Making Strides in Nationwide: Danica Patrick Gaining Confidence in NASCAR
Flashback to Memorial Day weekend of 2005 in Speedway, Ind., where a 23-year old rookie sensation dazzled the crowd with her inept abilities to go near flat out around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway with precision and confidence.
Save for a mistake during a restart, which clipped her car's front wing, this native of Roscoe, IL nearly won the biggest race in all of open wheel racing, ultimately placing fourth and gaining national attention from sports fans across the world.
Years later at age 28, Danica Patrick is at a crossroads in her career.
And it's not the kind of path that'll be so easy for the young racer to decide on at some point this year.
She's had moderate success in the IZOD IndyCar Series, including a historic win at Twin Ring Motegi in 2008 and five consecutive top-10 points finishes.
However, she's also driven stock cars for over a year, mixing it up in the ARCA Re/Max Series as well as NASCAR's K&N East Pro Series division and most notably, the Nationwide Series.
Admittedly, Patrick has struggled with her adjustment to the heavier machines, particularly during her races in the Nationwide division last year.
Being the "new kid in town" and learning the cars' characteristics during the races, it's been an eventful path up the stock car ladder for Patrick.
In some cases, she'd have a difficult time of it in terms of the handling of her machine, where it became a battle of survival instead of a battle for position.
At times, she'd log laps in her No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet before trouble would come along, such as her crashes at Daytona, Las Vegas, and Dover, making laps before trouble would find her on the track.
The turning point for the 2005 IndyCar rookie winner had to be Dover 200 last September, in which she crashed early and appeared about as flustered and lost as ever.
"I don't know what I need out of the car to be good in the race," Patrick said following her 35th place finish at Dover. "I know what I want for one lap to feel good, but it doesn't mean it'll be good for 70 or 80 laps.
"Even on that last run out there that I did, which was 30 or so laps, we freed it up and went out there. I started out feeling a little loose and then it kind of settled in. And then I was pushing in the end."
Cole Trickle syndrome?
Maybe, but it's an understandable problem and her learning curve into the sport has been proven to be tumultuous at times, especially last year.
While her car was being repaired, satellite teammate Mark Martin, whose Hendrick Motorsports Cup team has an alliance with Patrick's Nationwide team (JR Motorsports), gave her a pep talk and served as a de facto mentor to the novice NASCAR racer.
Sure, the results weren't stellar, but after Dover, it was as if the wheels began to turn a little faster for Patrick and her team.
Prior to her crash just 10 laps from the finish in the October race at Fontana, Patrick was well on her way to a top-10 finish before she and James Buescher tangled along the backstretch, ending a promising front running finish.
Save for a 32nd at Phoenix last November, Patrick would nab a 21st at Charlotte and a pair of 22nd place results at Gateway and Texas, all respectable showings compared to her struggles during the spring.
Last year's Nationwide season finale at Homestead served as a preview to the new found confidence that Patrick had with stock cars, as she qualified fifth, led four laps, and placed 19th.
Making small gains after a difficult freshman year campaign, the 2011 season has so far seen some improvement for the popular open wheel racer.
Nearly winning the pole for the Nationwide season opener at Daytona (ultimately starting fourth), Patrick led a lap with some drafting help from Clint Bowyer before ultimately losing the two-car shuffle game, relegating to a 14th place result.
Still, she was upbeat after the DRIVE4COPD 300, where she ran among the leaders all race long.
"I pushed a little bit at the end, a little too late," Patrick said per an Auto Racing Daily article. "But it was really cool when Clint Bowyer was pushing me and they told me that I did lead a lap, at least."
Perhaps equally as impressive as her performance and finish at Daytona was her showing during last Saturday's Bashas' Supermarkets 200 at Phoenix.
After qualifying a middling 20th, the No. 7 team, led by crew chief Tony Eury, Jr., adjusted Patrick's machine, propelling her to a 17th place finish, which led to another credible and respectable result.
"It's nice to know when we make a lot of progress with the car in the race and that's just what we did," Patrick said per Diego Meija's autosport.com article. "That's always nice at the end of the day to realize that you can run with those guys."
She noted how her race times got faster deeper into a run, keeping pace with the lead lap cars at the short, competitive mile speedway.
Far from the driver who wasn't sure how to give feeback to her crew in terms of the car's handling during the course of a race.
This month's races at Las Vegas and Bristol will be the last for Patrick until the June 4 race at Chicagoland, where she'll be competing in her full-time ride in the IZOD IndyCar Series between her Nationwide hiatus.
Until then, keep your eyes on the No. 7 car, even if it has the loudest paint scheme in any of the NASCAR series.
These races may be the tell tale sign if she's got the makings to be a legit threat for victories in stock cars or if there's another calling in her motorsports career.
Whatever Danica Patrick decides to do with her racing vetures, at the very least, she's giving it her best shot, racing hard and learning what it takes to succeed not as a female racer, but as a legit, competitive motorsports talent.