Danica has thin margin for error
There will be plays on words and gambling clichés will be evoked. Someone will ask when "lady luck'' will finally relent against the female driver. It is Vegas, after all.
But the premise is real: Danica Patrick's sophomore season in the Sprint Cup series has been fraught with circumstances sufficiently rotten after two races to create the plausible scenario of the No. 10 Chevrolet not making races in the upcoming weeks. The situation would seem less dire if Patrick were more adept at qualifying stock cars, but 109 races into her NASCAR career, time trials stand as her major acknowledged weakness, according to Patrick and her team.
The third race of the season on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, therefore, has become an early critical juncture that could impact the rest of her year.
Under NASCAR rules, after that third race, the top 36 drivers by qualifying speed are assured starting positions in each subsequent race. The final seven spots are filled by rank in owner points. Patrick enters Las Vegas 41st in that category.
Patrick qualified 37th and finished 33rd last season in her first Cup race at Las Vegas, where she produced her best NASCAR result by finishing fourth in a 2011 Nationwide Series race. She qualified 41st (last spring) and 22nd (last fall) at Bristol Motor Speedway, site of the fourth race of the slate.
Patrick simplifies things immensely if she begins to qualify more consistently. Her average in 48 career Sprint Cup races is 31.3. Possible peril comes if drivers ahead of her in the standings qualify poorly on a given weekend, soaking up precious owners-points exemptions. The new group qualifying format, as predicted by Patrick, increases the chances of mass calamity for drivers attempting to forge a good run at the same time.
That is just another layer of drama in a season chock-full of it so far. Patrick's season started with unwelcome drama in one of the first practices for the Daytona 500, as a Hendrick Motorsports-leased engine failed during practice, relegating her to a starting spot in the back of the field in one of her acknowledged best opportunities of the season for a high finish. Patrick had worked her way to midpack before a multicar accident cued by the maneuver of Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick sent her hard into a wall not cushioned by a SAFER barrier and to a 40th-place finish. She had finished eighth in NASCAR's prestige event last February.
Patrick suffered a bruised right arm in the incident.
Her misfortune continued last week at Phoenix International Raceway, where she was collected in a Lap 171 incident with Cup rookie Justin Allgaier. She sustained fender damage in the spin, then subsequently cut a tire less than 20 laps later to finish 36th, five laps down.
Patrick sounded irate after the first incident at Phoenix, commenting on team radio that Allgaier "was driving like a complete jackass" and adding, "I'm not at all surprised we wrecked."
She approached Allgaier after the race for a pointed discussion.
"She was just upset because she got involved in the crash that we had," Allgaier told the Sporting News. "She said she's been through this and that she felt like I needed to settle down at that point.
"I explained my position on why everything happened. I think she understood where I was coming from. It doesn't fix either one of our race cars; it doesn't fix either one of our days."
After the race, Patrick said in a statement: "It's tough. That's two weeks in a row we've had good cars and nothing to show for it. The car was good all day; we just needed track position. I'm starting to think if we didn't have bad luck, we'd have no luck at all. ... Hopefully things turn around in Las Vegas."
If not, her margin for error will remain thin.