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|The Texas track agrees with Danica Patrick; she's had her best Nationwide and Sprint Cup results there this season.|
Danica Patrick wants a crew chief, she says, that believes in her, supports her and provides a foundation for trust. Fast race cars are a prerequisite, too.
And, she said Friday at Texas Motor Speedway, working with old-school racers and self-described "rednecks" seems to suit her well. Tony Gibson, a homespun character with a technical acumen that helped him win three Sprint Cup titles as a car chief, might suit her very well, indeed.
One race into their tenure together, Patrick and Gibson seem to be making major strides toward her full-season Cup debut in 2013, producing her best result in the series -- 24th -- while finishing on the lead lap for the first time Sunday at Texas.
In her penultimate Cup race of the season, with drivers contesting a championship around her, Patrick raced inside the top 20 for much of the event, using Gibson's effusive coaching and adjustments on the No. 10 Chevrolet to craft one of her more complete efforts at NASCAR's top level.
The pairing could be bountiful for both the former IndyCar driver making a rushed and rigorous transition to stock cars, and the veteran racer intrigued by the most unusual of challenges.
Gibson left Ryan Newman's program at Stewart-Haas Racing with his entire pit crew, seeking new opportunity and the historical immortality that would come with grooming Patrick into NASCAR's first female winner. Patrick welcomed the pairing and seemed quickly comfortable with the Daytona Beach, Fla., native.
Camaraderie, at least the kind audible over open-air team communications, is easier in the making when drivers are pleased with the performance and feel of their race car, but Patrick and Gibson seemed already to have forged a working fluidity Sunday.
One of Patrick's few moments of disgust came on the final restart with three laps left, when she started 22nd but was swamped by cars she had spent numerous green-flag laps working and passing earlier in the marathon 335-lap race.
"Sorry, guys, I sucked on that restart," she said over team radio. "I lost everything."
Gibson, whose vocal pitch throughout the race suggested wide eyes and a perch on the edge of his seat, didn't let the sentiment fester long.
"You did an awesome job," he said. "That's a good start there, D. Be proud of yourself," then noted her late-race efforts against four-time series champion Jeff Gordon.
"There will be a day we get ours back," he added, emphatically. "That was impressive."
Gibson assumed crew chief duties with Patrick for the final two races of this 10-race campaign to provide a push into next season. While there were copious amounts of reassurance and positive reinforcement, there was a sense of immediacy Sunday.
When Patrick asked spotter Tab Boyd to apologize to Martin Truex Jr. for a near-miss on Lap 175, he responded, "Don't be sorry. Drive that damned thing," noting that Truex's team should have known she was approaching fast with four fresh tires.
Patrick was 18th with 100 laps remaining but fell back to 20th, topping off fuel under caution to reach the scheduled distance. She spent most of the final laps contesting positions with Tony Stewart, Newman, Jamie McMurray and Gordon. After slowly working past McMurray and Newman, Patrick settled into the wake of Gordon in the latter stages of the race but was unable to pass him.
She worked her way to 18th again briefly but began a final restart 22nd and surrendered two spots in the final three laps.
"It was a great day and a great weekend for the first weekend working together," Gibson said. "Qualifying went really well and practice went really well. She had an awesome race, and she did a great job.
"We did the wave-around twice and got back on the lead lap early, and she stayed on the lead lap. She ran with guys that she's never run with before, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin. To come here and run on the lead lap and a shot at a top-20 was pretty impressive."
"It was a really nice first weekend," Patrick said. "Tony Gibson did such a good job."
Patrick's finish beat her previous Cup-best result of 25th at Chicagoland Speedway in September and likely will add another layer of good feelings about the 1.5-mile Texas oval. She produced her best Nationwide Series result of the season -- eighth -- there this spring and was second there in a 2010 IndyCar race.
In a race marked early by long caution-free segments, Patrick fell a lap down briefly but used the wave-around rule to rejoin the lead lap and remained there for most of the race.
Gibson constantly used Patrick's teammate and boss, Stewart, as a bench mark, relaying both of their lap times. Patrick seemed buoyed by being able to chase down Stewart mid-race, saying later, "Thanks for keeping me upbeat. I'm not gonna lie, when I'm looking at Tony Stewart's bumper, we're doing something OK."
"You're doing everything OK," Gibson responded.