Report Card for Danica Patrick's 2013 Daytona 500
Even though there likely were some who expected her to fail miserably, Danica Patrick couldn't have performed much better than she did in Sunday's Daytona 500.
Patrick dealt quietly and professionally with all the distractions she had to endure during Speedweeks, from being the first woman to ever win a Sprint Cup pole (as well as the first female to take the green flag from the front row at Daytona), to showing the pole was not a fluke.
More than anything, Patrick proved she belongs in the Sprint Cup Series. It's like the way Frank Sinatra sang about New York: If you can make it in Daytona, you can pretty much make it and succeed anywhere else in NASCAR.
As we close the final pages on Daytona and look ahead to the second race of the season this Sunday in Phoenix (where Patrick lives), let's grade her overall performance in the Great American Race.
Level of Competitiveness
Patrick showed tenacious and virtually error-free driving throughout the 200-lap event, outperforming most of her 42 peers that took the green flag. She may not have been the class of the field, but she was pretty darn close in a most surprising way.
If you didn't know it was only her second Daytona 500, you might have thought Patrick was making her 20th appearance in NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl—she looked that polished and prepared.
In addition, she showed uncanny patience, didn't allow herself to be bullied around and, most importantly, she stayed in the Top 10 for roughly 90 percent or more of the race.
Add all those elements together and her grade is pretty clear.
Dealing with Pressure
Patrick had more pressure on her than anyone has had in a long time in Daytona 500 annals, perhaps more than ever before.
First, she was a woman trying to make it in the Great American Race, an event that has been more than 99 percent male-dominated over the years.
Add to that the curiosity factor from millions of non-NASCAR or non-Patrick fans, who tuned in to the Fox Sports telecast to see her perform—succeed or fail—coupled with the fact she was the first woman in NASCAR history to ever start a Cup race from the pole.
What's more, while she's shown a feisty side at times throughout her NASCAR and, prior to that, IndyCar careers, she was very even-tempered, measured, calm, cool, collected and totally under control from start to finish. She didn't call anyone out, she didn't point any fingers of blame and she didn't worry about the way any other driver ran his race but her own.
In case you didn't hear, Sunday's initial overnight ratings showed an increase of 30 percent in viewership, the best audience since 2006—not coincidentally the same year Jimmie Johnson won his first Daytona 500 and began his quest to earn an unprecedented five consecutive Sprint Cup championships.
But from the green flag to the checkered flag, Patrick looked like a confident veteran on Daytona's high banks and its fabled frontstretch and backstretch. If you didn't know better, you might have thought it was a past Daytona champion and NASCAR veteran behind the wheel—and that's the biggest compliment you can give a driver.
Communication and Interaction with Crew Chief Tony Gibson
The partnership between Patrick and veteran crew chief Tony Gibson was virtually flawless in preparation, strategy and execution.
In a pre-race TV interview, Gibson said from the top of the pit box that he gave his driver very few instructions other than to just go all-out.
And that's exactly what Patrick did. She ran her kind of race with minimal coaching in her ear by Gibson. It's not that Gibson didn't want to give his driver advice; rather, he didn't have to. You've heard the expression "a player's coach"? Gibson is definitely a driver's crew chief.
Gibson handled everything on top of the war wagon and along pit road, while leaving pretty much everything on the race track to Patrick.
A great deal of credit also has to be given to Patrick's pit crew, which was flawless throughout the race on pit stops.
If Sunday was an example of the relationship to come between the pair going forward the rest of this season, it could ultimately be one of the most productive and open relationships in the sport.
How She Did on the Last Lap
This was perhaps the only flaw Patrick displayed in the entire race Sunday. And we still don't know if it ultimately was her fault or not.
As the final two laps of the 500 unfolded, Patrick was trailing Greg Biffle and appeared poised and ready to push Biffle to the lead and potentially the win.
Patrick could also have moved over, abandoned Biffle and got behind Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was pushing Jimmie Johnson to the win. Had she done that, it's reasonable to think she would have wound up with perhaps a third- or fourth-place finish.
But somehow, Patrick didn't get behind Earnhardt.
She then briefly wound up in the middle of the track without any drafting help, basically leaving her a sitting duck, dropping from third to seventh.
She managed to get back behind Biffle, but the space between the two of them was too large to mount a last-second rally and Patrick ultimately slipped back to an eighth-place finish.
While she didn't get the Top 5 many fans likely hoped she would, she still recorded the highest finish ever of any woman in the Daytona 500.
Danica's Overall Grade
How can you not consider or grade Patrick's performance as an unqualified success?
She did everything she set out to do: stayed competitive, drove a methodical race, stayed out of trouble, stuck to the game plan her crew chief designed, and brought her car home in one piece.
Again, we're not saying that Patrick's last lap foibles were her fault. She just may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time and it ultimately cost her. But to grade her solely on that same last lap would be a huge injustice, as for the first 199 laps she was near perfect.
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