Danica Patrick's 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Rookie Season: Is It Still Salvageable?

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistJuly 26, 2013

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - JULY 05: Danica Patrick, driver of the #10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, walks on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 5, 2013 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

On the surface, you might say Danica Patrick's season to date has been mediocre bordering on miserable.

In her first full-time season on the Sprint Cup Series, Patrick is currently ranked 27th in the standings, has led just five of 8,412 laps in the races she's been a part of, has just seven lead-lap finishes, and, perhaps most telling, has just one top-10 finish in the first 19 races.

That one top-10 finish being, of course, her eighth-place showing in the season-opening Daytona 500, where she also won the pole (and the only one thus far in 2013).

As we march forward into the second half of the season, it's going to be difficult for Patrick to appreciably move up in the standings. Where some fans thought she might be able to finish the season with a 20th-place or better showing, she may be lucky to finish 25th by season's end.

Patrick comes into Sunday's Brickyard 400 a whopping 346 points behind series leader Jimmie Johnson and 145 points behind 20th place (actually, a three-way tie for 18th between Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Joey Logano).

If there is one phrase that best describes Patrick's journey in her rookie Cup season, it's "all over the map." For example, in her last 10 races, Patrick has finished: 33rd, 28th, 29th, 24th, 29th, 13th, 29th, 23rd, 14th and 37th.

Other than her surprising out-of-the-box pole at Daytona in February, she has started a race just one other time higher than 23rd, that being 11th two races ago at—no surprise—Daytona again.

As she returns to Cup tracks for the second time this season, not to mention Sunday's race at the fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway, an argument can be made that it's time for Patrick to get out of neutral and into high gear for the remainder of the season.

She's taken her time—by design—in learning the Cup series patiently and studiously. But you would think by now that she'd have shown some marked improvement.

Unfortunately, that improvement has been marginal at best.

While it's too early to throw in the towel on the 2013 campaign, Patrick needs to become more aggressive, take more chances and attempt to emulate what other drivers are doing in front of her.

Instead of running her own race at her own pace, that is. She must become more competitive and challenging to her peers, rather than being an also-ran or maybe just a few steps up from a start-and-park driver.

Yes, the season is still salvageable, but it's going to take more work and effort—and results—than Patrick has displayed up to this point. Remember back in the Daytona 500, she looked like she had been racing a Cup car for years. She was aggressive and wouldn't let herself be bullied or pushed around by opponents.

So what has happened since then? It's hard to put a finger on it, but, perhaps, her strong effort at Daytona proved to be her undoing. If she hadn't qualified first and finished eighth, we might not be talking about how she has struggled since then.

If she hadn't done so well in the 500, perhaps less media attention would have been focused on her, allowing her to potentially focus more on what she needs to do right rather than answering questions about what she's still doing wrong.

On the one hand, she needs another Daytona-like race. It would be good to rebuild some of the momentum, motivation and confidence she and her team had when they left Florida in February.

But a top-10 or even top-five finish might also put her right back where she was at after Daytona to start the season. She'd get a great deal more media attention—have you noticed how appreciably that same attention has dropped off in the last 10 races or so—but then might fall back into the same level of performances that she's had since then.

Patrick has run her season to date seemingly not worried so much about points or her place in the standings, but rather more worried about logging seat time, learning from others and not being a factor in virtually every race she's been in.

That's the biggest thing that needs to change: She needs to will, even force herself to become a factor more often in upcoming races. And, given what she did at Daytona in February, give me one reason why she can't do the same Sunday in Indy. It may be unlikely and improbable, but it's still possible.

Frankly, it's become a broken record of sorts to see her start mediocre and finish mediocre race after race. Patrick needs to start showing at least small and incremental measures of improvement, lest criticism continue to increase that maybe she isn't cut out for this Sprint Cup thing after all.

It can be done. She just has to do it.

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