It's still almost three months until the start of the season-opening Daytona 500, but one of the biggest storylines heading into 2013 will be Danica Patrick's first full season in the Sprint Cup series.
Patrick has served a lengthy apprenticeship, starting with 115 IndyCar races, 58 Nationwide Series races and 10 races already in the Sprint Cup circuit.
Her progress in the stock car world has been admittedly slow, but it's been a steady progression. After splitting 25 races over two seasons (2010 and 2011), Patrick ran a full season in the Nationwide Series in 2012, finishing a commendable 10th place in the final standings.
In addition, of her 33 starts this past season, while she didn't have any wins or top-five finishes, she did have four top 10s. While that's not earth-shattering, it is a sign of the progress she's making.
Perhaps even more impressive, in her last 11 starts on the NNS circuit, Patrick had three top 10s (including a ninth-place finish at Bristol), six top 15s, a 16th-place outing and a 29th-place finish. Put more simply, Patrick had 10 finishes between ninth and 16th in her last 11 starts.
Not half shabby at all.
Sure, she had a top-five at Las Vegas during her 12-race, part-time slate in 2011, but Patrick learned quite a bit in her full-time foray in the Nationwide Series in 2012.
While she probably would have benefited from one more full-time season in NNS, business opportunities (re: sponsorship by GoDaddy.com and other smaller associates) made it necessary for her to go full-time in the Sprint Cup series next season.
Patrick is not the only driver that has had to make a jump up to the Cup series perhaps a bit sooner than being fully ready due to sponsorship opportunities. Still, she'll make the best of her situation, hopefully increase her learning curve and develop into a credible competitor.
For her to finish in the top 25—maybe even the top 20—would likely be considered a success. Anything higher would just be gravy.
So, let's take a look at the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule and try to predict what five tracks (in no particular order) may play to Patrick's strengths the best—and may even result in some pleasant surprises for her in 2013.
Patrick loves to race at the high-speed 1.5-mile track, and she's displayed it during her IndyCar days and, more recently, her Nationwide Series days.
In eight IndyCar starts, she recorded two podium finishes while also having one top 10 in four Nationwide starts there.
With the more powerful Sprint Cup cars, Patrick will not only feed her need for speed at TMS, she may even be able to eke out a top-10 finish in one of the two races there in 2013.
By the way, pay attention to the next slide (Phoenix) for further reason to be optimistic about her upcoming runs at Texas.
Phoenix has become Patrick's home track of sorts, as she has lived in the Valley of the Sun for the last several years.
While she has a total of five Nationwide Series starts there, with one top 10 (earlier this month, when she finished 10th there), there is also a case to be made for optimism on the Sprint Cup side.
Starting the previous week at Texas, where she finished 24th, Patrick finished 17th in the fall Sprint Cup race at Phoenix, both being back-to-back career bests for her in her 10-race foray into NASCAR's premier series in 2012.
What's more, had she not been wrecked on the last lap, she very well may have finished in the top 15, maybe even the top 10.
Las Vegas has been a strong track for Patrick. In fact, it's the only track thus far in the Nationwide Series that she's earned a top-five finish in, that coming in the 2011 race at the 1.5-mile high-speed oval.
Much like Texas, Patrick likes the high speeds at Las Vegas—although it was also the place where she watched close friend Dan Wheldon die in a crash in the 2011 IndyCar season finale.
Patrick admittedly had some hesitation when she returned there earlier this year to compete in the Nationwide Series race, finishing a respectable 12th.
This could be a track where, if Lady Luck graces Patrick with her presence, Danica could make some significant early-season noise at.
Yes, we know this is the third 1.5-mile track out of the five we've picked.
Actually, it was a very close decision between Kansas and, believe it or not, Bristol, a track where Patrick seems to have picked up the hang of racing pretty quickly.
But getting back to Kansas, she's had extensive experience there in IndyCar (six starts, one podium finish), and while Indy Cars are obviously a totally different animal than stock cars, there just seems to be something about Kansas that appeals to Patrick.
Plus, in two starts in the NNS series, she has one top-10 finish there, a 10th-place showing there this past October.
Much like Las Vegas, and the fact the Sprint Cup Series makes two visits to Kansas in 2013, this could also be a great opportunity for her to pull out a surprise finish.
But that may be nothing compared to the surprise in the next slide.
This may come as a surprise, but Patrick could do well there in the 2013 Sprint Cup season opener.
With Tony Gibson now entrenched as her crew chief going forward, Patrick should be able to build upon the flashes of good fortune she's had previously at the 2.5-mile, high-banked, restrictor plate track.
Many of you may not remember, but who sat on the pole at Daytona in the Nationwide Series opener back in February (although she ultimately finished 38th in the race)?
Yep, Danica herself (one day later, she started 29th and finished 38th in her Sprint Cup career debut).
But as if to prove her Nationwide pole at Daytona was not a fluke, she came back there in July and qualified third (although, again, she had a rough outing, finishing 31st).
And, in 2011, Patrick finished 14th and 10th in her two Nationwide forays at Daytona.
Gibson has a way of bringing out the best in his drivers, and Patrick should be no exception. If she can stay out of wrecks at Daytona, we wouldn't be surprised to see her start off the 2013 season with a top-25 finish.