Danica trying to stay positive
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Keelan Harvick high-fived Danica Patrick on pit road Thursday night, then blew a kiss as best as a toddler could. Patrick swooped in for a kiss on the lips. As Keelan's eyes bulged from the speed of the smacker, Patrick turned toward her mother, Bev, and smiled.
Minutes before the 150-mile qualifying races that set the field for the Daytona 500, Patrick was relaxed and eager. It belied the plan of attack that had been set out for her by crew chief Tony Gibson, who leaned across the hood of the No. 10 Chevrolet, secured her attention, and began reviewing detail.
Having been forced to change an engine because her original failed catastrophically in an early-week practice, Patrick's finish would not benefit her. The unique rules of Daytona 500 qualifying relegated her and teammate Tony Stewart -- who sustained the same problem -- to the back of the field for both the Duels and the Daytona 500, no matter where they qualified or finished in field-setting races. So the Duels were about gleaning the most information possible about blazing a trail to the front in the Daytona 500.
Much was learned in a 13th-place finish, but there will be much to do -- and much out of her control -- on Sunday as she tries to follow up on an eighth-place finish last year.
"It could be challenging," said Patrick, who advanced from the rear to as high as ninth in the Duels. "But I think if you get a few people behind you, it could be fine. I know my pit crew is really good, so I know when it comes to pit stops, they will get cars behind me.
"I know Gibson will try strategy to get me track position, so with those two things we will be in the thick of it, and from there it will be a matter of using those things I have learned over the last week and putting it to good use."
Stung by a late-race draft ejection in the Duels as an ambitious lower line emerged in the final three laps, Patrick, who went from third to eighth in the same scenario at the end of the Daytona 500, slumped from ninth to 14th.
"I think that where I was, there's a little bit of antsiness to see if you can do something to get to the front, so I feel like there a lot of people who want to move around," Patrick said of the start of the Duels. "The question is 'Do you go or not go?' And I tried one or two things, and at the end, I tried going to the bottom. I really thought it was going to work. The pack was coming from behind, and it was just going to push forward as that was where there was room to go, but it just didn't form up and it got more scattered than anything."
In a form of racing dependent on drafting and following tubes of non-turbulent air to the front, or muddled air to the back, rapid advancement is possible with the proper choice of partners. But a new aerodynamics package that lengthened the rear spoiler of cars from 4 to 4.5 inches has added a twist to the dance. A wider wake has made the rates at which cars close on one another from behind extremely high but has impeded drivers' ability to "side draft" once alongside, increasing handling problems.
While Patrick's institutional knowledge of discipline will enhance her chances, a car not as nimble in the new aerodynamic landscape will not, she said.
"I think the car is good in a pack," she said. "I think that we're probably not as strong as we were last year. I find it a little bit difficult when someone is behind me to pull up to the cars in front of me, where that wasn't the case last year. Spoiler changes have happened, but I have more experience and I think that will probably pay off in the long run, especially coming from where I have to come from."
Gibson said he was "pretty excited for Sunday" after watching several former race-winners work with Patrick drafting in the Duels.
"I feel like we have some guys out there now who will work with us -- [Brian Vickers] and [Joey Logano] and those guys were really good [Thursday] about sticking with us, so I think the more that she runs like she did, they will get trust in her and we will be better for Sunday," he said.
Restrictor-plate racing equalizes experience levels and often engenders unexpected winners. And recently, it has enabled winners to come from deep in the field. Kevin Harvick came from the 34th starting position to win in 2007, Matt Kenseth came from 39th in 2009 and Trevor Bayne from 32nd in 2011 in just his second Sprint Cup start.
Patrick's upward mobility in the Duels encouraged Gibson that she could do the same on Sunday.
"We advanced pretty damned quickly right off the bat, so we know we can get inside the top 10 relatively quick,'' he said. "Our teammates, obviously, Tony Stewart was there and we drafted with him relatively quick and I think that will be our plan come Sunday. We will have another teammate in there with [Kurt Busch] and that will help. The Hendrick [Motorsports] guys, they are always good with drafting with her, too. She does a good job. Guys are starting to trust her more, and so she should be good."
Patrick said a markedly more "calm" week compared to last year, when she became the first woman to win a pole in a Sprint Cup event, allowed her to return to North Carolina briefly. But she prefers a busy schedule because that means a successful week, she said, and besides, "I'm not getting any younger, so I might as well do it now."
Still, Patrick remained more tempered in her expectations, but a bit whimsical, too. She feels more comfortable, she said, but mainly because she grows more nervous the higher she starts in a race.
"There is a chance it could go really badly, but I'm just looking at the positive side of things, and we have lots of ground we can make up and that can be a really fun day," she said. "Sometimes the most fun you ever have in a car is when you make a lot of ground up.
"Looking back at some of the races where we came from behind, those are the ones I remember, not the ones where we hung out up front necessarily, so ... well, I guess it was only Daytona I did that. But anyway, we'll make up some ground."