In passing veterans, Danica Patrick proves a point
May 11, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Danica Patrick, chided by some for being more style than substance during her brief NASCAR career, took a giant step toward silencing her critics Saturday night with an impressive seventh-place finish in the 5-hour Energy 400 at Kansas Speedway.
It was a career-best for the diminutive Patrick, eclipsing an eighth-place finish in the 2013 Daytona 500. It was the fourth-best finish by a female driver in NASCAR's top series, trailing fifth- and sixth-place finishes by Sara Christian in 1949 and Janet Guthrie's sixth at Bristol in 1977 (see the table below).
Patrick ran as high as third in the 267-lap event, held for the first time under the lights at the 1.5-mile track, and was rarely outside the top 12.
|5th||Sara Christian||Heidelberg||Oct. 2, 1949|
|6th||Sara Christian||Langhorne||Sept. 11, 1949|
|6th||Janet Guthrie||Bristol||Aug. 28, 1977|
|7th||Danica Patrick||Kansas||May 10, 2014|
|8th||Danica Patrick||Daytona||Feb. 24, 2013|
|9th||Janet Guthrie||Charlotte||Oct. 9, 1977|
|9th||Janet Guthrie||Rockingham||Oct. 23, 1977|
|10th||Janet Guthrie||Michigan||Aug. 22, 1977|
|10th||Janet Guthrie||Atlanta||March 19, 1978|
"I was like, 'no yellow!' Patrick said of her charge from fifth to third, which came when she shot past Dale Earnhardt Jr. and her team owner and teammate Tony Stewart on Lap 173. "When I was fifth, I was thinking, 'this is good … I feel faster than them.' They got caught up in traffic in (Turns) 3 and 4 and got checked up and I got underneath them.
"But when I'm running third, I'm honestly trying not to think about the fact that I’m running third. I’m trying to think about the fact that I've been looking at that car in front of me for the whole race and I've been passing that car and I need to go do that. It's probably best to really think about it like 'pass the next car' than being in a place that I'm not normally in."
Focusing on one car at a time, she said, "is a little bit more calming.
"The last thing you want to do is get excited out there and start overdriving it and making mistakes."
It was a "complete" weekend for Patrick and the No. 10 GoDaddy team fielded by Stewart-Haas Racing. Although no higher than 23rd in the two practices, she made the cut for the final 12 in qualifying and earned the ninth-place spot on the starting grid.
A new car and conversations with teammate Kevin Harvick were also instrumental.
"We talk a lot, and I think for her it's just the confidence in knowing exactly what the car is going to do," said Harvick, who led 119 laps and finished just behind race winner Jeff Gordon. "She kept track position on the restarts. That's probably the biggest thing.
"But I guess the one thing I did tell her was just to quit thinking about it and mash the gas."
Crew chief Tony Gibson said it took the whole package, but gave most of the credit to his driver.
"That's the night we've been waiting on," Gibson said. "We were solid all day, she did great restarts, ran hard, was up on the wheel."
And that, he said builds "confidence for the team, confidence for her.
"We want to be able to carry this over into Charlotte and hopefully it's a trend -- the way we're going to run from here on out. We can definitely do it and she can do it, we just have to get the right combination and I think we'll be fine."
In a race that saw eight caution flags slow the pace, Patrick found herself outside the top 15 after pitting under green for the final time on Lap 237. As others ahead of her began to peel off the track and pit as well, Patrick began her move back through the field.
"I knew everybody had to stop," she said, "it was just a matter if a yellow came out."
The result moved her up two spots in the points standings, but a less-than-stellar start to the season has her just 27th overall. Still, Saturday night's effort and result may bode well for the No. 10 team.
"I've always believed in myself," she said. "I've always believed that in the right situation with the right car that I can do it. I say with all respect it's little moments like when you drive by Jimmie Johnson on the outside, stuff like that is what makes me really proud of myself and … gives me a little bit more confidence."