Come Monday, Nov. 18, Danica Patrick will no longer be a rookie in NASCAR’s top division.
While the 2013 season was “officially” designated as Patrick’s rookie season, she also drove 10 Sprint Cup races last year for SHR, which meant 46 rookie meetings and 46 races with a yellow rookie stripe.
Like any rookie season, it’s been a year of highs and lows for Patrick and the GoDaddy team. And the year started off on a high note that prompted several rewrites in the history books.
Short of winning the 55th Daytona 500, Patrick’s participation in February’s Speedweeks at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway was nearly flawless.
She was the fastest during the first practice of the year Feb. 16, then backed that up by winning the pole for the Daytona 500 one day later to become the first woman ever to claim the top spot for a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. She stayed out of trouble for the remainder of Speedweeks and ran in the top-three for much of the Daytona 500 before dropping from third to eighth on the final lap.
She set one NASCAR record with her eighth-place finish, which was the highest finishing position ever earned by a woman in the “Great American Race.”
In addition to her history-making pole run and finish in the Daytona 500, Patrick also led five laps – 90 to 91 and 127 to 129 – becoming the first female to lead NASCAR’s most prestigious race and the first woman to lead Sprint Cup Series laps under green. Janet Guthrie led five laps under caution in 1977 at Ontario (Calif.) Motor Speedway.
By leading laps in the Daytona 500, Patrick joined an elite club 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. Of those 13 drivers, only Patrick, Foyt, Andretti, Gordon, Montoya and Stewart have led at least five laps in each race.
Patrick’s eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500, coupled with her six top-10 finishes in the Indianapolis 500, make her one of only 15 drivers to have top-10 results in each race. The other drivers are Foyt, Montoya, Gordon, Rutherford, Stewart, Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Bobby Johns, Cale Yarborough, Dan Gurney, Donnie Allison, Jerry Grant, Paul Goldsmith and Tom Sneva.
Two months later at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Patrick shocked some NASCAR observers with an impressive 12th-place finish at the .526-mile paper-clip oval, known for being especially hard on rookies. It was made more impressive by the fact she started 43rd after an engine change before the race. She looked like a veteran on the shortest track on the circuit which, viewed from the air, looks like a paperclip as its long straightaways lead into tight, flat turns. The racing there can be described as “give-and-take,” with drivers giving some bumps and taking some bumps as 43 cars fight for space on its tight confines.
None of that seemed to be an issue for Patrick, whose impressive rookie performance bested those of some other name drivers in their Martinsville debuts, most notably her team owner Tony Stewart, who finished 20th in his first Martinsville start in 1999. Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson finished 35th in his Martinsville debut in 2002. NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace finished 15th in 1984. Dale Jarrett finished 14th in 1984. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 26th in 2000. Kyle Busch finished 39th in 2005. Matt Kenseth finished 21st in 2000. Kurt Busch finished 37th in 2000. And Fred Lorenzen finished 24th in 1956.
Patrick hopes to score another solid finish in Sunday’s 400-mile season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And then like most of the NASCAR community – take some time off.
DANICA PATRICK, Driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You’ve just about completed your first full season in Sprint Cup. What was the biggest transition from IndyCar to the Nationwide Series, and then Nationwide to Sprint Cup?
“That’s a good question. It was definitely a bigger transition to go from Indy cars to stock cars. It’s just that I was doing it on a smaller platform with the Nationwide Series. I’m really glad that GoDaddy was supportive of the recommended process of getting to Sprint Cup. If I had gone from IndyCar straight to Sprint Cup, it would have been an incredible challenge. I’m appreciative of my partners standing behind the recommended way to do things and to have that patience and belief. Stock cars are definitely a lot different than an IndyCar. Understanding the flow of the races and what the cars do, it was important to have the base of the Nationwide Series experience before going to Cup. It’s still very hard, but it was definitely bigger going in from open wheel.”
Can you look back on your progress and how it’s been and perhaps where you would like it to be?
“I feel like the rookie year I’ve had has been actually similar to Nationwide, to be honest. I wasn’t super-fast figuring out how to go fast. When I figured out how to go faster, it was riddled with bad luck, things happening and silly mistakes. Then, come the end of the year, I started to get it together, it did happen. A lot of that happened this year. I’d like to be running better at this point. A couple of weeks ago at Martinsville was definitely a better weekend for us. We’ve been qualifying better at some of the tracks. At Charlotte, by the end of the race, I said I didn’t know what else you could do to make it better other than throwing a couple hundred pounds more downforce on this thing so I could go faster, or 50 pounds or 20 pounds or anything.
“We have been making improvements but, at the same time, come the end of the year, because we’ve been looking ahead to next year, we’ve also been taking bigger chances. We’re trying different things with the car that we haven’t tested because we need to get ahead for next year. While we’re not throwing away this year, we are using it as a way to get ready for 2014. Those are some things that hadn’t happened at the end of my Nationwide year. It’s been similar but on a slightly diluted level because everyone is so good in Sprint Cup. If we can find our way to the next little level, it’s going to be really competitive and a much more satisfying spot to be in. I can’t tell you where I expected to be. I don’t know. I’ve always said to you guys the last couple of years that everyone learns at a different pace and a different rate. There are going to be times when I do better than you expect, and there are going to be times where I do worse that you expect. That path is going to happen for a couple of years until you can get into a rhythm and know what you’re doing.”
What have you learned about yourself this year?
“I always thought I was a patient driver and methodical, and there is a lot of that. But I really realized this year how getting a little overly excited or anxious or frustrated can bite you so hard. We’re that close to the edge all the time. You push that limit and bad things can happen. I’ve found that I’ve had to be more patient than I am normally. That’s one thing that, as far as a personality in the car, that has surprised me a little bit.”
Are you ready for the season to be over?
“I’ve always said, I’ll never turn down a little time off. It will be good to get some rest. It’s the longest season I’ve ever done. It’s 40 weeks, with two off weekends. One of those is Easter and one of those I was in a wedding, so I haven’t really had the chance to ‘choose’ what I wanted to do for quite some time (laughs). I’ve said for the last couple of weeks, I’m not tired from the season, I’m tired of the season. It will be nice to get away some and recharge for 2014.”