Danica Patrick happy to hit the road courses
Danica Patrick was still too busy processing the positives to manifest anger. Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. was taking care of the latter, confronting Jacques Villeneuve on pit road in June at Road America after his last-lap shunt sent Patrick off track and cost her a possible top-5 finish.
In those frenetic moments along pit road of the Wisconsin road course, Patrick focused on the strong restarts, racing in the top 5 most of the 50 laps, and the brief lead she held in just her second road course start in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
Though Patrick's early career development came on road courses, she was more consistent and proficient during the oval portions of her seven-year IndyCar career. And though she finished second at the IndyCar Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle in 2007, in just two road course starts so far in the Nationwide series, she is arguably -- although not statistically -- more advanced on road courses in stock cars.
That reality seems bizarre.
"It's definitely an interesting mindset for me, to be looking forward to road courses," she said, "since that was part of why I wanted to leave IndyCar."
Patrick had just one podium finish and an average result of 14th in 25 road course events in IndyCar, and the runner-up finish at Belle Isle. Although it was the best of her career at the time, it was helped by three top-5 drivers crashing on the final lap.
Though Patrick was a comparatively modest 12th at Road America in the Nationwide series this season and 24th at Montreal last year, both she and Eury have been encouraged by the way she has driven with, and at times through, the field.
That makes this weekend's race at Watkins Glen and next week's in Montreal a key juncture in the final half of her first full Nationwide season. Patrick, who had a best finish of eighth and an average of 13.3 in six IndyCar races at Watkins Glen, said in a release, the course "has a lot of the same rhythm as (Road America)."
Both the rhythm and the reason for Patrick's newfound aptitude for road courses involves braking. Road course racing is a choreography of shifting, turning, and attacking at deceleration points, and Patrick is developing an aptitude for it in stock cars. At 3,450 pounds, Nationwide cars weigh nearly a ton more than the version of the IndyCar Patrick drove on road courses. They have roughly the same horsepower, making brake zone attack opportunities more enticing for her, she said.
"Did a lot of passing [at Road America]," she said. "That's what's fun about stock car racing. When you increase the brake zone and when you increase the length of the brake zone, there's an opening for a lot of opportunities there. In contrast, in Indy cars, we didn't have as much passing because they stop so darned well. So the brake zone is super small. Where you lengthen that out, it's very tempting."
Patrick has been in a frustrating downturn since July, when she was wrecked into a 31st-place finish at Daytona International Speedway after leading 13 laps. Eury had cited the race as one of her last feasible victory opportunities of the season, considering her history of success on the high-banked 2.5-mile restrictor-plate track. She had crashed out of four of her last 10 races before an 11th-place finish last week on the oval at Iowa Speedway.
The consecutive road course events at Watkins Glen on Saturday and Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on Aug. 18 could offer a beachhead.
Both driver and crew chief were encouraged to learn that her result at Montreal last season was partially because of by a fixable mechanical problem.
"We let her down when a brake line came loose and she lost her brakes," Eury said.
She will try to use a new set to full advantage over the next two weeks, and in the process, road course racing could become her unforeseen stock car racing strength.