Danica, SHR team believe the best is yet to come
November 22, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
While Jimmie Johnson was lost in confetti and champagne celebrating his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship last weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Danica Patrick was happily marking a much more low-key and personal milestone nearby – ripping off the yellow tape on her No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet bumper.
The bright yellow tape is a traditional branding for rookie drivers – and after a debut season of well-documented, highly-scrutinized, headline-making ups and downs, when the checkered flag flew at Homestead, Patrick, 31, was at last just another driver.
As much as she can ever be, that is.
And even if ripping off the yellow tape is symbolic, the former IndyCar star now considers her transition to stock cars official. What that means is still to be determined.
Will she be a top-10 car every week now? Will other drivers still cut her some slack? Is she on the verge of victory in 2014 or will her success be a less exact standard?
"After the first year is done, you’re on a more level playing field," Patrick concedes. "But honestly from an outsider’s perspective, I feel like three years in is where you kind of go, 'all right, you’re seasoned. If we give you a good car you should be fast in this car.'
"If I were to look at any rookie. Obviously there are circumstances like your car, your team and your crew chief. That has big effect. But as far a driver, it’s fair after about three years."
With her 20th place finish at Homestead, Patrick finished 27th in the championship points standings. Her lone top-10 finish was an eighth-place run in the Daytona 500 – a stunning, pressure be-damned historic performance after becoming the first woman to win the pole position for NASCAR’s greatest race.
To simply look at the statistics may not be a fair representation of her effort.
And while most people might think the Daytona 500 was the highlight of her year, Patrick considers her 12th place finish at the notoriously tough Martinsville, Va. half-miler this spring to be the biggest accomplishment of the season since she came back from being two laps down to gain that result and actually paced the entire Stewart-Haas Racing team that day.
In the end, Patrick finished second in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings to former two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who is her boyfriend of nearly a year. And as is the joke in NASCAR circles, she’ll go to the annual Sprint Cup Awards banquet anyway -- as Stenhouse’s date.
Her second full season, however, will mean different expectations.
SHR’s Vice President of Competition, Greg Zipadelli, doesn’t hesitate when asked the ultimate question. Can Patrick win at the Cup level?
"Yes," Zipadelli said. "Yes, she will."
Having been in this sport for decades and led their team owner Tony Stewart through his own transition from open-wheel cars to a Cup championship, Zipadelli is realistic and measured in his approach. And he won’t get mired in predicting when or where Patrick will first visit victory lane.
"You’ve got to be able to make speed and learn to go fast then you have to learn how to close the deal and take the next step," Zipadelli said. "And it seems like they’re working on that and as a group working better together, have a better understanding of each other compared to early in the year when just trying to figure it out and thinking it was magic.
"The magic is patience. Patience in making sure we give her what she needs and allowing her to grow. There’s a lot of guys in this garage that it took a few years to get going."
Stewart, who suffered a season-ending broken leg injury in a sprint car race this summer, has had the unexpected, silver-lined opportunity to really observe Patrick both when he was racing alongside her and now on television or from the pit box.
His similar background gives him a unique perspective and he also is adamant that she will win in Sprint Cup competition.
"I wouldn’t have hired her if I didn’t believe that," Stewart has answered unflinchingly whenever the question comes up.
While fans may simply gauge Patrick’s success by her race results, Stewart is looking at incremental progress from week to week. He points to the fall race at Charlotte as a perfect example of the subtle, not necessarily quantifiable progress he sees.
"The damage was done once she got one lap down, then the second lap down," Stewart said. "But after that she ran with the leaders – when second, third and fourth place came around her she was running right with them.
"It's like 'you've got to let them go,' but at the same time, she was faster than them for a lap. It's fun to watch her racing with the guys that were second, third and fourth place in the race and she was right in the middle of it there for a while, even though she was two laps down.
"If we can ever get her through the first couple of stints of the race, she can run with speed, it's just getting it at the beginning of the race."
Patrick appreciates the encouragement, support and insight Stewart has given her and has never been afraid to seek out advice from other drivers.
Far from being insular, Patrick is down-to-earth and very self-aware. For every family that waits two hours in an autograph line so their 10-year old Danica look-a-like can pose for a photo with Patrick, there is someone willing to criticize her every move and motive. And she knows it.
Asked if she still feels like a polarizing figure, Patrick didn’t hesitate.
"That exists," Patrick said very matter-of-factly, before smiling. "I still read about it on Twitter. I try not to read too much. Things like, 'when are you going to come out and admit you can’t drive these cars.'
