Can she get it done at this level?
In a word? Yes!
Danica Patrick started 36th at the Stater Bros. 300 in Fontana, CA last Saturday and ran a clean race, finishing 31st. That doesn't sound like a great race, but it is a lot better than some so-called "fans" have been giving her credit for.
She hung back, stayed out of trouble, and tried to get used to the car. Some of the GoDaddy team's radio traffic was broadcast, and I thought the questions she was asking were important and insightful. This gives me hope that she will figure things out.
The radio also enlightened us to the feedback she is giving the team. She stayed away from the Indy car lingo, using "Loose" and "Push" instead of "Oversteer" or "Understeer."
The one word the two racing worlds have in common is "Balance." She was constantly referring to the balance of the car throughout the day. She, Tony Eury Sr., and the team worked on that balance all day. It seemed that by the end of the race they were close to it, but never really hit it.
She again showed that she does not lack car control. Just like in the ARCA race and Daytona, she avoided disaster a couple times.
She had her "rookie moments." She had issues on pit road that cost her positions. She also got caught speeding exiting the pits...twice. That wasn't good, but she wasn't the only one. Several drivers with a lot more experience (like Carl Edwards) were guilty of speeding in the last timing trap as well. Maybe NASCAR failed to sufficiently notify teams where the last trap ends. I've seen it happen before.
From the perspective of an old flagman, I really liked what I saw from Danica.
She knew that she was not going to be in contention for the win, so she did the right thing and dropped to the back. This kept her out of the leader's way and gave her some extra room to play with her line and build trust in the car.
The speeding penalties, while frustrating, didn't cause her to lose her temper and make stupid mistakes on the track. She accepted the penalty and went back to driving. Too many other rookies get discouraged when things go wrong, but she didn't. That's a good sign.
The fact is that the media attention she gets may take away from some other drivers that feel they deserve it, but the expectations placed to on her to succeed are far greater than are fair.
Whether it's because she is a woman or because she has had some success in the IRL is irrelevant. What is relevant is that she is off to a better start than a lot of drivers that have come before her.
Juan Pablo Montoya and Sam Hornish Jr. both enjoyed more success in the IRL than Danica did, yet she finished better in her first race at California than either of them.
Montoya and Hornish both finished 34th or worse in their first attempts at California. Both of them are now fairly accepted as NASCAR drivers. Montoya certainly has the finishing record to back that up, and Hornish is improving by the week.
That proves that it isn't as easy as some think it should be.
Some of the fans are saying that she isn't doing well enough for the equipment she's in. Of course she has good equipment with JR Motorsports. Colin Braun and Rickey Stennhouse are both driving Roush Fords, but they aren't getting the criticism Patrick does when they finish out of the top 25.
Could she have done better? Maybe. Could she have done worse? A lot! I thought that she held her own. I've seen a lot of rookies make bigger mistakes and get caught up in wrecks they could have avoided. She didn't.
Look, an Indy car is like 1,600 pounds and 700-plus HP with 14.5" wide rear slicks. To quote Robert Duvall in Days of Thunder, "In your old cars, the car weighed half as much and your tires were twice as wide. Now your car weighs twice as much and your tires are only half as wide." It's going to take time to learn what "balance" in a stock car really means.
The cars she's used to are very planted to the track and much more forgiving. They don't wiggle all over the place, and the power to weight ratio is much higher than a stock car. It is going to take time to adjust to that.
She's used to the fact that being loose will cost you speed and make you lose control easily. That's how it is with Indy cars. In a stock car, "loose is fast." She has to be given more than one ARCA race and three Nationwide races to get used to that.
If you put Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, or Mark Martin in a car that felt "good" by IndyCar standards, they'd say, "Damn, this thing is pushing like a dump truck! Can we free it up?" Getting used to this is not easy.
We have to put her development into perspective.
She is coming from a very different car, a very different style of racing, and very different media exposure. She must not be held to the standards that are set for guys like Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, or the Busch brothers. They all come from stock car backgrounds. They knew to expect ill-handling cars, and they were trained to know how to deal with it.
They learned all that in their teens on local tracks with almost no cameras. She's having to learn all this under much more difficult conditions. She has the pressure of female racers, the pressure of the IRL fans, the scrutiny of NASCAR purists, and all with an ESPN or Fox camera in her face constantly.
In all, she has shown this old flagman that she indeed has what it takes, and I'm willing to wait a couple seasons to allow her to develop before making a final judgment about her true ability.