Danica, Team Hoping To Restart The Beach Party
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
Reasons to party hearty have been few for Danica Patrick, her team and her fans to this point in her first full season in Sprint Cup.
This coming weekend, however, Patrick and her Stewart Haas Racing team will return to the scene of what, by far, provided them with most party-rific moment in of the season – Daytona International Speedway – and their excitement-o-meter is pegged.
“You can feel the excitement in the shop,” veteran crew chief Tony Gibson said during a teleconference this week. “The guys are just rubbing and detailing and they’re pumped up and they’re excited.”
The gal is, too.
For obvious reasons.
Speedweeks 2013 at Daytona in February was all about Patrick and the 10 car. She arrived for the season-opening Big Race strong and confident. Practices went well, qualifying saw her win the pole and in the race, she hung around in a race that was defined by hanging around.
When she left Daytona, with the nation in tow, all things seemed not only possible, but probable for the woman whose IndyCar career apogeed somewhere between basic and disappointing. Patrick, as February ended and March began, appeared to be Chase ready and, perhaps, of championship quality – if not this year, then certainly
The hope – inside and outside of the Stewart Haas campus – has to be that a return to the beach will mark a return to good times. Patrick said this week, “Hopefully, we can build on what we had at Daytona in February and have a good run with the GoDaddy Chevrolet SS.”
Patrick quickly fell from P1 once the Daytona 500 went green in February. She was not credited with leading the first lap – that honor went to Jeff Gordon.
But the then-30-year-old Patrick never really fell out of contention. Twice during mid-points of the race, she did lead for two, and then three more laps.
Those were history making leads. They earned her the right to be called the first woman to lead a Cup race under green.
And, by leading those laps, Patrick became one of only 13 drivers to have led both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500: The other drivers to accomplish this feat are A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Bobby Unser, Bobby Allison, Jim Hurtubise, Johnny Rutherford, Tim Richmond, John Andretti, Robby Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya and Stewart.
“Well,” Gibson said, “it was obviously extremely gratifying to go down there and run well. To go to your hometown where I grew up and all your friends and family, and to go there and to do something that is pretty amazing, to make history, to just be a part of that is incredible. It was something that obviously will never be done again, and I feel real fortunate to be a part of that.”
Patrick was in contention for the victory when the final lap started. A podium finish seemed to be a wonderful bet at the white flag.
But late on the final lap, Patrick slipped up and slipped back; to an eighth-place finish. A disappointing eighth-place finish.
“I was disappointed at the end of the race that I just didn’t have a better grasp as to what I needed to do to shoot for a better finish than where I was,” she said.
“I just felt like I was just frustrated that I didn’t have a better plan. Tony (Stewart) said to me, ‘I really feel like you
had more to lose in your position than you had to gain by trying something, so I think that you did the right thing.’ That made me feel better – a little bit. Was I still mad that I went from third to eighth on the lap? No, I was still disappointed in it. But to have somebody like Tony Stewart say something to me like that was very kind, and it put it in perspective.”
Patrick clearly had the fastest car at Speedweeks. Scary fast. Some have said suspiciously fast.
But that car will not be at Daytona this weekend.
“Well,” Patrick said, “we lost that poor car at Talladega, so we are going back with our backup, which is a really good car, anyway. We tested with it at the beginning of the year and I expect it to go in a similar fashion. I think we will still be pretty fast.”
This weekend, the sport will get at least some kind of idea of how far Patrick has progress in the 14 races since the 500. A look at the stats would lead one to believe; not at all, as her best finish since Daytona 1 is 12th and her average finish is well south of the top 20.
Can Daytona and Patrick restart the party this Fourth of July weekend?
“Will we qualify on the pole and run in the top-three or five all day?” she said this week. “I don’t know. Maybe. The heat always changes things a little bit, but it’s a different car, and it’s going to be a different Hendrick engine. All that stuff just leads to a slightly different weekend. But I expect it to be somewhat similar, at least from a good standpoint in my head.”
One thing is clear. Returning to Daytona is being viewed as an opportunity, a chance for a fresh, slate-erasing start for the team.
“Well,” Gibson said, “I think it’s obviously a track that we feel like we can win at. I feel like that’s right in Danica’s wheelhouse there. She likes the drafting. She likes the high speeds, and I think most of that comes from the IndyCar side of it.
“So yeah, it’s exciting for us. We went to Daytona – and before when she was running the Nationwide car, she was really good at the restrictor plate stuff with the drafting and the air and that kind of deal. So we were pretty excited for going into this year, and then when we went to Daytona and tested, we knew that we were going to be fairly strong down there.
“We have our trophy from Daytona for the pole down here, and so that stuff we bring out – we brought it out this week just to remind everybody of what we can do when we get down there. It’s a little bit of a morale booster. The vibe is different. When we get ready to go here, everybody gets jacked up, and we know we can go here and we can do really well.”
As Patrick said, and as Gibson knows, Daytona in July is a different place than it is in February. The 500 is different from the 400.
It’s a different party. So keep the receipts for the champagne and for God’s sake, don’t eat that left-over mayo-based potato salad.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments