With progress in place, Danica aims for results
August 28, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
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For one of NASCAR's highest-profile drivers who is much more accustomed to making headlines and shining in the spotlight, Danica Patrick's sophomore year in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has been relatively quiet and workmanlike.
At times encouraging, at times frustrating. Consistently inconsistent.
Yet Patrick remains enthusiastic and optimistic -- partly because her Stewart-Haas Racing team has proven to be among the best in the garage and partly because she is absolutely certain her stock car education has greatly advanced. Even if the scoring pylon doesn't always reflect the effort.
"In general we've been running so much better, qualifying better, running better and just generally being much faster than last year … and I'd say in general, not having the results to show for it,'' Patrick said. "I feel like it's been a much better year, but in terms of getting the most points as possible, we haven't really done that.
"We've had a lot of mechanical issues and it seems to happen when we're running well. There've been mistakes, whether it be while running on track or making calls or sometimes the pit stops are slow. I think if we can fire on all cylinders and not make mistakes and have clean weekends, I feel like we're a real solid top-15 car."
Patrick spoke to NASCAR.com between practice sessions at Watkins Glen International, a day that started out with a blown engine in the opening practice and would culminate with a crash during the afternoon session due to a mechanical issue (shock failure) -- an extreme example of the rough luck her No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet has suffered this year.
But at 32, Patrick is experienced enough to know the hard knocks are inevitable, if tough to swallow -- especially when you are under the microscope as she so often is. Her transition to stock cars from IndyCar has naturally come with great interest and great scrutiny.
But this is a no-excuses, highly driven racer who nearly won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie in 2005, and earned worldwide accolades again in NASCAR when she won the Daytona 500 Coors Light Pole Award as a rookie in 2013 -- the first woman in the sport's history to do so.
Patrick, however, is not the kind of person to rest on past accomplishment and has methodically worked toward a realistic set of goals: top-20s as a rookie, top-15s this season. But the patient approach aside, Patrick is at heart a competitor and says it's "go time."
"I think you get more frustrated for sure, because you're waiting for it to turn and if it hasn't, you're getting frustrated that things aren't going your way," Patrick said. "But the positive side is that the hope is there and the speed is there when everything meets in the middle.
"I think the team (has) … great drivers, so more help. I feel like I'm learning for that reason. It doesn't feel like I'm treated any different from the outside, but I really always thought people were relatively fair from the beginning anyway. Yes, people are watching a lot and everybody has opinions for sure, but I expect that I suppose."
And Patrick has given them reason to believe in her.
She led laps at both Daytona and Talladega. And with a third of the season still to go, Patrick has two top-10s -- twice that of last year. Her eighth-place finish in July's Coke Zero 400 equaled her career best finish at Daytona International Speedway.
Her seventh-place at Kansas in May is what she considers her best race weekend from roll-out to load-up.
"I think the cars themselves have been just better when they arrive at the track from beginning of the year but especially since the middle of the year,'' Patrick explained. "That's what happened at Kansas, that was the first full new car we got and I finished seventh and we had great night, great weekend. That was the start of those better cars and we've been running and qualifying much better since then.
"From the end of last year, we learned that working more methodically through the weekend versus making huge and many changes throughout the practices has also helped us make what we have the best it can be.
"That's a challenge in and of itself. I don't think you're going to move mountains with a spring change, so what you've got to do is maximize what you've got … it's more about just optimizing the car itself."
Outside the car, Patrick says she couldn't be happier. That's evident to her NASCAR-best million-plus Twitter followers who regularly see photos of her life with boyfriend -- fellow Sprint Cup driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -- and their puppy, Dallas.
She won the Food Network reality competition show "Chopped" one year ago and earned USA Today's "Best Dressed" award as a presenter at the recent ESPY Awards.
Beyond that, Patrick says she is also still committed to working on her fledging golf game, something introduced to her by Stenhouse.
"I feel like golf might be a little bit like racing where you spend a lot of the time mad and frustrated and say, 'I love it, let's do it again,'" Patrick said with a laugh. "I'd like to see the results come through for the speed of the car and for me. It would be nice to qualify well and run well, to have good pit stops, good restarts and just a solid string of top-15 finishes.
"And I believe we can."