Danica qualifies season-best 11th in Sonoma

Could things be looking up for Danica Patrick? She had her best qualifying of the season and will start 11th at Sonoma on Sunday. AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

SONOMA, Calif. -- Danica Patrick will start a season-best 11th Sunday when she fires her engine at Sonoma Raceway, but it's how she got there that makes her pleased.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver was seventh in the first Toyota/Save Mart 350 practice Friday and she took a solid car from practice and qualified well with it. Her previous best starting position was 12th in the season-opening Daytona 500.

"It's going to make a big difference on the road course," Patrick said. "Strategy can play into it, but if strategy is not something that plays into it, then your track position is everything. ... Above all, I'm just glad that we took a car that was good in practice and put it in the top 12 in qualifying like I hope that we would."

Although she had IndyCar experience on road courses before her transition to NASCAR, they have not treated her all that well in stock cars. In three career Sprint Cup starts at Sonoma, she has a best finish of 18th and an average finish of 23.7.

"It's very challenging," Patrick said. "One of the big differences in stock cars and IndyCars, you can murder curbs in a stock car, and it kind of helps you turn, where in an IndyCar you have to be careful it doesn't spit you [out] or turn you sideways or lose grip or slide off of it."

The other big transition to stock cars on road courses is braking points.

"In an IndyCar, your initial braking is very hard and you have the most amount of downforce because of the wings," Patrick said. "In a stock car, you have to squeeze it into a little bit more. It's a big brick that doesn't want to be upset in a big way with the brakes. That took some getting used to."

Patrick did start 11th in the 2014 race at Sonoma and finished 18th. She said she feels much more confident about the race Sunday than the one two years ago.

"We hadn't done any long runs and weren't as good in practice -- we just got it going in qualifying and we were terrible in the race," Patrick said about the 2014 race. "It was not a lot of fun. I feel way more prepared this time around coming to the race.

"We did three long runs, one of which was 15 laps. I feel like I have a better understanding of what the car is going to do, what I need to do and I think we just have a better car."