Winning 'realistic' for Danica, won't be easy
July 26, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- It began with an oil leak, and five laps into the race, her car was smoking and destined for the back. Danica Patrick's 30th-place finish a season ago in her first Sprint Cup Series event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a stark contrast to the strong runs she reeled off with regularity here, driving an open-wheeled vehicle during the month of May.
"Beforehand in the season, if you were to pick tracks you want to do well at, I would pick here," Patrick recalled Saturday, as she prepared for her second Sprint Cup Series start at the famed 2.5-mile track. "But when you're in the moment, and it's happening, it just is what it is. I could care less where the really good races come from when they're happening."
In that regard, Indianapolis last year was just another weekend in a rookie season full of trying moments. Returning to the Brickyard this season, Patrick has reasons to be more optimistic -- she's had more instances when she's been able to show the speed in her No. 10 car, be it a career-best seventh-place finish at Kansas, eighth earlier this month at Daytona, or three consecutive top-10 qualifying runs in the spring. Saturday, she was asked if she was creeping closer to a potential victory -- whether at Indianapolis, or anywhere else.
"I think a win is going to be pretty tough, but I think a win is realistic," she said. "If we look back to the best race of the year, which was Kansas, as far as regular race tracks go -- I mean, things go a little bit differently, and I could have won that race. I feel like I'm able to, I just don't know if we're there yet. But if it presents itself, and I'm in a position to win, I feel perfectly ready. I'm just not sure as a group in whole, probably including myself, that's not a scenario that we're able to put ourselves in every single weekend. And even for the people that are, it's still hard to win. (But) if the opportunity presents itself, I'm ready."
Patrick owns the best finish ever by a female driver at NASCAR's national level, a fourth-place result in a Nationwide Series event at Las Vegas in 2011. The best premier-series result belongs to Sara Christian, who finished fifth at Heidelburg Raceway in Pittsburgh in 1949. At Daytona last season, Patrick became the first woman ever to win a pole at NASCAR's top level when she claimed the first starting spot for the Daytona 500.
During her career-best run at Kansas in May, Patrick certainly showed the ability to run up front and stay in contention all evening long. She also believes she might have had a shot at Daytona in July, had the race gone back to green after the rain delay which ultimately ensured Aric Almirola's first career victory at NASCAR's top level. No question, there have been more instances this season where Patrick has been in the conversation -- but admittedly, she still has a long way to go.
"We are getting stronger as a team," the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said. "There's no doubt about that, and we're getting better and better, and the team is doing a great job of producing better cars all the time and keeping up and moving forward. All that stuff is going in the right direction, but I'm still only at a year and a half's experience in Cup."
At Indianapolis, though, she is a seasoned veteran, to the point where her history here is always top of mind. The first question she faced in her Saturday media availability was about her first race here -- in an open-wheel car, back in 2005. "I can barely remember, it was so long ago," she said. Patrick finished top-10 in five of her six career Indianapolis 500 starts, including a fourth-place run in her debut and third in 2009, the season before she first began to dabble in stock cars and make the eventual transition into NASCAR.
Like many former open-wheelers, her adoration for this place remains entrenched. In some ways, it's indeed another week in a long season, and another moment in a continuing education process. In others, it remains a venue with strong personal significance to both the driver and her sport. Patrick is piloting a new car here this weekend, and was 14th in final practice -- and indeed, the pull of the Brickyard remains strong with a driver as closely-tied to this place as any other.
"I think it'll be OK overall, but you're hoping for great, because it's a tough place to pass," Patrick said, "and it's Indy, and you want to do really well."