When team talks, Danica listens
Kevin Harvick might have had the chat with Danica Patrick because they're teammates at Stewart-Haas Racing. He might have had it because he and his wife, DeLana, befriended Patrick when she became a regular denizen of the college-quad-meets-affluent-suburb that is the motorcoach lot of NASCAR drivers.
Or he might have done it because he knew his 22-month-old son, Keelan, absolutely would have wanted it that way.
"For whatever reason, in the beginning of her NASCAR days, we just hit it off," Harvick said. "I think she is very determined and dedicated to what she does, and I like that. I've always shot her straight on what I think, and she has taken those thoughts constructively to try and do better."
She certainly did Saturday at Kansas Speedway, following an early weekend conversation with Harvick to finish a career-best seventh in what was the third-best result in series history for a female. She had just one top 10 in 2013, an eighth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500. After 11 races this season, she is 27th in the driver standings -- where she finished her rookie season -- but has improved her average finish (24.8) slightly and her average start (23.9) by more than six places.
Last weekend wasn't the first time Patrick was able to download information from the voluminous collective database of teammates Tony Stewart, a three-time Cup champion and 48-race winner, Kurt Busch, the 2004 series champion and 25-time victor, and Harvick, also a 25-time Cup winner who leads the series with two this season.
"We have two guys at our place who are champions, and Harvick is right there in being a champion," Patrick crew chief Tony Gibson said. "He's winning a ton of races, and he is a championship driver for sure. There's not too many that come into this business who get the opportunity to be surrounded by three of the best in the business."
Little Keelan would be completely pleased with that notion. A devout Patrick fan, he often receives a good luck, prerace kiss from the driver he calls "Da-Da," (pronounced "Day-Day") and he readily identifies her green race car on track. Keelan even has his own greeting for Patrick, as captured and shared by his mother on a Vine, and brandished a "Danica Digs Me" T-shirt before the recent Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway. Not that his father minded.
"The T-shirt was my idea, but it was really meant to poke fun at [Patrick boyfriend] Ricky [Stenhouse Jr.] more than anything," Harvick said. "It is kind of funny that Keelan can pick out Danica and her car at any moment. He loves 'Da-Da.'"
Though Harvick simplified the extent of his tutelage to understanding the limits and capabilities of a given race car on a given day and to "mash the gas," Gibson said it was broader and involved nuanced skills such as trail-braking, arcing corners and grip-exploitation that are broadly applicable.
"Anytime you can sit down with a Kevin Harvick or Tony Stewart or Kurt Busch and ask 'How's the best way to get around this racetrack? Where do I make the most speed and have the best grip at this particular race track?' and you sit down and you talk to them, that's great," he said. "Harvick runs good everywhere. I haven't found a place he doesn't run good. He's an all-around great race car driver.
"Right now she's the student and he's the professor. She's surrounded by three of the best in the business right now, so be the sponge, soak up all of that information. I think if she does, her learning curve will cut in half, I think."
Added Patrick of her teammates: "They're very valuable for someone like me who has a lot to learn. ... When guys like Kevin, Kurt and Tony say things to me that are bits of advice, it goes a long way with me."
The flow of information, Gibson said, has been encouraging since SHR made its evolutionary leap this offseason. The team replaced Ryan Newman with Harvick and became just the second four-team outfit by adding a program for Busch. The collection of outspoken drivers and sometimes-flammable personalities was seen as a combustible situation by some observers, but the team remained cohesive through a first quarter of the season, Gibson said, marked by quality control problems and flat performance, even considering two wins by Harvick and another by Busch.
"Our meetings are great, very useful, very productive," Gibson said. "All of the drivers have great input, and it's all about helping one another. We go in there and go over things in practice, and the drivers talk about things that helped them and what they think the race is going to do and the racetrack is going to do.
"They're really productive meetings, probably the best it's ever been as far as the drivers being in the game and focused and helping the company, not just one driver."
All which could help Patrick make her next progression, a consistent presence inside the top 12. The key, Gibson said, is understanding "every night is not going to be like Saturday night."
"I think we're where we're definitely consistently running in the top 20. I think we're more consistent as a race team," Gibson said of the team, which is 27th in driver points. "I think the next hurdle is taking a weekend like this weekend, where, OK, we proved we can do this, we have the equipment to do it, she can race with them. Now, how do we push forward and be more consistent?
"Do we take this and not use the momentum to go to next week? Or do we take this and come out of Charlotte with another top 10 or top 12 finish and be consistent? Be competitive each and every week. That's our milestone. That's what we have to do now, prove to everybody we're not just a fluke, she can do this each and every week."
There will be plenty to talk about among Patrick and her teammates.