News & Media

Menzer: Patrick's goals lofty, but very much achievable

February 06, 2012, Joe Menzer,

In first full season, would like to visit Victory Lane and finish top-five in points

Yes, she said it. And why not?

Asked recently what her expectations were for her first full-season foray into NASCAR, Danica Patrick pulled no punches. Her expectations are as high as the stiletto heels she wore to a recent media event.

Transition time

The 2012 season brings another year of learning for Danica Patrick as she prepares to make her Cup Series debut at Daytona.

"On the Nationwide side, getting into the top 10 in points to start out and then getting in the top five more consistently through the year would be a goal, and I'd like to get to Victory Lane," Patrick said of her ride with JR Motorsports, where she'll run the full 33-race schedule.

Then came the real verbal bomb. Patrick mentioned that she thinks she can win the season-opening Daytona 500 in the first of 10 races she'll run in the Sprint Cup Series for Stewart-Haas Racing and team co-owner Tony Stewart.

"As far as the Cup stuff, at Daytona the cars are very fast -- as we've already seen in the [recent] test. So I feel good about that race," Patrick said. "I was lucky enough to run with Tony in the Nationwide race there last summer and that went pretty good, so I feel good about Daytona and I think there is a real chance, if luck falls our way, to win. I think that's a real chance.

"A guy like Trevor Bayne showed that last year. So those are the expectations for the first race -- but beyond that, I don't know. The top 20, maybe?"

So she's being realistic about her overall season, and she's also right about lightning possibly striking her SHR Chevrolet at Daytona. If a rookie like Trevor Bayne can come from seemingly nowhere to win the Daytona 500 as Bayne did a year ago, why can't she do it, too? Why shouldn't she go ahead and say it?

Tony's take

The fact is, of course, that taking the bet on Patrick to win her first Daytona 500 to Las Vegas would not be wise. Then again, there were folks who actually won money betting on the fact that the New York Giants would score the first points in Super Bowl XLVI on a safety.

You never know in sports, and Bayne's tale offers hope for virtually every driver who isn't planning on starting and parking to pick up a quick and still very lucrative paycheck.

Leave it to Stewart to keep it all in perspective. He hears what Patrick is saying, and acknowledges that a Danica victory would be great for the sport and even greater for him as co-owner of the car she'll be driving in the Feb. 26 Daytona 500. But he actually said he's less concerned with where she finishes than he is about if she finishes.

Stewart made the same transition from open-wheel racing to stock cars Patrick is attempting, and he did it in a similar way. He dabbled in it at first while continuing to run a full-time open-wheel schedule before finally committing to a full-time NASCAR Cup deal with Joe Gibbs Racing in 1999.

"I think from my standpoint, knowing what my transition was like, I crashed everything that I drove when I first drove Nationwide cars. When we got to the Cup side, it got better, obviously," said Stewart, the defending Cup Series champion who won his third championship last year. "But I think, looking at these 10 races for her this year, it's just an extension of what she's doing on the Nationwide side and it's going to get her the track time that she needs.

"I'm not worried about where she finishes. It's just about getting the time in on the race track, getting the laps in, finishing the race and getting that experience in the car."


"The short amount of time I've worked with her, she's so good about processing information. What she learns on the race track, she can explain it to you right away and is very accurate. I think her feedback is excellent. So it's just getting her time on the race track and from my standpoint, I'm not worried about where she finishes. It's just about getting the time in on the race track, getting the laps in, finishing the race and getting that experience in the car."

Bayne on the brain

Much has been made of the fact that the NASCAR seasons are longer, and that the Cup races, in particular, are longer and more physically demanding than anything Patrick has attempted previously in motorsports.

But this is no ordinary woman. This is an athlete in extraordinary shape who apparently is willing to do what it takes to continue learning her new craft in stock cars. She said she actually is looking forward to the longer races in Cup.

"I feel like the longer races are good," Patrick said. "I like the longer races. I get more comfortable in the car and we keep tweaking the car and making it a little better each pit stop. So I'm hoping that plays into my favor -- the length of some of these races."

That would include the season-opening Daytona 500. Is it crazy to think she could indeed actually win NASCAR's biggest race in her very first try?

Stewart tempered the thought, but didn't totally dismiss the possibility.

"Five-hundred mile races are long races, especially when you're dealing with the 3,400-pound Cup car," Stewart said. "So it's going to be a learning process -- and at the end of the day, I don't think you're going to be judging her success on her finishes so much as what she's able to take away from each race weekend. That's the goal, to take as much away from that as she can.

"There's a lot more to getting ready to be a full-time Cup driver than where she finishes in these 10 races. It's the knowledge and experience that she's going to gain from these 10 races that matters more to me than where she finishes in them."

What is most important for Patrick, Stewart insisted, is that she is willing and able to put in the time to learn.

"I think the effort that she's put forth has shown everybody that this is where she wants to be. You haven't seen that type of dedication from some of the other guys who came in and run a little bit and then left our series," Stewart said. "I think the other drivers respect that, and I think she's got a great attitude.

"She's very humble about realizing it's going to take a lot of hard work and effort and that she's probably not going to go out there and win right away. We hope she does, obviously, but the reality is that it's tough to run well right off the bat. It's a big transition she's going to be going through."

Well said. But with Bayne fresh on the brain, Patrick also is banking on the possibility that the seemingly impossible could always happen once again.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.