As she enters her second full season in Sprint Cup racing, Danica Patrick is already at somewhat of a crossroad.
On the one hand, Patrick has to prove that she learned her lessons well from her first full season in the Cup ranks, and that she will be a significantly improved competitor in 2014.
She can't finish 27th again at season's end—like she did last year—and believe it was a good season. Rather, anything less than a top-15 or even top-20 finish in 2014 will be a disappointment if Patrick wants fans and other competitors to take her seriously.
She can't follow or just run laps and gain more seat time behind the wheel, like she did last season. She has to prove she belongs with the Johnsons, Gordons, Earnhardts, Stewarts, Busch brothers, Harvicks and the like.
Further, Patrick also must prove to the doubters and haters out there that she is not a gimmick or wannabe, that she isn't just a pretty face with a high-dollar and high-profile sponsor in GoDaddy.com.
She can't just be a marketing and merchandising vehicle. She has to show she can competitively race that vehicle, as well.
Frankly, she has to show that she's in it to win it, not just to ride around. She has to prove to anyone and everyone that she is a serious competitor.
If she doesn't do all that, Patrick may only have another season (2015) left before her sincere effort proves to be a failed experiment.
Patrick has everything she needs to succeed. She's with an outstanding organization (Stewart Haas Racing), has excellent motors and chassis around her (provided by Hendrick Motorsports), and has three teammates who are among the best in the game, including two past Cup champions (Tony Stewart, a three-time winner, and Kurt Busch, who won the first Chase for the Sprint Cup crown in 2004).
She also has a great crew chief (Tony Gibson), a new mentor/tutor in 2014 who should be a tremendous presence (Mark Martin), and an overall organization competition director (former crew chief Greg Zipadelli) to give her the best instruction and support possible.
Now it's all up to Patrick.
While Patrick was outstanding in the first race of her first full season, winning the pole and finishing eighth in the 2013 season-opening Daytona 500, those achievements were both blessings and curses to her.
Because she did so well, Patrick may have subconsciously convinced fans—particularly doubters of her ability early on—that what she did in the 500 would become the norm for the rest of the season.
Unfortunately, that was not the case. It wasn't even close.
Not only would she not win another pole, she wouldn't have another top-10 finish in the other 35 races on the Cup schedule last season. By the end of the 2013 campaign, her average per-race starting position was 30.1 and her average per-race finishing position was a mediocre 26.1.
After what she did at Daytona, she would finish between 12th and 20th just eight times throughout the entire campaign.
That means in 36 races, Patrick finished 21st or worse 27 times. Those are some pretty cold, hard numbers.
And while many may have thought she'd be significantly better when she made return visits the second time around to tracks that hold two Cup events per season in '13, Patrick's second-half season performance was worst than her first-half effort.
So how does 2014 shape up for the Roscoe, Ill. native?
Having Martin as her one-on-one tutor will be a big help. It doesn't get much better than the future NASCAR Hall of Famer when it comes to being taught how to be not only a good NASCAR racer, but also a successful NASCAR racer.
With Martin as her mentor, Patrick should show significant improvement in 2014. While we won't go as far as to say she'll be competitive in every race and at every track, there are certain key spots to look out for.
First, Patrick showed last season that she has a knack for restrictor-plate racing, a trend that should continue in 2014. Will she earn the pole again for the season-opening Daytona 500? Maybe, maybe not. But she should likely start in the top 10 or top 15, at the very least.
She also showed last season that she gets around the exact polar opposite of plate tracks like Daytona and Talladega pretty well, namely the short tracks on the schedule including Martinsville and, to a lesser extent, Bristol, Richmond and Phoenix.
Mid-sized tracks, most notably 1.5-mile venues, were a thorn in Patrick's side last season. She has to show marked improvement in 2014 on those types of tracks if she's to show an overall gain in performance. Fortunately, with Martin on her pit box and in her helmet (via team radio), she should do that—hopefully.
Will Patrick ultimately win a race in 2014? All the pieces would have to fall into place, all the stars would have to align—and having maybe a dozen good luck charms in her firesuit and in her car might help.
Realistically, though, while we do see perhaps as many as six overall top-10 finishes in '14, a win doesn't appear in the cards. Of course, if she does so, it would be a tremendous boost to the sport—not to mention her own credibility behind the wheel.
Unfortunately, however, it's likely that her former Nationwide Series team owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., will take a checkered flag first in 2014 before Patrick will even come close to doing so.
In no particular order, here's the tracks that Patrick should do well at in 2014: Daytona, Martinsville, Michigan, Fontana, Talladega and Phoenix. That's a grand total 11 of 36 races—nearly one-third of the season—that she stands to have a good chance at a decent finish.
Anything else will be a bonus.
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