excitement, especially the drafting feature, often a daring and wild aspect of superspeedway racing.
“If I’m ever in a drafting line and I don’t feel like I’m able to keep up to the car in front of me as easily, I look in my mirror, and sure enough, the car is either — no cars behind or they’re one or two car lengths back, which makes it harder to keep up when they’re not really tight on you.”
“Then, of course, you don’t want to be in a situation where someone is so tight on you that anything happens and they could hit you. So that’s the excitement of speedway racing.”
Another source of excitement for the Illinois native has always been the Indianapolis 500, the crown jewel event of the Verizon IndyCar Series and a race she competed in seven times from 2005 to 2011, with a best finish of third in 2009.
With the 100th running of the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ on tap this May, Patrick was asked if she was considering a return to the historic event for its historic milestone running.
“When it’s mentioned that it’s the hundredth 500, it is a little bit thought provoking,” she said of whether or not she would ever make a return to Indianapolis in May. “I have a lot going on in NASCAR, though. I have a new crew chief. I have things that I want to accomplish over here.”
“I had a great time in IndyCar. I was given great opportunities. I’m okay with not doing it [again] is what I’m saying. Just kind of like people talk about a year being a pivotal year, every year was like that at Indy for me. I don’t think anyone is saying, ‘Oh, you only won the 76th running,’ like that’s no big deal. Every one of them is a big deal.”
“The hundredth will be a great media exposure for the series, for the race itself, the drivers involved. But anything beyond that, I mean — to go back to what I was saying, I would have been happy to have won any of them. To me, the hundredth is just a marker.”
“So no, I don’t think, at least right now, that you’ll see me do [the Indy 500]. But it does help me remember my good times.”
Off the track, Patrick’s life has been relaxing as she and boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who drives for Roush Fenway Racing in the Sprint Cup Series, have continued their long-time relationship. Over the Valentine’s Day weekend, the couple ventured out to the dirt track together.
“Valentine’s Day at the dirt track, I couldn’t have thought of anything better,” Patrick said of Sunday with Stenhouse. “Part of being in a relationship is that you see somebody that you love and care about doing something that they love so much and that they’re happy.”
Back on the circuit, Patrick’s quest to end the critics and clinch her first top-five (and a win, ultimately) will start when Sunday’s Daytona 500 takes the green flag at 1 p.m. Eastern on FOX, the Motor Racing Network, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, channel 90.
About the Writer
Marshall Gabell is the Mid-Atlantic Correspondent for Race Chaser Online, and was also formerly the public relations director for NASCAR Next member Austin Hill. Gabell is currently attending Stephen Decatur High School in Ocean City, Md., completing his sophomore year. He is just 15 years old.
Email Marshall at: [email protected]
Follow on Twitter: @MarshallGabell
Email Race Chaser Online: [email protected]
Follow RCO on Twitter: @RaceChaserNews