DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A non-too subtle reminder of Danica Patrick's season-opening trip to Daytona International Speedway came out of the trophy case this week and sits in prominent display in the Stewart-Haas Racing shop as her team readies her bright green GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for Saturday's Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola.
"We have our trophy from Daytona for the pole down here, and so we brought it out this week just to remind everybody of what we can do when we get down there,'' Patrick's crew chief Tony Gibson said Tuesday.
"It's a little bit of a morale booster.''
To say the least.
In February -- the last time her No. 10 Chevrolet raced at the iconic track -- Patrick made history as the first woman to win the Coors Light Pole for the Daytona 500. Her eighth-place finish is also the best ever for a woman in the race.
Patrick's five laps in front of the field furthered the historic entry for the popular member of the Coca-Cola Racing Family, making her one of only 13 drivers to lead a lap in both NASCAR's most famous race and the Indy 500 -- a list that also includes driving legends such as A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti.
It was all pretty heady stuff for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie Patrick, 31, who answered all the pre-race hype and hyperbole by running among the top-10 all day. And she was every bit a player in the traditional last-lap free-for-all for the win.
But times have been tougher since the team left Florida.
Patrick has only a pair of top-20 finishes since Daytona and is the first to concede it's been exactly the steep learning curve you'd expect of a first-year driver in NASCAR's elite series. So Daytona remains a shining bright beacon in a season that's had lots of hard knocks and intense scrutiny.
So it's easy to understand why the team couldn't be more eager to return to the Sunshine State and Gibson's hometown of Daytona Beach.
"The vibe is different (preparing for Daytona),'' Gibson said. "When we get ready to go here, everybody gets jacked up, and we know we can go here and we can do really well. I think it's obviously a track that we feel like we can win at."
Patrick was more cautiously optimistic when asked about returning to the track, where she made worldwide headlines and won over so many fans.
She joked a couple weeks ago about being more excited about a Fourth of July party she was invited to.
"I think about Daytona.'' Patrick said smiling. "I never mind going to speedways. I find them fun. Obviously being the Coke Zero 400 and Coke being a sponsor of mine, it's an even bigger event.
"But I'm also thinking about the fact that Harry Scott (Turner Scott Motorsports) has invited people to his house in Hilton Head and I'm going to go there, too; and that sounds really good. I feel like I'm actually going to be on vacation. I'll be working, but that will be a nice little break."
Patrick realizes that her Daytona 500 performance is a tough act to follow. For one thing, it will take place on a different stage of sorts: a race 100 miles shorter under the lights in much higher temperatures.
And Patrick won't have her Daytona 500 car.
"Well, we lost that poor car at Talladega,'' Patrick said. "So we are going back with our backup, which is a really good car anyway. We tested with it at the beginning of the year and I expect it to go in a similar fashion.
"I think we will still be pretty fast. Will we qualify on the pole and run in the top-three or five all day? I don't know, maybe. But the heat always changes a little bit but it's a different car, and it's going to be a different Hendrick engine. All that stuff just leads to a slightly different weekend.
"But I expect it to be somewhat similar at least from a good standpoint in my head."
And "similar" has mostly been good.
Restrictor-plate racing seemed to agree with Patrick from the get-go. Before moving up to the Cup series, she scored a top-10 in the 2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series race there and won the pole in her next visit in February 2012.
She was fastest in January preseason testing of NASCAR's new Generation-6 Cup car, and backed it up during the race week. And while her racing abilities have proven to be more highly scrutinized than any of her competitors, she answered a lot of questions with the way she raced in the Daytona 500.
"I feel like that's right in Danica's wheelhouse there,'' Gibson said. "She likes the drafting. She likes the high speeds, and I think most of that comes from the IndyCar side of it. So it's exciting for us, and we're working really hard. We work hard every week, but when it comes to the restrictor-plate racing, especially going to Daytona, we go all out.
"We put every little thing we can into those cars, because we know that that's a track that we can win at and we can really do some damage, on the good side.''
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