Danica Patrick may not be at the front of the field very often during her first full campaign in the Sprint Cup Series. But given the results of recent testing at Daytona International Speedway, it’s not outlandish to think that the rookie could start there.
A strong showing at Preseason Thunder has members of the No. 10 team thinking they might be capable of opening the 2013 season with a very big bang -- placing Patrick on the pole for the Daytona 500. It certainly seems possible, given that Patrick only got faster as the three-day session went on, and that her Stewart-Haas Racing entry will have to be speedy given that it doesn’t have a guaranteed berth in the Great American Race.
Patrick was fastest on the speed chart for much of the final morning of Daytona testing, which consisted solely of single-car runs that mimic qualifying. Her No. 10 team was so pleased with her testing car that it could emerge as her Speedweeks primary if it produces the right numbers in the wind tunnel. There’s been no shortage of preparation, including a December trip to the General Motors Proving Grounds in Yuma, Ariz., to perform aerodynamic straight-line testing at the facility’s 1.4-mile strip.
It’s all being done out of necessity, given that Patrick has no points from 2012 to carry over, and no safety net for her high-profile team to fall back on. She needs to place in the top six in front-row qualifying to secure a Daytona 500 berth without having to race her way in through the Duels, which is the primary goal. But given how fast the car has been, the No. 10 team can’t help but think it has a chance to win the pole for NASCAR’s biggest race.
“I think so,” crew chief Tony Gibson said Monday, the opening day of the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I say that, but that’s our plan. We have to make it on speed. At least the top six are locked in -- the pole-sitter, outside and four others. Hendrick does a great job with our engines. We’re always a threat with the speedway stuff. So I really, truly think we have a shot. I’m sure everybody going down there thinks they have a shot at the pole. But with our guys hanging the bodies, and the detail our aero department has put in, all the work, I think we have a shot to sit on the pole.”
In her NASCAR career to this point, Patrick has often been at her best at big, fast tracks, with her top Nationwide Series finishes coming at 1.5-mile intermediates like Las Vegas and Texas. That has yet to translate to the Sprint Cup level, where she made 10 starts last season. But she did win the pole for last year’s Nationwide event at Daytona, proving that she’s capable of generating speed on the 2.5-mile high banks.
“I think Tony Gibson and the guys and myself, we all think we have a chance at the pole, maybe,” she said. “I think we’re all thinking very positively about top six. Hopefully, that happens. But last year I went to preseason testing and it was really good. Not as good as what we tested this year, but it was still pretty good, and we went back for the race and just didn’t have the speed. Anything can happen, and anything can change. Perhaps we don’t find as much speed when we go back for the race, and other people do. Maybe we find more, and we’ll just have to evaluate then. But this point in time, we’re all thinking pretty positive. I’m thinking top six seems realistic. And a pole would be if everything went right and we found a couple more speed items and put a good lap in.”
It would certainly be a big boost to begin her Sprint Cup career, which comes on the heels of a promising finish to her most recent Nationwide campaign. Car owner Tony Stewart, with a championship provisional available to him, had the option of switching points with Patrick to ensure her a berth in the Daytona 500. He didn’t, in large part because he feels his new driver has a fast car and the ability to get in on her own.
“That’s the confidence I have in her,” he said. That confidence extends beyond Daytona, and into a 36-race season that will present some tracks and challenges that Patrick has not faced before. Like other open-wheel converts before her, Stewart believes the day will come when Patrick puts it all together.
“We saw it with Ricky Stenhouse, we saw it with Juan (Montoya),” he said. “When drivers first come to this series, it takes a minute. And all of the sudden there’s just a day that you can tell that the light switch kicked on that day and they finally get that feel that you’re looking for. I wish I could explain it better than that, but it’s just literally one day happens, and something happens, and things start clicking. … Danica’s done a lot in a very short amount of time in this series, and her feedback from the first day we’ve worked with her has been incredible. A lot better than mine was -- I was driving a car and didn’t know what was going on. Her feedback, she understands what the car’s doing, what she’s feeling, and I think that shows comfort. That’s a sign that she’s going to do really well, that she’s that comfortable that quick.”
Patrick is still waiting on that moment.
“It does just kind of click. I’m not there in a Cup car yet,” she said. “When I finally start to be faster in practice from the get-go, that will be a sign things are finally starting to click for me. But it’s an effort right now. It’s an effort right now to get faster and more comfortable. But I’m excited for the day it finally it clicks.”
Toward that end, Gibson has set small, attainable goals -- turn top 20s into top 15s, be in the left-hand column of the scoring monitor after practice, find positives each weekend. “She wants to do it so bad,” he said. Given how fast her car has been, Daytona seems a good opportunity forPatrick to build some confidence and momentum that she can carry into the early part of the year.
And if Speedweeks doesn’t go well? Well, she’s been there before, wrecking three cars last year and letting the frustration fester well after she left Daytona. This time, whether she starts the Daytona 500 from the pole or ends it in the garage area, Patrick seems more prepared.
“It’s just Daytona,” she said. “All I learned last year is that I can’t let it get to me. And it did last year. And I went into Phoenix and didn’t have a great weekend and my attitude got the best of me, and I had to regroup from there on out. … You can let it get the best of you, and that next weekend is just a spiral down. I learned very quickly at the beginning last year what a bad weekend at Daytona can teach you, and I’m better for it."