The 2014 Sprint Cup season has not been very kind to Danica Patrick thus far.
In her first two races, Patrick finished 40th after wrecking on Lap 145 of 200 in the season-opening Daytona 500 and was slightly better, 36th, this past Sunday at Phoenix (although she finished six laps off the pace of race winner and new Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick).
As Patrick prepares for Sunday's Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, it's clear that she has to have a significantly better finish. After all, she's already the equivalent of almost two races worth of points behind Sprint Cup points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Patrick is ranked 39th in the standings, 77 points in arrears to Earnhardt.
The unfortunate thing about where Patrick is in the rankings is that the Daytona wreck was not her fault; she was collected up in someone else's mess. At Phoenix, she got into a tangle with Justin Allgaier, came into the pits for damage repair and then flat spotted her left rear tire and did a solo spin about 12 laps later. It was back to the pits for more repairs at that time which, with Phoenix being a fast and flat one-mile track, contributed to her winding up six laps off the pace at the end of the race.
At least she finished. There's that as a positive.
Now it's on to Sin City, where Patrick has just one prior Sprint Cup start, finishing 33rd there in last year's race. In the Nationwide Series at LVMS, she has a fourth-place and 12th-place finish in three starts at the 1.5-mile, progressively-banked track.
The biggest favor Patrick can do for herself is not dwell on her first two finishes. She has to act as if the season is starting anew at Las Vegas. She can't worry about how many points she's behind Earnhardt.
And she most certainly cannot do what has become a staple of her racing career thus far in Sprint Cup—namely, stay back in the pack. She has to come out of the gate Sunday and be aggressive from the green flag.
LVMS is a track that is wide and has a lot of room to pass. In some ways, it's a smaller version of the massive two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
Patrick has to show she isn't afraid to mix it up, that she won't be passive and try to work up through the pack one car at a time—as opposed to what other drivers do routinely, passing two or three cars at a time when they can. Patrick has to go for the jugular right from the start rather than appear too timid.
The only way Patrick is going to get confidence, increase her level of respect from fans and fellow drivers and ultimately succeed is to drive in a completely different fashion than she has during most of her brief tenure in Sprint Cup.
Last season, it was understandable that she was feeling her way out around the circuit and seeing what drivers she could trust and which she couldn't.
Sunday, she has to stop driving like Danica Patrick and become aggressive and in-your-face like her three teammates—who are among the biggest in-your-face practitioners in the sport: boss Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch.
Simply put, Patrick has to put forth her best effort thus far this season, and better than most of last season, on Sunday.
If she doesn't, she may be eliminated from the championship battle just three races into the 26-race regular season.
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