Is Danica Patrick getting better?
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Her pit crew's shenanigans seemed about to devolve into a wrestling match on Sunday when Danica Patrick decided to let them have their fun and walked to the wall that bounds pit road at Daytona International Speedway.
The Coke Zero 400 had been halted for the second -- and ultimately final -- time by rains that already had postponed the race from Saturday night. Patrick had avoided two massive accidents and overcome a potentially devastating pit road gaffe with a timely caution to find her No. 10 Chevrolet eighth when the race was called. That result would tie the second-best of her 64-race Sprint Cup career -- from the 2013 Daytona 500 -- and was a slot off her surprising seventh at Kansas Speedway on May 10.
It was a wonderful opportunity for Patrick to characterize an afternoon of good driving (and even better circumstances) as progress, and to mentally move on to New Hampshire Motor Speedway a few days early. But a transformation within the program and Patrick herself wouldn't allow it. She wanted to get back on the track. There were more spots to gain. The momentum that she and crew chief Tony Gibson sense has emboldened them to dare think of -- anticipate -- winning a race this season.
And a win this season would virtually assure Patrick, in her second full-time season at NASCAR's highest level, a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, just as it did for formerly winless Aric Almirola on Sunday.
Having navigated without damage through a 26-car wreck that left just 17 cars on the lead lap, Patrick might have won her first Cup race by attrition, she joked.
"Don't bother me, I don't care," she quipped. "Chase don't care."
That's the sort of attitude Gibson said is crucial for his driver to make the next evolutionary step in her top-series work-study program. A better learner when confident, Patrick already has improved in what the team identified as its main 2014 prerequisite -- qualifying -- and has become more steady, with six top-20 finishes, albeit not steady enough. She seems on the cusp of the next benchmark.
"She doesn't have a top-5 finish. I think that's critical to make the step," Gibson said. "A top-5 finish not because something happened, but something like Kansas. Run good, run strong all night long, and finish up there."
Patrick's Kansas finish, unexpected given her middling performance previously on 1.5-mile tracks, has become a highly referenced moment for her Stewart-Haas Racing team. Not because of what they did, but because of what they didn't.
Each and every week we're not going to be there, but there's going to come multiple races where she's prepared to run in the top 5 or win these things, and we all have to be ready for that so we don't let her down.Tony Gibson
"Kansas, we actually had the car to win. We should have won that race by far," Gibson said, "but we have got to take opportunities like that. When you get cars like that, you've got to use those to their best and function 100 percent. We had a bad pit stop and that kind of set us back a little bit.
"...We can't go into each weekend thinking we're going to be 20th, because there's going to be that race where things are going in our direction, and if everybody does their deal, hits their mark, we want to be ready to capitalize on it."
Patrick's finish at Daytona undoubtedly was aided by so many quality cars being damaged -- two-time Daytona 500 winners Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth among them -- and she went from 22nd to eighth by navigating through the final wreck. In even more good fortune, overshooting her pit stall earlier in the race might have proved beneficial as she lost a top-10 spot in the running order that was the epicenter of the final accident.
"Everything happens for a reason, so maybe that's why I had the mistake on pit lane and put ourselves in a position to not be caught in it and sitting here with a crashed car," she said.
While Gibson said, "Our goals remain different than other people's," Patrick has met his midseason expectations. With two top-10s, Patrick is 27th in driver points -- one slot ahead of 2013 Rookie of the Year Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and two behind teammate Kurt Busch, who has a win this season. She has improved her average start from 30.1 to 21.6 this year and her average finish more modestly from 26.1 to 24.2, and is four off her 2013 total of eight lead-lap finishes. She has two top-10s and six top-20s already this year compared with one top-10 and nine top-20s all of last year. Recent runs, including a 17th at Michigan, have shown Patrick is capable, Gibson said, and more will be expected from driver and team.
"Each and every week we're not going to be there, but there's going to come multiple races where she's prepared to run in the top 5 or win these things, and we all have to be ready for that so we don't let her down,'' Gibson said.
"And on the other side of it, she has to do the same thing. ... When you get a car that is that strong, then we have to get up on the wheel and you've got to drive it."
And maybe the Chase will have another unexpected visitor.
"If we can keep running well and get a top-5, which I think we can based on the way we're running and qualifying, then I think a win is just around the corner," Gibson said.
"We can definitely do it."