It may potentially wind up being just a fluke (although we don't think so), but Danica Patrick's Sprint Cup career-best seventh-place finish at Kansas Speedway last week could very well have been a significant turning point in her career.
For the good, that is.
And when she failed to win the Sprint fan vote for entry into this past Saturday's Sprint All-Star Race, beaten out by one of the longest of long shots, Josh Wise, the loss was actually good for Patrick and her career.
Sure, Patrick and her team would have liked to have taken part in the All-Star Race and had a shot at its $1 million first prize.
But for her not to be voted in for her popularity was an indicator that perhaps fans are starting to take her a bit more seriously for her performance behind the wheel and not so much for her popularity or looks.
Again, a good thing.
Following her finish at Kansas, when Patrick was interviewed on Fox, she had a definite deer-in-the-headlights look on her face, seemingly stunned that she had accomplished what the scoreboard said she had done.
She was like Steve Urkel in the old TV sitcom Family Matters who, when left with a befuddling predicament, would exclaim, "Did I do that?"
Yes, Danica did do that at Kansas, and she deserved to be applauded for a job well done.
Up until Kansas, Patrick had managed just one other top-10 finish in her brief one-plus season tenure in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, that of course coming in the 2013 Daytona 500, when she started from the pole and finished a very respectable eighth.
And while the pole and finish at Daytona were impressive, they also became somewhat of an albatross around Patrick's neck.
With each passing race since and every mediocre or poor finish that followed, Patrick soon became unfairly tabbed by some with a reputation that what she did at Daytona would ultimately be a one-and-done showing for the remainder of her career—a one-hit wonder, if you will.
But her Kansas showing proved otherwise, as she was as competitive as she has ever been—not on a plate track, but rather on the most predominant type of track in the Cup series, and the kind where championships are borne from—namely, a 1.5-mile oval.
Up to now, Patrick has had some semblance of success—if you want to call top-20 or top-25 range successful—on short tracks like Bristol and Martinsville, as well as tracks where she had previously raced on during her former IndyCar days.
At Kansas, however, she finally was able to pull off a solid run from start to finish. She hung around the top 10 for much of the race, picked her spots and was smarter in passing attempts, and managed to avoid trouble.
Her Kansas finish was on top of a 14th-place finish at Fontana and an 18th-place showing at Bristol earlier this season. Those are far better performances than most of her showings last season.
Admittedly, she did earn a 12th, 13th, 14th and 17th in 2013 to go along with her eighth-place finish at Daytona that same season, but it took her 36 races to achieve those finishes.
We're only 11 races into the 2014 Sprint Cup season and she already has one top-10, a top-15 and a top-20 finish. If she can continue improving upon that pace, she mathematically could double the number of top-20 showings from last season by the end of this season, not to mention potentially finish in the top 20 in the overall standings.
Sure, there's a lot of "ifs" and "buts" and "maybes," but it's pretty clear that Patrick is finally getting what she's wanted from day one when she first jumped into a NASCAR stock car: respect and to be recognized for what she does on the racetrack and for not what she wears, how she looks in bikinis and commercials, or for whom she's dating.
Now we move on to yet another 1.5-mile track: this coming Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the longest and most grueling race on the Sprint Cup schedule.
Which Danica will show up? The one still riding the confidence high from Kansas, or the one who will fall back into old habits and have a mediocre race with an equally mediocre finish?
We're going to go with the former rather than the latter. And if she can continue at that rate, it may not be all that long before the deer-in-the-headlights look will be replaced by a "see, I knew I could do it" look.
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