Danica Patrick Project: Tony Stewart Provides a Nationwide Measuring Stick

Hank EptonCorrespondent IOctober 15, 2010

Danica Patrick may have a yardstick to measure her NASCAR performance.
Danica Patrick may have a yardstick to measure her NASCAR performance.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Danica Patrick NASCAR orientation tour continues on Friday during the Dollar General 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Undoubtedly, there have been disappointments this year. Certainly, she’d like to have performed better to this point, but time and time again she has conceded the difficulty in adapting to heavy stock cars.

“I'm not lighting the world on fire by any means,” Patrick told USA Today’s Nate Ryan back in July. “I just have a lot to learn.”

This isn’t easy. She’s adapting to a completely different car without the aid of the complex electronics that aid IndyCar drivers. In a stock car, it’s seat of the pants.

Jimmie Johnson explained it best during a White House visit earlier this year, “There’s no telemetry in the vehicle,” Johnson told President Barack Obama during a quick tour of a Sprint Cup car. “In a lot of other forms of racing you have active telemetry so you can see what’s going on, so I have to be the computer.”

Danica doesn’t have quite enough files for it to compute yet, but she’s downloading every week.

It’s difficult to gauge exactly how she’s doing, but there is a model: Two-time Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart.

Back in 1996, Stewart was one of the hottest prospects in open wheel. For some, he was the savior of a sport that was in the throes of a major upheaval as Tony George split his fledgling IRL series from CART.

Stewart decided to hedge his bets: he dipped his toe into the NASCAR waters.

In 1996, 1997 and 1998, Stewart straddled a fence of fenders, dividing time between his open wheel commitments and learning the craft of driving a heavy stock car.

His early exploration of stock cars is a good yardstick to measure Danica Patrick.

In the three year stretch from 1996-1998, Tony Stewart made 36 starts in the Busch (Nationwide) Series: He made nine in ’96, five in 1997 and 22 in 1998. At that clip, averaging to about 12 starts a year puts Danica on a similar schedule.

An examination of the two drivers’ first eight starts puts Danica’s performance thus far in a different perspective.

Back in 1996, Tony Stewart ran nine Busch Series races in Pontiacs fielded by Harry Ranier.

Over the first eight races of that season, Stewart posted an average start of 27.5, and an average finish of 24.75. This represents a net three position gain from start to finish during each of his races. He didn’t lead a lap, and it wouldn’t be until his 12th start when he would post a top-five finish. His ninth and final start of 1996 was a 40th-place finish at Richmond, pulling his average finish down a bit to about a 26th place result for his rookie campaign.

Fast forward to 2010, Danica Patrick tries to test the waters in the Nationwide Series. Over her first eight starts, Patrick’s average start is 28.75, and her average finish is 31st. Unlike Stewart, she’s posted a net loss in positions (three) from start to finish. But like Stewart, to this point in her experiment she has yet to lead a lap.

Her average finish (the number that people really pay attention to) is a little worse than Stewart’s, but there’s a little more to that number when you look at who was racing.

Back in 1996, Buschwacking was just becoming a verb in NASCAR. The practice of Cup drivers crossing over and running the Busch Series was common, but there weren’t as many of them and they weren’t gunning for titles like they are today.

During his rookie campaign, Tony Stewart would be in the Busch field with an average of 4.25 Cuppers every time out. He managed to beat those Cup drivers on 10 different occasions in five races: Three at Daytona, two at Bristol in the spring, one at Milwaukee, three at Talladega in July and one in Darlington in August.

But the Cup drivers then were on a different agenda then in that they weren’t in dedicated cars running for titles.

Looking back at the final standings, there were no drivers in the top 20 in Winston Cup points from 1995 finishing in the top 10 in the Busch Series in 1996. They were generally running here and there in partial or one-race deals to get seat time at a given track heading into Cup races.

Danica Patrick is in a much more treacherous world.

This year, she’s seen on average 5.6 top 20 Cup drivers from 2009 every time she takes the green flag. She’s only beaten them on three occasions: She bested Kevin Harvick at AutoClub (California) Speedway back at the beginning of the year, and she managed to beat Ryan Newman at Chicago and Michigan.

Currently, there are four drivers from last year’s Sprint Cup top 20 residing in the top 10 in the Nationwide Series points standings: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano.

They’re with teams and in cars committed to running for points and winning a driver or owner’s championship. It’s become more cutthroat every time she’s out, and more competitive.

Time and time again, drivers, experts and pundits have espoused the importance of seat time when it comes to these cars. In that respect, she’s ahead of the curve.

Through his first eight starts in 1996, Tony Stewart had completed 75.1 percent of the laps run. So far, Patrick has completed 78.8 percent of her laps. At the end of the day, the extra time is invaluable and taking care of the equipment is the first prerequisite to winning in any racing series.

Patrick’s detractors say she can’t straddle series and gain seat time, her proponents say she needs more before she can be judged. Tony Stewart proved you can straddle series initially and test the waters, and Danica Patrick is showing just how much seat time she needs.

The programming of the Patrick’s on-board computer may come just a bit slower this way.

Watching Danica Patrick this season has shown one thing for certain: driving a stock car is very difficult business. Learning it won’t come overnight.

As a competitor, Danica Patrick clearly wants better results. As an athlete trying her hand at a completely different discipline, she needs to realize she’s doing just fine.

Coming Monday: 10 NASCAR Legends With a Ticket to the Hall Of Fame.