[media-credit name=”Brad Keppel” align=”alignnone” width=”270″][/media-credit]Coming into Speedweeks 2012, things were looking up for Danica Patrick as it was supposed to be a weekend of learning and a weekend where she could do well. Instead, the weekend became one that ended in a headach as in each of the three races she ran, she was involved in a wreck.
The crashes began on last Thursday afternoon with the Gatorade Duel. For the majority of the race, Patrick had stayed out of trouble, testing the waters and running as high as sixth at one point.
However, she wouldn’t make it to the finish. On the last lap, she hit the inside wall hard after contact from Aric Almirola on the final lap.
“I got valuable practice time,” she said afterwards. “But it is never a good feeling for me to not be able to drive the car back to the pits and something about me feels guilty when I see that Go Daddy is all broken up along the side.”
Patrick didn’t let that bring her down for long as the next day, she won the pole for the Nationwide Series DRIVE4COPD 300. She wanted to win the pole for crew chief Tony Eury Jr., as it meant the first Nationwide Series Daytona pole for him despite all the success he had with cousin Dale Earnhardt Jr. in that series.
“Tony builds really good cars and the guys that helped him do that, did a really good job,” she says “I’m really thrilled for Tony Jr.; this is something that he wanted. So for me to push the pedal and give that to him, it feels really good.”
The race wouldn’t go as planned as despite leading laps early, she would be taken out on lap 49 after contact from her teammate Cole Whitt.
“I don’t think it’s ever great when teammates come together,” Patrick said. “We’ll have to figure out what happened and move forward.”
Patrick quickly displayed her displeasure with Whitt over the radio, which Whitt responded by saying, “I wouldn’t expect her to be happy about it. I wouldn’t be happy about it either. I don’t know why anyone would expect her to be like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s great.’ ”
After her wreck in the Gatorade Duel, she would have to start at the back of the Daytona 500. Her race wouldn’t last long as she would be collected in a second lap incident that started when Elliot Sadler got into Jimmie Johnson. Her team would get the car fixed and she would go back out to run some laps.
“Any lap that I turn is progression,” she said. “That’s why I was proud of them for getting me on the track. Was there much to gain for me to get back on track? No. But there was experience as I got back up in pack.”
Patrick would finish in 38th in her cup debut, but picked up valuable knowledge.
“I honestly I think I picked up a lot of tips and honestly, I wish the race would’ve been a single file line at the beginning like it was when I got back up there,” she said.
As the weekend went, Patrick learned more about the draft and that was most evident in the Nationwide Series. Before the incident with Whitt, she had led a portion of the race, first with help from Earnhardt Jr., and then with help from Tony Stewart.
The success she did have within the wrecks shows that she has picked up lessons since beginning in NASCAR in 2010. When she first started, she was barely running at a competitive pace.
“I’m pleased with some of the stuff that’s gotten better over the year – I can think of the first race here where I was struggling to keep up,” she said. “Then now you can drop the green flag in a Cup race and I’m just hanging out. I know the rules are different, but the level of comfort and proximity of cars next to each other and front and back, and obviously has been improved.”
Her improvement had Elliott Sadler call her the most improved driver in NASCAR’s top three divisions from the beginning of 2011 till now.
“That’s appreciated and I have worked really hard and I’m lucky I drive for a good team that has good resources,” she said when told that. “Tony Jr. is a really, good accomplished crew chief. On the Cup side, we haven’t seen a lot of the great people around me there too, and some really good experience teammates.
“That’s a nice pat on the back; I appreciated that. I still recognize that I have a lot to learn, but I’ve been able to do this in a nice way. I’ve had the backing from the beginning from Go Daddy and it’s been nice because instead of having to go out and show what I’m made of every week, got the most amount spots possible and be desperate. I’ve never had to feel like that. I’ve been able to sit back and observe, not step outside of my comfort zone, because I’ve had a plan since the beginning and so few drivers get that ability to plan long-term and have someone that’s there for them who will follow them wherever they go.”
One of the keys to Patrick being able to pick up as many as lessons as she has is that she doesn’t rest on her laurels. She knows that there is lots that she is going to have to learn.
Going into the Nationwide race, despite winning the pole, she knew it was going to be a challenge.
“It’s going to come down to bump drafting, and being good at that,” she says. “Good at swapping, good at keeping the engine cool, good at keeping in a pack, good at keeping connected, good at strategy so when you pit, you pit with your partner and you don’t get left alone at any point. There’s a lot of stuff that’s going to happen during the race that we’re going to have to manage, so it doesn’t change our strategy.”
Next week at Phoenix International Raceway marks her next challenge. She won’t be running the Sprint Cup race, but the Nationwide race will have its own challenges. Patrick has made three starts at Phoenix, with her best finish being 17th, which she scored last spring.
This year is all about learning and getting ready for the full Sprint Cup schedule in 2013. Certainly the tricky oval in the dessert will teach her some more.