Struggling Patrick looking for help
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FONTANA, Calif. – When Danica Patrick declared she would give NASCAR’s Nationwide Series a try, the expectation was that whatever shortcomings she had on the track would be offset by her impact off it – drawing fans to the races and eyes to TVs just with her presence.
Seven races in, Patrick’s off-track impact appears to be negligible.
Aside from the 33-percent jump in viewership of the season-opening race at Daytona, TV ratings have been either flat or down when Danica competes. And her ability as a draw at the track, at least for Saturday’s Nationwide race at Auto Club Speedway, is unknown, said track president Gillian Zucker.
“In terms of what her being here [means] compared to Kevin Harvick being in the race, I can’t quantify that,” Zucker said.
In other words, there is no noticeable bump.
The most obvious reason why Patrick hasn’t provided the spark many expected is her underwhelming performance on the track. Her best result so far is a 24th, two laps down to the winner, while her average finish in seven races is 31st.
Two weeks ago at Dover, a track difficult for even a seasoned veteran, Patrick labored through a horrendous weekend in which she qualified 42nd out of 43 cars, slammed the wall hard on Lap 70 after blowing a tire and limped home 35th.
None of her struggles is unexpected or unprecedented. She’s not the only open-wheeler to find the shift to NASCAR difficult.
She is, however, the only one who’s trying to do both at the same time, and that makes her learning curve for NASCAR much, much steeper. Flipping back and forth between the two is like playing ping-pong one week, tennis the next. While it may be a way for her to maximize her bottom line, any driver will tell you it’s not a good strategy for success on the track, especially not on the one where you’ve never been before.
Before this year, Patrick, 28, hadn’t raced a stock car even once.
“I wouldn’t be driving both cars,” Juan Pablo Montoya, the most successful driver in the last few years to make the switch from open wheel to stock cars, said last October. “You’re going to get comfortable in one thing, and then you’re going to make it to the other thing, and every time it’s going to be like night and day.”
Now, though, day is over and it’s only night. With the IRL season complete, Patrick will compete in six straight Nationwide races – no IRL, only NASCAR – beginning with Saturday’s CampingWorld.com 300.
This is the singular focus she’s needed since the beginning.
When talking about her understanding of NASCAR, Patrick doesn’t pretend to know much. She’s a novice, admits it and welcomes help from anyone willing to give it.
She says that her struggles aren’t because she doesn’t understand how to drive the track, but rather she doesn’t know how to set up her car in order to be able to drive the track comfortably in the first place.
In other words, she’s defeated before the green flag ever drops.
This is where she said she could use help from the likes of Mark Martin, who paid a visit to Patrick following her wreck at Dover.
“I just felt bad, that’s all,” Martin said Friday. “They need some help.”
Patrick says she would welcome a driver coach – Martin says he is not available – who could set up her car so that when she gets in it she can concentrate on driving it, not trying to figure out how to make it drivable.
“I’m looking for the same things that everyone else is – some improvement in performance, some more consistency and speed out here in these last six races,” Patrick said. “Whoever it is, I would take any help. Like [Mark] said, you need someone to put you in the car and say this is the set up and go drive it after they’ve driven it.”
Eight months ago, Patrick made her NASCAR debut to much fanfare. She was the belle of the ball – for a few hours anyway. Since then, however, she’s been greeted mostly by ambivalence, which, based on her results, is just about right.
Now, she has six races to change that.