When Danica Patrick crossed the line fourth at the end of the Sam’s Town 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Saturday, it marked her best career finish in NASCAR Nationwide Series competition.
“We just worked so hard on the car this weekend,” Patrick said after the race. “Went from loose to tight to loose to tight with the same set-up at times. We had a lot of practice time, which was good, but kind of confused us along the way. Missed those lucky dogs and finally got one. I asked Tony (Eury ) Jr to take a big swing at it to make it tight, not a small one but a swing at it, and it wasn’t good at the beginning, but it was good at the end.”
A lot of people say she lucked into it, which is partly true. The fuel strategy that played out at the end of the race allowed her to take a top-10 car to the top-five. She didn’t luck into being in position though, as she had to fight for the lucky dog and was running inside the top 10 before the strategy broke out.
“Qualifying wasn’t perfect, practice was up and down,” she said. “I was like, okay, we got a new car. Hopefully we can learn something so that way me and Aric (Almirola) can run up front at the next mile and a half.”
Crew Chief Tony Eury Jr. had predicted before the race that she would finish in the top 10, considering how they’ve ran lately.
“I mean, we’ve been really consistent – the finishes haven’t shown it,” Eury Jr. said. “It’s really easy for her to run in the top 15. If we can get everything right, we can run in the top 10 with this girl. Luckily we got luck with fuel mileage and got a top five out of this.”
Last year at Las Vegas, she finished 36th following a crash, so this year was a marked improvement.
The previous weekend at Phoenix, she finished 17th, which was to Eury’s expectations. He felt it was a good finish for her first start on the short track.
“I mean, we were struggling in practice – I’m not going to beat around that bush,” Patrick said. “I qualified 20th and Tony Jr really just looked at the setup and made some good adjustments for today. We made a change there at the beginning the wrong way, but then the next stop Tony Jr made a change the right way and we kept adding a little bit of that. We got the Go Daddy car running good at the end. I think Tony was saying those were 11th and 12th place cars. I know a top 15 would be better, but realistically, a 17th place finish is a good for me considering how I was last year on these short tracks last year.”
Even the week before that she showed growth as she finished 14th and led a lap after qualifying third; this is improvement from her 35th place finish last year.
“I mean, I led a lap,” she said. “It was really cool that Clint pushed me. I would have loved to try and work with him, I just didn’t really know what to do, you know? I really ran up front most of the day. … I’m probably not to the point where if I pull out, people are going, ‘OK, she’s going, I’m going.’ That takes awhile to earn the trust and respect of the other drivers. I’m not mad at that, it’s just going to take time. It was a good experience. There was a lot to learn, and I did learn a lot. It was cool to finish all the laps.”
“She did a good job today,” Bowyer said of how she ran. “She was fast enough to be up there. When you’re racing in that atmosphere, you’ve got to find a fast car.”
Some say that things would have gone better had her spotter worked better with other drivers, which had Bowyer frustrated and unwilling to work with her again.
When Patrick came into this deal, her number-one goal was to learn everything about driving stock cars.
Statistics prove that she has gone about doing that correctly as last year she had an average finish of 28th, while this year her average finish is 11.7.
Near the end of last year, you could see improvement as she was working on learning the cars as she wanted to do. Clear evidence was shown in the season finale at Homestead-Miami when she took key lessons from her spotter TJ Majors, teammate Aric Almirola and crew chief Eury Jr.
During that race, Almirola gave her tips on where to run which she took in carefully, though she also found herself questioning under a caution where to run to pick up the most speed. An example of her learning is shown through the following conversation with Almirola:
Aric Almirola: Danica, you got to enter higher into three as there’s more grip there. At about where the caution lights are, you should try to enter the middle from there on.
Danica Patrick: 10-4. Thanks a lot for the help
Almirola: You can run wherever you want in one or two, you can run wherever you want on older tires. Just move up in three and four….(next caution)……You come in on the gray, which is fine. You then turn down away from it. You should try to stay along this black seam, unless you’re tight off.
Patrick: I’ve been tight in the center. If I try to stay up there, it just pushes further up.
Almirola: 10-4 See right here on this spot, I ease off the brakes and then here I drive off.
Patrick: Thanks for showing me, Aric. I really appreciate it. I’m just trying to learn out here.
At the end of the day through all of her learning, she finished 19th.
Another thing that has helped Patrick is having Johnny Benson as her driver coach this year.
This reflects back to last October where she said that she would like to have someone there to give her tips.
“It would be nice if somebody could help me, whoever it is — I would take any help,” Patrick said on ESPN.com. “Like he [Mark Martin] said, you need somebody to get in the car and say this is the setup, go drive it after they’ve driven it. It’s one thing to say drive this line, do this or that, but when you don’t have maybe the car that can do that, it’s just words, so it would be nice for someone to throw me in a car after they’ve driven it so I get a real feel for it.”
Patrick had spoken to Martin on two separate occasions as they spoke for about an hour when they first met at Phoenix Raceway in 2006 and then again following her wreck at Dover International Speedway. Now with Benson taking a full-time role there, it has certainly helped her.
This year marks a big year for Danica Patrick as both her Nationwide Series and IZOD IndyCar Series contracts are up, which leaves her the choice to continue down this path of doing part-time Nationwide/full-time IndyCar, or go full-time Nationwide.