Danica Patrick: 7 Signs She's Becoming a Legitimate NASCAR Contender

Todd JacobsCorrespondent IMarch 16, 2011

Danica Patrick: 7 Signs She's Becoming a Legitimate NASCAR Contender

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    Danica Patrick has chosen the slow road to success in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

    As hardcore fans and the media have attempted to emphasize her shortcomings on the NASCAR Nationwide circuit, Patrick has focused on each race with one thought in mind: Learn everything she can in the short time she has at each track.

    Patrick is once again running a limited schedule in NASCAR Nationwide, and her IndyCar schedule is going to limit her ability to practice and learn once her IRL season begins. 

    Patrick has conquered an intermediate track. Las Vegas Motor Speedway is a mile-and-a-half track that is very similar to Atlanta and Texas, and now she will need to work on learning the more demanding tracks.

7. Danica Is Learning the Differences in Car Control

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    Danica Patrick has learned car control from the time she spent racing go carts and Formula Fords in England early in her development. She has been forced to adjust to much heavier NASCAR Nationwide cars, but her car control has been the one constant.

    Patrick may spin on occasion, but she does know how to control her car once she has lost grip. Patrick is smart about when to grab the wheel and drive out of bad situations, and she is just as smart at knowing when to hold her hands up and let go of the steering wheel.

    Many rookies never learn what to do in catastrophic failures, but Patrick is experienced in what to do when things go bad. This has allowed Patrick to bring cars home in one piece. On the occasions she has wrecked her Go Daddy JR Motorsports ride, it has not been a result of her actions.

6. Danica Has Learned How to Save Her Tires and Fuel

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    One key element of Danica's learning curve has been learning to conserve fuel and tires while racing NASCAR Nationwide. With limited tires allotted to each team, Patrick has learned she cannot drive the wheels (and tires) off her heavy Chevy.

    Patrick has learned the subtle nuances of easing her car into the turns and easing off the gas earlier to set up her turns and let momentum carry her through. Most drivers just coming into the series struggle with fuel mileage and tire wear, but Patrick has had no such trouble.

5. Communication with Tony Eury Jr.

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    Danica Patrick's learning curve has been steep, but it has been eased by her car owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and her crew chief, Tony Eury Jr.

    Danica has slowly broken the language barrier that exists between open-wheel drivers and NASCAR drivers. NASCAR has different words for loose and tight. Patrick is used to talking about over-steer and under-steer.

    Once that barrier was broken, Patrick then needed to learn how to communicate what the car was doing to Eury Jr. Not only is there loose and tight to deal with, but there are also issues with air flow and and dialing in or dialing out brake.

    Patrick has overcome this over the last year, and now she has started to put it all together.

4. Danica Has Learned to Stick Up for Herself

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    Danica Patrick made a statement at the end of last year when a few drivers roughed her up as she learned the Phoenix track.

    Patrick retaliated and made sure the boys knew she was not going to be taken advantage of. Patrick has not had any issues this season, and she has learned to play well with others as she learns the new car and gets accustomed to the handling characteristics.

    Standing up for yourself early in a career sets the tone, and drivers will be less likely to pick on Danica as she begins to race with more frequency in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

3. Learning More Tracks Is Key to Danica Moving Up

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    Danica is learning more tracks as her career progresses. She is racing on other tracks for the second and third time this year.

    Danica appears to have figured out Las Vegas Motor Speedway in her second go-round on the speedy intermediate track.

    Danica will take on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve this year, and many are curious to see how she will perform in the bulky Nationwide car on the fast road circuit.

    Another race to watch Danica in will be this weekend's Bristol race. The track is fast and takes a special driver to master the intricacies of letting off the gas just after the start line and then picking up the throttle entering the turn.

    Danica is a former sprint car driver who knows how important rhythm is on the short tracks, and she should do just fine.

2. Danica Has Mastered Pit Road Details Quickly

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    Some of the best NASCAR drivers on the circuit still struggle with getting on and off pit road from pit in to pit out.

    Danica Patrick has learned quickly how important it is to get on pit road without scrubbing off too much speed under green. She has also done well getting her car up to speed on her exit as she leaves her pit box.

    There are aspects of Danica's driving skills many don't notice, and her pit-road smarts will be a major key when she moves up to the next level.

1. Danica Patrick Has the Mindset to Move on to Next Level

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    Jimmy Spencer and several others have speculated Danica Patrick will be in NASCAR Sprint Cup next season as a third team for Tony Stewart's Stewart-Haas Racing.

    Hopefully this is just a rumor at this time. Danica Patrick needs to season in NASCAR Nationwide for one full season next year if she decides to leave IRL. If she jumps to NASCAR Sprint Cup next season, it will be a long-term project, and all sides will be frustrated.

    If Patrick races a full season in NASCAR Nationwide, she will have the ability to win races in superior equipment, and she will learn how to win. She will also gain the respect of her fellow racers.

    As for this season, look for Danica to have good runs at Chicagoland, Texas and possibly Richmond. The wild card will be the road course in Montreal. The road course is demanding and is tough to drive in a bulky stock car.

    Do not be surprised if Danica Patrick scores two more top fives and actually makes it to victory lane this year. Danica is improving on a weekly basis at the moment, but her impending interruption, otherwise known as her IRL career, is right around the corner.