Is Danica Patrick Finally Becoming a Legitimate NASCAR Sprint Cup Driver?

Joe MenzerFeatured ColumnistMay 13, 2014

Mike Dinovo/USA Today

When Danica Patrick won the pole for the 2013 Daytona 500 and went on to finish eighth in the race itself, she had no idea when her next top-10 finish would occur.

But she certainly didn't think it would take more than a year and another 46 Sprint Cup starts.

That is indeed how long it took, however, with Patrick finally earning another via her career-best seventh-place effort last Saturday night at Kansas Speedway.

Considering that a week earlier she brought the crowd to its feet by leading six laps during the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway (before ultimately finishing 22nd), it was a moment worth marking. It's called progress, and it's the first openly visible hint of it that Patrick has displayed in quite some time.

Now 11 races into her second full-time season in Sprint Cup, is Patrick becoming a legitimate stock car driver?

Honestly, it's still too soon to tell. If Patrick weren't a beautiful woman and an astute marketing machine who plays well in commercials, her seventh-place effort at Kansas likely would have been no more than a footnote in the nationwide recap of the raceif it were mentioned at all.

If her boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., had finished seventh, for instance, would anyone have cared all that much? Would anyone outside of his own team have celebrated it as an indication that he's finally figuring out how to compete against NASCAR's finest drivers?

The answer to both of those questions is an obvious "no."

But this is Danica Patrick, and she moves the needle arguably like no other NASCAR driver other than Dale Earnhardt Jr.

So let's give her credit where credit is due. She had a great weekend, easily her best of not only this season but since the 2013 Daytona 500.

Crew chief Tony Gibson put a fast car under her, and she drove the heck out of it. She didn't panic when there was a minor bobble on pit road that shuffled her back, kept the car inside the top 10 most of the nightand even drew joy from passing six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson on the outside during one of the race's restarts.

She admitted later that passing Johnson was the highlight of her evening.

"The most rewarding part of my night was probably when I drove around the outside of the No. 48 on a restart," Patrick told the Associated Press (via Yahoo! Sports). "I say that with all the respect in the world. It's a big deal because he's Jimmie Johnson."

In the end, it helped her finish two spots in front of Johnson, who had to settle for ninth.

The finish also moved Patrick one spot in front of Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch, also a former Cup champion, in the current points standings. So what if she's only 27th and he's 28th? It's still worth noting.

After the dust had settled in Kansas, the accolades started pouring in for Patrick.

Another SHR teammate, Kevin Harvick, told the AP that he gave her a 15-minute pep talk before qualifying for the race a day earlier. He said maybe that helped Patrick qualify inside the top 10 for the second consecutive week during a season when new qualifying rules seemed like they might work against her.

"She basically needed to quit thinking about it and smash the gas," Harvick told the AP. "That's what she said. She's done a great job in trying to take in all the information."

Race winner Jeff Gordon added that Patrick's performance during the race was "impressive. That's a real testament to her work ethic and her talent, as well as Stewart-Haas. Those guys are just really putting out some great race cars right now. She did a great job."

Maybe it had something to do with it being the month of May.

May 10, 2014; Kansas City, KS, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Danica Patrick during the 5-Hour Energy 400 at Kansas Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The 32-year-old Patrick made her name in big-time auto racing as an open-wheel driver, specifically when she challenged for the win as a rookie before finishing fourth in the 2005 Indy 500. She finished a career-best third in the 2009 Indy 500 before switching to stock cars and NASCAR full-time in 2012, when she ran in the Nationwide Series.

She spent only one season in Nationwide when she likely would have benefited from more time in NASCAR's junior series, moving up to a full-time Cup ride with SHR last season.

Her overall 2013 Cup numbers suggest she wasn't ready: her best finish after the Daytona 500 was a 12th at Martinsville in the season's sixth race. She added a 13th at Michigan last June but then went the last five months of the season, covering 21 races, with only one finish of 14th or better (during a second visit to Daytona) and a total of 16 that were 25th or worse. She ultimately finished 27th in the points standings.

So the Kansas finish was, as Gordon said, impressive. It was encouraging for Patrick and her team.

But it does not mean she has arrived. She's at the same position in the standings now that she was at the end of last season, with the same number of top-10 finishes to her credit.

To really prove she belongs, there is plenty more work yet to be done. And she needs to do it sooner rather than later, building on what transpired at Kansas and the possibilities it suggests.


Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand by the writer.

Joe Menzer has covered NASCAR for years and has written two books about it. He now writes about it and many other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.