News & Media

Caraviello: Inexperience undermining Patrick's potential

February 19, 2011, David Caraviello,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- There was one electric moment early in Saturday's Nationwide Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway when Danica Patrick's performance on the race track finally seemed to match the hype she's generated off it. Clint Bowyer latched onto the back of her green and orange race car and shoved it all the way up through the field, allowing Patrick to nose ahead of frontrunner Kyle Busch as the cars crossed the start/finish line to complete Lap 30.

New leader: No. 7.


2.Clint Bowyer Chevrolet
3.Landon Cassill Chevrolet
4.Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet
5.Reed Sorenson Chevrolet

It was the first Nationwide lap Patrick had ever led by racing her way to the front -- as opposed to the four she paced in last season's finale at Homestead by staying out of the pits -- and the buzz was palpable. It didn't last very long, though. Eventually Bowyer's car ran hot enough that he had to pull off to the side, and Patrick lost her drafting partner, and didn't seem able to pull off the delicate switching maneuver demanded by this new, tandem style of drafting at Daytona.

"If he wants me to get behind him and push, I can," she radioed to her crew. "Just tell me what I need to do with him, because I don't know. I'm just keeping it flat."

And therein lies the duality of Danica Patrick's NASCAR endeavor -- obvious talent behind the wheel, combined with a clear lack of experience that's holding her back. No question, she's grown more comfortable in the NASCAR arena since her debut at Daytona last season, and no question she's become more competitive. By the end of her 13-race freshman campaign in 2010, she was able to turn lap times in the same ballpark as the leaders, even if she couldn't stay on the same lap. Homestead brought her first top-20 and first lead-lap finish. She flirted with the pole this weekend at Daytona, ultimately settling for the fourth-place starting spot, and posted a career-best finish of 14th, one lap down, in the race.

But you wonder how much better it could be. Get beyond the physical appearance, and Patrick is a race car driver who is sharp, inquisitive, and gutty. There are times where she can appear too competitive for her own good, as anyone who witnessed her anger over her second career Nationwide start -- a three-laps-down effort at California last winter -- can attest. Her simmering aggression behind the wheel is tailor-made for stock-car racing. At Daytona on Saturday and on other tracks last year, she's shown enough occasional flashes to make you think that she could be a success at this NASCAR thing if she ever devoted her full energy to it.

But is she willing do to that? Patrick occasionally shows lapses that make you wonder -- does she pays attention to NASCAR outside of the handful of events she competes in? Is this stock-car endeavor is something she seriously considers as a career option, or simply a challenge she undertakes when the IndyCar Series has the week off? She mentioned that she only recently learned that "Junebug" was a nickname attached to her boss, Dale Earnhardt Jr.. Bristol Motor Speedway gave her a basket of products from Tennessee, making a big show of reminding everyone that Patrick recently admitted she wasn't sure what state the short track was in. Trivial matters, to be sure, but the kind that make NASCAR fans shake their heads nevertheless.

"I think it's important to me to keep in perspective that this is not year two for me. This is race 13 for me."


The bigger issues loom on the race track. Now, it's one thing to struggle to grasp the subtle art of tandem drafting, something even many top Sprint Cup drivers have wrestled with this weekend. But Patrick still requires a great deal of guidance over the radio on matters like where to line up on restarts and when to pit. After one slow pit stop, crew chief Tony Eury Jr. asked her to try and break her habit of turning her wheels slightly to the right as her car settled into the pit box. Patrick questioned the vehicle's power steering, which Eury informed her had been attenuated to a degree to facilitate better performance on the restrictor-plate track.

To her credit, she figured some things out on the fly, realizing that she and the other drivers mired a half-lap behind the leaders needed to team up to try and make up any ground, suggesting that she pit with someone so she'd have a partner on the way out. Afterward, she realized she needed to learn how to push in the two-car draft. But there's still a neophytic aspect to Patrick's NASCAR adventure that makes you wonder just how much has really changed since she first arrived at Daytona a year ago, and if she can ever truly master this discipline running only a dozen or so stock-car events a year.

"I think it's important to me to keep in perspective that this is not year two for me. This is race 13 for me," Patrick said prior to Saturday's event. "The Nationwide Series is how many races in the year, 34? I've done 12. So this is not my 35th race, this is my 13th. So I need to keep it easy on myself and understand that I still have a lot to learn. It would take three years almost to achieve the full schedule. It's important for me to keep that in mind, because I can get real down on myself when I'm not running up front or running fast, because that's what I'm used to and that's what I hope and expect. But these things take time, and there's lots of cars and lot of experience out there."

For all the talk of gaining experience, though, this season looms somewhat large for Patrick in terms of her future. Her two-year deal with JR Motorsports expires after this year, as does her current deal on the IndyCar side (although there is an option). She says there's no timeline for a decision, but she clearly still bleeds to win the Indianapolis 500, and as long as that carrot is out there it seems unfathomable that she might switch to NASCAR full-time. Sponsorship will clearly factor into the outcome, although it's difficult to believe she'd lack for it in either discipline. This weekend, though, Patrick offered no hints as to what she might do in 2012 and beyond.

"There are a lot of things dependent on my future and what I do and where I go," she said. "It depends on what I want to do, it depends on sponsorship, it depends on all those things. Luckily ... I have a lot of time to think about it and figure it out and let things unfold. I think it's going to be a matter of letting things run their course this year and making the most of every time I'm in a stock car as well as an IndyCar and see what opportunities arise. I think it will become obvious in the end, but it's important to wait for that and not force anything."

One thing, though, is certain -- the rampant Danicamania that gripped Daytona last year has ebbed. She's still popular, as evidenced by the crowd around her merchandise trailer Saturday morning, and the number of fans (women and children particularly) sporting No. 7 gear. But last year people were waiting in line just to have their photo taken next to Patrick's oversized image on the side of the merchandise truck. Last year there was a Danica ticker crawling along the bottom of the television screen during the Nationwide broadcast. Last year there was grumbling in the garage area over an unproven newcomer commanding all the attention. All of that is gone now. Patrick has become what she probably wants to be -- another NASCAR driver trying to make it.

And she very well might, if only she gives herself the opportunity. In retrospect, Patrick's inability to stay hooked up with Bowyer in the draft Saturday might have stemmed from her spotter's inability to find Bowyer's spotter and negotiate the switch. "[She] was fast enough to be up there," Bowyer said. "You look for fast cars. I'm telling you, when you're racing in that kind of atmosphere, you want to find a fast car and meet up with it. I knew she had a fast car and we'd get to the front. ... She did fine. When we switched, we ran into a little bit of a communication problem."

It's another hint of the potential that clearly lies within Danica Patrick. And yet, the seasoning she needs will be difficult to come by, given that she's doing the first four races and then disappearing from the Nationwide tour until June. In the immediate aftermath of Saturday's race, the focus will surely be on Patrick recording the best finish of her brief NASCAR career. But you wonder how much better it could have been. You wonder if Patrick will be back here in July and be able to stay up front, or if her limited schedule will relegate it to just another steep step on the learning curve.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.