It's a long season, but it certainly wasn't a great one for Danica Patrick in the early going.
After three straight races in which she was unable to finish inside the top 20, Patrick is now on a streak of two straight. Thanks to an 18th-place finish at Bristol and now coming in at 14th at Fontana during the Auto Club 400, the No. 10 car has slowly improved during every race this season.
Even after a strong showing over the last two races, don't expect Patrick to slow down during the STP 500 at Martinsville. Though she's had some troubles at the speedway during practice sessions in the past, the 32-year-old driver has a good record in just two races on the short track.
Along with the fact that she has survived the tumult early on in the season, Patrick has also slowly climbed back near the top 25 in driver standings. Here's a look at her recent news and what to expect from the No. 10 car during the STP 500.
|Pos.||Driver||Car||Points||Wins||Top 5||Top 10|
|2||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||88||185||1||3||3|
|Auto Club 400||Auto Club Speedway||27||14|
|Food City 500||Bristol Motor Speedway||36||18|
|Kobalt 400||Las Vegas Motor Speedway||22||21|
|The Profit on CNBC 500||Phoenix International Raceway||33||36|
|Daytona 500||Daytona International Speedway||27||40|
Where will Patrick finish at Martinsville?
The steady improvement by Patrick has been a work in progress for the Stewart-Haas Racing team. While teammate Kevin Harvick did win the second race of the season at Phoenix, the entire SHR team has been fighting through early struggles.
No driver for SHR is above 17th, which is where Tony Stewart sits after a top-five finish at Fontana, and the three other drivers are all bottled up between 24th to 27th.
But even with that string of bad luck for the team, Stewart-Haas vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli believes Patrick's new setup is a huge reason for her recent success, per the Associated Press (via Sports Illustrated):
She is more comfortable with this package. It does complement her driving style. I don't know if it is because the cars don't move around as much and that's kind of what she kind of grew up driving. We're very happy with where the 10 is by their practice speeds. I thought Vegas was outstanding. Qualifying, it just started so dang loose, but she did a good job fighting back. They'll keep fighting, they'll figure out. But I do think she's done a good job.
With that type of praise from upper management, it appears the last two races have instilled confidence in both Patrick and her team.
Much like several other drivers in the Auto Club 400, the No. 10 car experienced issues with tires. After hitting a piece of debris, the left front tire went down for Patrick on Lap 139 as she stumbled back in the pack.
But after getting back on the track, Patrick believed she had a strong car and said the adversity she faced helped the team finish strong, via USA Today:
It seems like some of our most trying weekends end up with our better results, so we'll take it and we'll know that there is so much more potential for those weekends where we feel like we are running a lot better. It was a steady race. My hope was that our GoDaddy/Get Found Chevrolet was close on the first run, so I knew we could make it better. It is always so difficult when you start off in the beginning, and it really wasn't too bad to start off with today. I think that's usually the common denominator in us having a good race is just that first run — the car being there.
The top-15 result for Patrick was just the start of a good week for the second-year driver. Just two days after being relieved with the finish, she celebrated a birthday on Tuesday, as her sponsor Peak Motor Oil points out on Twitter:
Following a strong running at Auto Club Speedway, more of the same might be coming when the race begins at Martinsville Speedway. With a top-20 result at Bristol earlier this season, Patrick has shown she can tame short tracks and has done so in two career races in Ridgeway, Va.
Here's a look at Patrick's results from last season at Martinsville:
|Oct. 27, 2013||41||17||0|
|April 7, 2013||32||12||0|
While a top-10 finish doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility for Patrick, getting another result of 20th or better would continue to help her in the rankings.
She has little experience at the track, but just as she has done over the last two races, Patrick has finished inside the top 20 when the checkered flag flies. Expect the same from her as she continues to claw her way back into relevance in the Sprint Cup standings.
Follow R. Cory Smith on Twitter. He'll take you to Victory Lane.