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Caraviello: For Patrick, progress to performance leap not easy

March 07, 2012, David Caraviello,

Finds herself mired 21st in points due to crash at Daytona, poor finish at Phoenix

For Danica Patrick, Las Vegas Motor Speedway cannot come quickly enough. A fast intermediate track, the same venue where she recorded her historic fourth-place finish in a Nationwide Series race a season ago -- it all makes for friendly, familiar territory to a driver who could use a little of it right now, given her initial foray into full-time NASCAR competition is off to such a trying start.

Forget the crashes in and around the Daytona 500, a frightening impact into the backstretch wall during a qualifying race that was unavoidable, a hard lean into David Ragan during the rain-delayed big show that in retrospect probably wasn't. When it comes to Sprint Cup events, where admittedly she's just trying to make laps and gain experience, Patrick gets a pass. And given that she's lined up a slate of very challenging race tracks, those events are only going to get more difficult -- her next start, at cranky old Darlington Raceway in May, is going to feel like taking first steps onto an alien landscape.

The Nationwide Series, though, is another animal altogether. She's now full-time on that circuit, with a pair of partial seasons behind her, and aims of winning a race and finishing high in the points -- if not contending for the championship itself. This isn't about the learning curve anymore, it's about results. Fair or not, Patrick will no longer be judged on progress, but on finishing positions. And while it's very early, and while there is still a whole lot of racing to come in the 2012 season, two weeks are more than enough time to distill the difference between dipping a toe in NASCAR and plunging in for real.

Quite simply, there's a bigger picture out there that wasn't present for Patrick before, one that's going to become more magnified with every difficult run like the one she endured this past Saturday at Phoenix, where the race car seemed a handful all day and she finished three laps down. This isn't a matter of talent or enthusiasm, two things Patrick has in abundance, the former on display in her handful of strong outings last season and her pole run at Daytona, the latter evident whenever she's around a stock-car track. She's doing this the absolute right way, asking the right questions, making the right friends, showing the right combination of humility and confidence. But now we're at a point where she has to do it every week, where struggles easily become compounded, where some drivers fall into a season-long points hole they spend all year trying to dig out of.

Now, that's not to say that will happen to Patrick, but clearly at 21st in points she has some work to do already. She's in a different world now. Running a limited schedule, the promise of a strong run here or there was enough. No more. Now, the performance has to be there almost every week, and if it's not, the wolves are going to be at the door. Patrick has been well-embraced by NASCAR fans, something that's evident in both her merchandise sales as well as the ovation she receives during driver introductions. She's fiery, she's different, and she's easily likeable, and people are responding to that. But she also has a load of sponsorship behind her while more accomplished drivers like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne have little to none, and if she slogs through a few more races like Phoenix -- Bristol is on the horizon -- discontent may begin to stir. As her boss Dale Earnhardt Jr. well knows, popularity can be a burden if it's not matched with results.

Of course, Patrick understands this. "The most amount of respect comes from running for position and racing each other hard," she told reporters in Phoenix prior to last weekend's race. And to be fair, there are some mitigating factors at work. Although even she admits she overcorrected and shot up into the wall during her wreck in the Nationwide race at Daytona, she was inadvertently taken out by JR Motorsports teammate Cole Whitt. Even some Sprint Cup drivers still have trouble with Phoenix, which was reconfigured late last season. And she's inserted herself into one of the deeper Nationwide fields in recent memory, one where Elliott Sadler and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. remain the standard-bearers, but Sam Hornish Jr., Austin Dillon and Michael Annett are among those showing potential. Moonlighting Cup drivers have been shut out of the first two races, something that hasn't happened since Chad Little won two in a row to open the Busch Series campaign in 1995.

As is always the case in racing, outside forces play their part. For Patrick, though, Vegas is a known quantity. Although a few contenders ran out of fuel in the Nationwide race there last season, her fourth-place finish -- best ever for a woman at NASCAR's national level -- was no fluke. She raced her way up to the front and fought her way past some other drivers, Bayne among them. Everyone knows what she's capable of there. She finishes three laps down at Vegas, the warning lights will surely go off.

"I think you need some expectation levels that aren't 'I want to go win.' Everybody wants to win, that's clear."


Of course, we're getting ahead of ourselves here. Although crew chief Tony Eury Jr. has preached repeatedly that the first 10 races are everything for his driver, Patrick has some factors working in her favor. She seems at her best on the kind of intermediate tracks, like Las Vegas, that dominate the NASCAR circuit. She also takes struggle very hard, and tries to learn from it. Following her crash-induced, 48-laps-down finish in the Nationwide opener at Daytona, one of those she sought counsel from was Sadler, the current points leader and the winner of last weekend's race in Phoenix.

"She walked by my bus Saturday after the Nationwide race in Daytona, and she was all down and out," Sadler told reporters after his victory. "She was explaining to me what happened in the wreck and [that] she finished 38th. I said, 'Danica, I finished 38th last year at Daytona, too. I went to Phoenix and I finished 12th, I went to Vegas and I finished 12th, I went to Bristol and finished somewhere in the top 10. Next thing I know, I was top-five in points.' I said, 'In the Nationwide Series, if you just see the checkered flag at every event, stay on the lead lap, get yourself a good finish, you will learn what you need to learn ... and you'll be where you want to be in the points.' That's what I told her. 'Hey, I've been there, I know what you're going through, but you've got to put this behind you and move on.' That's kind of what I told her."

Patrick did indeed see the checkered flag at Phoenix, and perhaps finishing a race weekend without being involved an accident should be seen as a sign of progress. But in all fairness, this is someone who is supposed to go full-time in Sprint Cup with Stewart-Haas in 2013. Very soon, progress isn't going to be enough. For a full-time driver in a fully-sponsored car, performance is the absolute bottom line. Patrick isn't shy about piling an awful lot on herself, which leads to situations like the one she's in now, where she's trying to still learn -- she does have only 27 career Nationwide starts, after all -- and theoretically contend for a points championship at the same time. That's a very difficult balance for anyone to pull off, much less someone who's still trying to define realistic expectations.

"I think you need some expectation levels that aren't 'I want to go win.' Everybody wants to win, that's clear," Patrick said before her most recent event at Phoenix. "But some realistic [expectations], some ones you can actually make happen. First it's top-20s, and now, through the progressions, it's top-10s. ... I think on a mile-and-a-half [tracks], there's some likelihood to be in the top 10 more consistently."

That's certainly the hope at Las Vegas, now that the bingo hopper that is Daytona and the recently-reconfigured Phoenix are each in the rearview mirror. It's clear Patrick is still learning at this, and it's true that progress and performance are not always mutually exclusive, even though one typically takes longer to find than the other. In all honesty, though, at this point, expectations are out of her hands. They're set for her, by dint of her full-time status and fully-sponsored car and accelerated NASCAR career path, each time she slides behind the wheel.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.