After her superb performance at the Daytona 500, where she started from pole and finished eighth, Danica Patrick’s fortunes took a turn for the worse in Phoenix, where she struggled to keep pace with the leaders and ran in the second half of the field until a burst tyre on lap 185 put her into the wall and out of the race.
Daytona was an emphatic indication that Danica can race against the best in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup, and everything seemed to go right for her in the series’ most famous race. But clearly there is still work to do after disappointment in Phoenix. The burst tyre is unfortunate, and there is probably not much that the team could have done about it. What will concern them more is Danica’s lack of front-running throughout the event.
In each of the three practice sessions, Patrick was over half a second off the fastest time set and never featured higher than 30th out of 43 entrants. For qualifying, she was 40th and a full second off the pole time, which is an enormous gap considering that the fastest time set was 26.073 seconds. In average speed terms, Patrick was 6mph slower in qualifying than pole-sitter Mark Martin. Given her strong performance at Daytona, the gap to the front must surely be setup related, rather than driver related. With just a week until the next race, the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, there is not much time to work out what went wrong, but Patrick and her crew chief Tony Gibson willl doubtless spend the next few days finding ways to recover their Daytona form.
In the race, Danica managed to stay on the lead lap, assisted by caution periods when other drivers crashed out, and she ran as high as 21st at one point. But ultimately her right-front tyre let her down, failing on the exit of turn four and sending her into the outside wall, before rebounding into the path of David Ragan who could not avoid a collision. The race was over immediately for Patrick, but Ragan managed two more laps before retiring.
Danica Patrick took just five points away from Phoenix, which drops her from seventh in the points table to 22nd. It’s still very early in the season, and points therefore do not mean much just yet, but she will nonetheless want to score well at the next race in Las Vegas to reduce her 48 point deficit to current leader Jimmie Johnson.
Racing is a man’s game, right? Not according to Danica Patrick, the woman who has made a career out of showing the men how it’s done in American racing. She’s begun her 2013 season by setting records in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup – with pole position for the Daytona 500 (the first Sprint Cup pole by a woman in history) and 8th place in the race (the best Sprint Cup finish by a woman in history) including 5 laps in the lead (the first laps led by a woman at Daytona in history).
While Patrick is often mentioned along with her string of “first by a woman” records, it is clear that she is not particularly interested in being classified by gender in racing. She wants to win. And she has already done that in the Indy car series, with an historic victory in Japan in 2008. Now she’s gunning for victory in NASCAR, and the early indications in 2013 are that she could very well do it.
The Daytona 500 is one of the most high-profile races in world motorsport, alongside the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix. It is the opening round and biggest race of the NASCAR season, which makes it all the more crucial for starting the year on a positive note. Danica Patrick did just that with pole position and a strong race. But she is not satisfied with her eighth place finish.
After the race, Danica’s thoughts were focused on what she could have done to win, after she had run third with one lap to go, within striking distance of victory, ““I would imagine that pretty much anyone would kick themselves and say what could I have, should I have done to give myself that opportunity to win.’’
Praise for her performance came from team members and competitors alike. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second behind winner Jimmie Johnson, said of battling with Patrick on the track, “I didn’t even think about it being Danica, but just another car on the track that was fast and I think that’s a credit to her… She’s got a great level head. She’s a racer. She knows what’s coming. I enjoy racing with her. … it’s just going to be a lot of fun having her in the series.”
Patrick’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, could barely contain his joy after the race and greeted his driver with a big hug. He was full of praise for the team and Danica’s drive, “We definitely had a shot to win it there and that’s all you can ask for… I’m so proud of Danica and everybody on the GoDaddy.com Chevy. She impressed the heck out of me all day long and the pit crew did a fantastic job. I’m just looking forward to every week, and every week we’re going to get better and better.”
Patrick’s preparation for NASCAR Sprint Cup competition has been thorough. She started out racing part-time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2010 alongside her Indy racing schedule. 2011 was another year of easing into the Nationwide series before she made the switch from Indy to NASCAR full-time in 2012, along with some Sprint Cup races. The long apprenticeship paid off with 10th place in the Nationwide series last year, including a pole position and four top ten finishes.
Now in the Sprint Cup full-time, it’s clear that Danica Patrick is ready to fight at the front in the most popular racing series in the US. It is still early in the season, and there are no guarantees of success, but she has certainly started off on the right foot. It looks likely to be a season of record-breaking for Danica.