Expectations for Danica Patrick's NASCAR apprenticeship were stoked externally by her fame and internally over excitement for the next phase of her racing career. They were quickly tempered by the realization that her progression as a stock car driver and proposed ascension to Sprint Cup was going to be a slog. Nearly halfway through her Nationwide and partial Sprint Cup season, she already has run more races than in her longest IndyCar campaign.
And in an era when limitless testing at venues hosting races has been greatly reduced by NASCAR, when the transition for open wheel newcomers is far more difficult than for Patrick's mentor/Cup team owner Tony Stewart in the mid-1990s, Patrick is in essence engaged in a season-long live fire test against peers racing to sate ambition and bank accounts. Eventually, she might be better for it, especially in learning how the advantage is given and taken in crucial moments.
"How many champions have come into this sport and not done as good as she has?" pondered Patrick's Nationwide Series crew chief, Tony Eury Jr. "Dario (Franchitti, four-time IndyCar champion) and those guys have come over here, they're champions, they're still winners where they're at now, but honestly, she is doing better at picking it up than they did."
Quotable: "Sometimes to take it to the next level, you're going to make mistakes, just trying to find that new limit."
Biggest improvement: "Restarts have gotten much better. I'm much, much better paced in practice and throughout the weekend than previously. I would say when I used to show up at the racetrack for the last two years, part time, I was hoping to just be in the top 20. That would be a good successful practice for me. Now, top 10s are very consistent every time, and I feel like I'm almost sort of expecting top 5 in practice. Those are the kind of things I like to see. I am far more interested in overall pace and learning at this point than I am about the exact result, because the results will end up coming when I put it all together.''
Biggest improvement need: "Overall pace and learning is definitely the focus for me right now."
Tony Eury Jr.
Quotable: "When I took this job, I told (my father and namesake) Pops, I can't wait. Because what's cool about this, is when has a woman come into this sport and somebody given her 100 percent? That's why I did it. I thought it was a challenge. I thought it was something cool nobody else has ever done. If you can win a race with her, you'd be the first person to win it in this series. That's something to shoot for."
Biggest improvement: "Qualifying, definitely. (She's learned) to trust the tires on the first lap to get after it. IndyCar takes a lot more time to qualify. These things here, once you leave pit road, it's game time."
Biggest improvement need: "Just racing in general. Racing around cars, setting up a pass, that's the kind of the things we're working on that's probably why it's kind of in the limelight right now, but that's what's going to make her better. Her restarts with cars all around her, we've got to be able to pick it up and get her better.''
Breakout moment: "Texas at the end of the race, she really stepped it up. At the end of the race we had a set of tires left over and we kind of planned that out in the race and she really got after it. I think she ran three laps three-wide with (David) Ragan and Cole (Whitt) at the end of that race. That was the first sign of like, she's got it. Right there is what she needed to do.''
Grade: C. "We're still not spot-on, but on the back side, we've still not gotten the finishes we need. It's all about results. We don't have the results. You can run good in practice and qualify good, you can do it all, but the dotted line at the very bottom is what you did on race day. And right now, we're not finishing it."
Ray Evernham, three-time Sprint Cup champion crew chief and ESPN analyst
Biggest improvement: "Managing expectations and showing patience."
Biggest improvement need: "I'm not sure there is a specific category. I feel she continues to gain experience. If I had to pick one area it would be managing traffic on restarts."
Best moment: Daytona pole and leading the race.
Quotable: On whether at this juncture, at this rate of improvement, Patrick will be ready for a jump to Sprint Cup in 2013 -- "A jump to (Sprint Cup) is going to be difficult. I don't feel that she will be ready to be competitive. I believe she can get there but not next year."
Driver points: 10th
Distance from leader: 180 points
Top 5s: 0
Top 10s: 1
Best finish: 8th (Texas)
Poles: 1 (Daytona)
Best points position: Ninth (Charlotte, race 11)
Laps led: 4 (.16 of 2,518 this season; tied for 25th)
Percentage of laps completed: 86.26 (2,172 of 2,518; 14th)
Average running place: 18.443
Average finish: 20.1
Times passed under green: 919
Passes under green: 779
Full-time drivers behind her in standings: 7
1. Daytona: Began her first full Nationwide season by winning the pole, but a misplayed bump draft from JR Motorsports teammate Cole Whitt sent her to a 38th-place finish.
2. Phoenix: Patrick fought a cantankerous No. 7 Chevrolet for the entire race, finishing 21st, three laps down.
3. Las Vegas: In a melancholy return to the site of her last IndyCar race, where friend Dan Wheldon was killed in October, Patrick started and finished 12th.
4. Bristol: Finished 19th, two laps down, but was not displeased with a relatively uneventful experience at the demanding bullring.
5. Fontana: A piece of metallic debris pierced her grille, fouled the engine and relegated Patrick to a 35th-place finish, prompting a rethink of season goals. "Run for the championship" phrase will no longer be used.
6. Texas: Eury game-planned the final laps to perfection amid several cautions, saving a fresh set of tires for a late dash that allowed Patrick to go from 16th and lapped to eighth place and her best finish of the season.
7. Richmond: Patrick deemed a 21st-place finish a "bummer," especially considering encouraging top-10 practice speeds and her affinity for the .750-mile track as an IndyCar venue.
8. Talladega: Patrick was 10th in the late stages but dumped like a rookie by veterans drafting toward the front. Patrick was pinched into the wall after the race by Sam Hornish Jr., who had a tire going flat, then shunted her old friend/foe into the wall. She finished 13th.
9. Darlington: Perhaps it was weariness from also preparing for her second Sprint Cup start, but Patrick seemed giddy after finishing 12th (best ever for a female in 28 NASCAR races at the "Lady in Black"). With Stewart, Eury, and spotter T.J. Majors offering encouragement and guiding her around the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval, Patrick was praised by media and peers for her handling of the trying weekend.
10. Iowa: A blown right front tire sent her into the wall and out of the race, to 30th.
11. Charlotte: In a race Patrick deemed "very average," she qualified third, started ninth on a final restart, but finished 13th in a race featuring several moonlighting Sprint Cup drivers. Her midrace bit of cheerleading when Eury angrily berated his pit crew after a mistake might have been one of the most productive aspects.
12. Dover: She was 15th with 67 laps remaining when contact with Hornish cued an accident that sent her to a 30th-place finish.
13. Michigan: Eury questioned the tactics of Austin Dillon and the respect Patrick is afforded when the rookie took the air off her spoiler and prompted a spin. A third and final spin and impact with the wall ruined a possible top-10 finish; she wound up 18th.
14. Road America: Running fourth on the final lap, Patrick was shunted into the gravel by the ultra-talented, ultra-aggressive former Indianapolis 500 and Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve as she defended fourth place. Holding that result would have tied her NASCAR and series gender-best mark she set at Las Vegas in 2011. Instead she finished 12th.