Danica is on the outside looking in
JOLIET, Ill. -- Danica Patrick watched through her windshield as the Chase for the Sprint Cup rolled off without her Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. It wasn't surprising. Denny Hamlin is the only rookie to qualify for NASCAR's playoffs in the decade since they have been used in deciding the series champion.
And with 10 races left in her first full season at NASCAR's highest level, Patrick concedes she has much work to do before she will be ready to try and chase down the most successful drivers in the series.
"I think that realistically, not necessarily for the Chase in particular, but I think to really understand the car and feel comfortable in the car and be able to start to have some more established expectation levels, I think it takes at least three years to get to that point," said Patrick, who finished 20th Sunday in a race delayed by more than five hours because of rain. "And some people say five years."
Crew chief Tony Gibson agreed that "three to four years" is generally required to hone a driver capable of making a Chase berth a goal.
The route has been even longer for some of Patrick's counterparts who have attempted to transition from open-wheel racing. Sam Hornish Jr., a competitor of Patrick's since racing karts as children, won three IndyCar titles but didn't begin to find success in stock cars until his sixth season. In that sixth season -- his first full time in Nationwide, in 2012 -- he finished fourth in points. This season he leads the Nationwide series in points.
Dario Franchitti was making progress in his second Nationwide season, with a top-5 and two top-10s in 2008, after attempting NASCAR following an IndyCar title. However, he returned to open wheel, in part because of sponsor problems with his Earnhardt Ganassi Sprint Cup program, and won three more titles in a row.
Juan Pablo Montoya, a former Indianapolis 500 winner and Formula One veteran, finished eighth in driver points in 2009 and has two wins on road courses but has been otherwise mediocre in stock cars. Team owner Chip Ganassi opted not to re-sign him for 2014 after his eight seasons with the team, and Montoya announced Monday he would return to IndyCar.
"I really hope it doesn't take that long," said Patrick, who contested her first full NASCAR season in Nationwide last year. "But I feel like in my mind it's realistic to think it could take at least three years to at least feel comfortable in the car. And then it's about being in the right situation where you're in the right group and you have the right car and your manufacturers are good.
"It comes down to a lot of other things. But I think as a driver, after a good few years, you as a driver are probably pretty ready to take the car to the limit."
Patrick described her finish Sunday, just after midnight, as "all right" in what was a fairly uneventful evening on track after starting 23rd. Gibson deemed it "a solid day for us."
"We were pretty happy with it," Gibson said. "We felt like we had a 15th- to 20th-place car, and I feel like if we hadn't lost that lap there and had to start in the back, we would have been a little better. It worked out good, passed a lot of cars.
"Some better restarts. We worked on restarts, got a little bit better at those."
The lone tangle came when Patrick had to bail on an attempt to pit because her team was trying to stay away from Chase driver Carl Edwards. Patrick fell a lap down briefly, but regained a spot on the lead lap by Lap 162 of 267 with the beneficiary rule. She ran between 25th and 18th much of the night.
"We weren't the fastest car out there, but we were decent and we were relatively consistent," she said. "I think we could have found a little more if we got a couple breaks, but it's fine.
"At the beginning of the year, top-20s was the goal based on the year before, really. Kind of had to readjust that so now that's where we're falling into things. Cars are getting better. I'm learning things. It's going in the right direction. I'd like it to go further, but I'll take any progress."
And in a few years, possibly progress to the Chase.