Danica searching for consistency
Danica Patrick reached the first break in the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule feeling better about things. Sort of. Better because her results, she said, don't necessarily reflect the work of her No. 10 Chevrolet team or how she has raced at times.
Results are what matter, she understands, so many problem areas remain. But even though her statistics are strikingly similar to those of her rookie season, the second-year driver continues to find things to be encouraged about.
"I really feel like it has been a lot better than last year as far as the race goes, and qualifying, even," said Patrick, whose early results were marred by on-track incidents not of her doing. "It's been, I feel like, a lot better. It's still not great, but it's definitely getting better."
One of the most fundamental areas of emphasis is translating a fast car through practice, qualifying and into a race, and remedying or improving it if something is lacking. Practice crashes and washed-out qualifying sessions haven't helped the process, but Patrick has not been alone in having to deal with the daily pitfalls of working in stock car racing's big leagues.
"We started off the year really well in practice and running, like, top-15 in practice, and Las Vegas was great," she said. "We were one of the fastest cars for most of the time we were on track in practice. But that didn't lead to good results in the race. With getting crashed and not having great races, that kind of puts a damper on the whole weekend.
"I've had other weekends where I'm not running well at all in practice, but then I go out in the race and the car seems to be OK. ... At some point in time, you've got to put it all together and you've got to run fast, qualify well and run great in the race."
1. The more things stay the same: Consistency is a sought-after commodity, but Patrick and crew need their trend line to tick upward. Through nine races this season, her results are strikingly similar to, and in some ways less than, her first full Cup season in 2013. After finishing 34th at Richmond, Patrick is 29th in driver points with an average start of 27.4, an average finish of 27.1, and two laps led. At the same point last season, after finishing 29th at Richmond, she was 26th in points -- with a pole and one top-10, both in the Daytona 500 -- plus an average start of 32nd and an average finish of 18th, which was bolstered by finishing eighth in the season opener.
2. Rookie redux: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. bested Patrick for the 2013 Sprint Cup rookie of the year award but is barely holding off his foe and romantic interest in their sophomore seasons. After Patrick finished 34th at Richmond -- four places higher than Stenhouse -- she pulled within 31 points and three spots of him in the driver standings. Through nine races, Stenhouse is 26th to Patrick's 29th. Through nine races last season, Stenhouse was 18th and Patrick 26th.
3. F1 not job one: Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Gene Haas has undertaken another massive expansion, having been being granted a license for a Formula One team he hopes to base in Kannapolis, N.C., and to begin campaigning in the next two years. With three former or dabbling open-wheel drivers in his Sprint Cup lineup, Haas had to quickly quash any notion that Tony Stewart or Patrick might eventually find their way into a Haas Formula F1 car for more than a photo op. "I'd certainly never expect any of our current lineup of drivers to want to be able to do that," Haas said. "It would be really impossible to accomplish that and survive. ... Just the thought of jumping into a Formula One car from a Cup car would be very, very difficult."
4. Escape artist: Patrick remains a popular pitchwoman, starring in a series of videos promoting a three-wheel motorcycle brand as the ultimate getaway vehicle for celebrities being mobbed by fans or paparazzi. She remains one of a small collection of drivers so entrenched in the mainstream that her on-track efforts barely impact her marketing endeavors.
5. She took it like a wrecking ball: It was bad enough that Patrick had to wait until Monday for the rain-delayed Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway -- in which she finished 27th -- but then she learned the Miley Cyrus concert she planned to attend that night in Charlotte had been canceled, ostensibly because the performer was ill. Patrick's response on Twitter: "Me and my girls were so ready to twerk tonight." No party in the USA, or at least in Charlotte.