"But it’s fine. Whatever. It exists before and exists now, hopefully now it’s just a bigger base. .. more fans and more haters."
Perhaps hardest to figure out, was an unexpected source of midseason controversy: former Cup driver-turned television analyst Kyle Petty, who took equally large swipes at Patrick’s ability and credibility.
He questioned whether her success is judged on marketing appeal instead of racing results and, has steadfastly stood by his remarks even as he received pushback and criticism over them.
"Danica has been the perfect example of somebody who can qualify better than what she runs, she can go fast, but she can't race," Petty said in June. "I think she's come a long way, but she's still not a race car driver. And I don't think she's ever going to be a race car driver. Because I think it's too late to learn."
Having time and a broader perspective now to reflect on the situation, Patrick is philosophic and not bitter or defensive. Contrary to what you might think, she choses to view it as mostly a positive experience.
"He was so polarizing with his comments, they were so one-sided, it forced the other side to come out," Patrick explained. "His opinion was the one out there so it forced other fans or journalists to show the other side as a contrast.
"A lot of good stuff came from that, a lot of people came to defend me so there was some positive."
A few weeks ago, dressed casually in a blouse and shorts, Patrick sat in her motor coach at Talladega Superspeedway trying to make a dent in what must seem like an infinite stack of memorabilia, photos, and hero cards awaiting her autograph. That evening, Patrick had some time to kill while waiting for Stenhouse Jr. so the couple could have dinner.
Relaxed and candid as ever, Patrick thoughtfully reflected on her season while looking forward to the next. And she readily concedes it’s been an interesting year both on and off track. After revealing that she and Stenhouse were a couple before the season, the hub-bub surrounding racing’s highest profile driver romance has subsided. They were besieged by reporters during the Daytona 500 Media Day and questioned about everything from how they expected to race another on-track to the kind of Valentine Day gifts they would exchange.
Other than sitting next to one another in drivers meetings and sneaking the occasional kiss on pit road, Patrick hopes it now falls into the "keep moving, nothing to see here folks" kind of normalcy.
"I feel like we’re very honest and comfortable about it all and so it makes everybody else very comfortable it all," Patrick said. "You ask a question, we’ll give you an answer, I’m not trying to hide anything. And we’re very comfortable in front of people.
"It’s kind of crazy, but sorry to let everyone down, it’s just kind of normal."
They park their motor coaches facing one another at most tracks. She stays in his allowing family and friends to stay in hers instead of getting a hotel.
"It’s like having four bedrooms so you can pack a lot of people in," Patrick says motioning around her comfy mobile living room. "Everyone hangs out, no one has to go hotels or drive and we can just hang out.
"Plenty of big dinners get cooked and big breakfasts too which are a lot of fun. Just cook up a big mess of bacon, and then toast eggs too and I get a huge bowl of fruit and some yogurt and granola and put it all out on the table. Sometimes we’ve had as many as 12 people there. It’s kind of like a party compound. It’s great when we open the awnings up and make it more communal."
Her relationship with Stenhouse has been easy contentment. At the track, Patrick said he is a big source of moral support not to mention a racing resource.
The Mississippi native has introduced her to the rodeo and convinced the wine connoisseur that beer is all right too. He’s also gotten her hooked on golfing, a sport she figures she attempted maybe one time in her life previously.
"We’ve sure played on some nice courses," Patrick said. "That’s really all Ricky, I don’t deserve to play on some of those courses yet."
"But," she laughed. "I’ve finally gotten comfortable enough to play with other people."
Of course Patrick knows that with golf -- as she has learned with racing -- experience and tempered expectation are necessities. She has a big asset in that corner, her veteran crew chief Tony Gibson.
"The one thing I’ve learned here especially late in the season is her desire to run good and be fast and be competitive has gotten stronger not weaker," Gibson said. "She hasn’t gotten dejected or said, 'I can’t do this.' She keeps pushing forward. 'Let’s make it happen.' She has that kind of attitude, not the 'I’m never going to get it.'"
One thing we know about Patrick, she sure knows how to make an entrance and has a knack for stepping up when the spotlight shines brightest on the biggest races on the planet – the Daytona 500 and Indy 500. Now it’s about sustaining the highs and implementing the lessons through a whole season.
After winning the Daytona 500 pole position, leading the race and putting herself in position to win as the final laps clicked off, Patrick joked that she couldn’t have written a better start to her first full season.
Then she grinned and corrected herself.
"Except the way you end is, I won."