"Oh, great," the Danica Patrick haters are likely grumbling right now. "Another article where some clueless hack makes up a load of crap to defend NASCAR's new star property. Media saturation protecting its biggest story and trying to find a way to get hits."
"No, but read it!" the Patrick defenders will exclaim. "Lots of things this season haven't been her fault! See? SEE?!?!"
As always, of course, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. No, Patrick hasn't been "great" this season in the way that her media superstardom and major sponsorship should dictate. But she also hasn't been the "stale as flat champagne" driver that ESPN.com's Jemele Hill called her last week.
The key is to cut through the hype and set reasonable expectations for what is Patrick's first completely NASCAR-centric season, after two years of jumping back and forth between stock cars and IndyCar. While her GoDaddy deal complicates the perception, the truth is that Patrick is a development driver who is taking things slow in order to try and get it right.
Remember, NASCAR is a different discipline of racing than she's been competing in for over a decade, and much more accomplished drivers have struggled to make the transition. (The name "Juan Pablo Montoya" should ring a bell there.)
Here's a hefty dose of truth about Patrick's season and why we shouldn't be so early to jump to conclusions about her:
It's important to note that through 23 Nationwide races, Patrick sits a respectable 10th in points despite only scoring two top-10 finishes. But if you broaden that number to top-15 finishes, that number jumps to 11 out of 23.
Keep in mind that a minimum of five Sprint Cup drivers—Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski, for example—usually compete in, and score top-10 finishes in, almost every Nationwide race.
In effect, two factors are in play here: not only would Patrick be scoring top 10s without these guys around, and she's still scoring respectable finishes against some very strong competition.
Unfortunately for Patrick, the two types of tracks that she seems to grasp best in a stock car are the two that show up least frequently on the schedule: superspeedways and technical road courses. Patrick seems to have qualifying figured out at Daytona, where she started first and third in two Nationwide events.
Meanwhile, Patrick's driving at both Road America and Montreal, two technical road courses exclusive to the Nationwide schedule, was excellent; she even managed to lead 20 laps in Canada.
The worst part about being good at superspeedways and road courses is having bad luck at them. Crashes took her out of contention for wins at both Daytona Nationwide races, including an errant bump-draft attempt by teammate Cole Whitt in the season opener, while a second-lap wreck ended her Daytona 500 hopes quickly.
The road courses were no better. Patrick was on her way to her best finish of the season at Road America before Jacques Villeneuve needlessly spun her on the race's final lap. Watkins Glen ended before it started when Ryan Truex's car cut through the first-turn grass and hit her front end, while Montreal's strong performance was culled after hitting a shoe thrown onto the track by an angry fan.
Many Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans soured on Tony Eury Jr. during his time as crew chief for the popular driver, and his work with Patrick has also left some questions unanswered. There were reports a few years ago of communication issues that resulted from Eury and Patrick using IndyCar terminology rather than NASCAR, causing them to struggle to set up cars properly.
This year, Eury has been somewhat of a distraction; in June, he claimed that Austin Dillon spun Patrick out at Michigan because "we all have egos (and) we don't want the girl to outrun us." True or not, Eury's comments loudly reminded everyone that Patrick is treated differently for being a female racer, when the goal is for her to be viewed simply as a race car driver.
Patrick scored a solid ninth-place finish in the Friday Nationwide event at Bristol, giving her plenty of momentum to build upon for Saturday night's Sprint Cup race. But Patrick was a victim of the return of the old Bristol when a racing incident with Regan Smith sent her spinning into the wall after 434 of 500 laps.
But there are plenty of positives to take out of Saturday's run. Not only had Patrick made it further into the event than Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman without getting into trouble, she had also battled into Lucky Dog position twice, running on the lead lap at the time of her accident.
It wasn't pretty and it wasn't eye-popping, but it was the type of gritty, persistent run that could set up Patrick for greater successes in the coming months and years.