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Friday, February 15, 2013
Rookie season could be rocky for Danica Patrick

By Brant James

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Excitement was perceptible in Danica Patrick's voice at the end of her first partial season in the Sprint Cup Series last year. Whereas the conclusion of her first full Nationwide Series season was still important, an interested glance ahead to the next task was understandable.

Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick's average finish in Cup races last year was 28.3; she must improve in all areas if she's to better that.

Interactions were more energetic and detailed over team radio, especially when crew chief Tony Gibson took over at Texas for a second-to-last-race push-off into their tenure together this season. There were pep talks and strategy sessions and ill words for anyone interrupting the process.

Though the race car has changed to the Gen-6, the methodology remains much the same as Patrick readies for her full-time Cup debut. So does the fact that Patrick, after only 10 races, still has much to learn entering her rookie season.

So she found herself someone to emulate, and not a bad one either: boss and teammate Tony Stewart, who won three Cup titles after leaving IndyCar in 1999.

"I'm learning mostly from Tony Gibson, and Tony [Stewart] and [teammate] Ryan [Newman]," Patrick said. "So I drive more like the Tony Stewart way -- I hope one day to drive just like Tony Stewart -- but I have a style like him at this point. Slow in, smooth and not heavy braking.

"I'm just learning about my style more than anything, not changing it, and that's what's so great about Tony Gibson recognizing that. It's not about changing my style. For me, it's about how to get a race car to work for me so that I'm fast.''

I'm just learning about my style more than anything, not changing it, and that's what's so great about Tony Gibson recognizing that. It's not about changing my style. For me it's about how to get a race car to work for me so that I'm fast.

-- Danica Patrick

Patrick said the Gen-6 seems to suit her style in what has been a limited testing schedule so far. In some ways, she said, the stock car reminds her of the Indy cars she drove for seven seasons. Stewart considers it "easier to drive" than its predecessor.

"They do maybe drive a little bit tighter, so that's kind of nice for me,'' Patrick said. ''I also like the grip. There's a lot of things about this car that are good for me.''

Patrick's average finish in 10 Cup races last year was 28.3, and her best was 17th at Phoenix. She undoubtedly must improve in all areas if she is to compete in the series rather than only occasionally trouble the contenders. She has improved her tire management and ability to diagnose mechanical conditions, but qualifying remains an admitted area of concern.

She has shown an aptitude for restrictor-plate racing, a style that has historically produced surprise winners at Daytona and Talladega, but she must get better in the intermediate tracks that comprise much of the schedule.

That's much to do, but it is important to remember that when she began exploring a stock car career late in 2009, she needed instruction in the most elemental aspects of operating the car from crew chief Tony Eury Jr. That was not so long ago.

When asked after their final Nationwide race last November, crew chief Ryan Pemberton said her biggest need was "just to race more."

She will do that this year, with "30-odd days" added to her in-car schedule, she said.

Patrick and fellow rookie of the year candidate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. can expect a humbling year if recent statistics hold.

The best average race finish for a full-time newcomer eligible for Cup rookie of the year the past five years was Joey Logano's 20th in 2009. Sam Hornish Jr., a three-time IndyCar champion and Patrick contemporary, averaged a finish of 29.6 in 2008.

Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart
Boss and teammate Tony Stewart has been a good driver for Danica Patrick to emulate.

"Any time you step into a new car, new series, it gets a little difficult," said Stenhouse, a two-time Nationwide Series champion. "You've got a lot more to learn. They drive different.

"She does have more experience in this car, so I tell her she has the upper hand in the rookie of the year battle. I told her I was going to win. I guess we'll see how that goes, but at least I guess we both get to go the banquet, right?"

The top rookie award is also no precursor to glory. Matt Kenseth is the last winner of the award (2000) to win a Cup title (2003).

"The competition level is the biggest thing from going from Nationwide to the Cup series," Stewart said. "Not taking anything away running in the Truck series or the Nationwide Series, but you're running with the best of the best when you get to this level. … You have more guys that consistently have a shot to win the race every week."

Patrick seems to be keeping her goals modest and vague.

"I think it would be great, if I look at the points from the past year and looked at the people I was competing against in those 10 races that I did, if I could be somewhere a little ahead of where that kind of area is. That's probably a first-blush good spot to hope to be," she said.

"Secretly, do I hope for more? Of course I do. I feel like these long races are going to play into my strength of focus and improving on the car and getting more confident and strong as the race goes on."