DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Danica Patrick was prepared for the worst.
She came to Darlington Raceway a year ago for her first genuine Sprint Cup race weekend, her splashy debut in the Daytona 500 months in the rearview mirror, and bracing for what she thought would be the Friday from hell. With good reason, given that at the time she was also running in the Nationwide Series, and her schedule had her jumping between race cars from early morning until late at night.
"I imagined it to be absolutely horrible," she remembered. "And then once I got through with it ? I was like, 'That wasn't so bad. I can do this.'"
It could have been the beginning of her NASCAR journey in microcosm, an often-trying experience punctuated by moments of promise. That was certainly the case here a year ago, when she finished 12th in the Nationwide event and was running competitive times in the Southern 500 despite being laps down to the leaders. A season later, much has changed, personally and professionally, but the challenge remains the same -- as evidenced by a collision with the Turn 2 wall Friday that forced her to a backup car.
Daytona, where she was introduced to the Sprint Cup Series a year ago and won the pole earlier this season, will always be as closely identified with Patrick as her bright green firesuit. But Darlington is where the grunt work began in earnest, the cornerstone of a brutal indoctrination designed by car owner Tony Stewart, who wanted to put her through the crucible early in the hopes of making everything seem easier later on.
Talk about adjustments. Sitting on the couch of her motorhome, Patrick ticks off the challenges of that first trip through the grinder. There was the goal of just being respectable on the race track, of not being in other drivers' way. And going from the shorter Nationwide events -- which from a time perspective more closely mirrored what she had been accustomed to in IndyCar -- to a four-hour marathon at Darlington was a wake-up call.
"When you go from a 147-lap race to a 367-lap race, I was like, 'Huh?' I think my mind was a little bit distracted by going over 200 laps more than the night before," she said. "? All of the sudden you come to Cup, and things are like twice as long. It's a big adjustment, at least in your head. Now, I'm fine. I've kind of wrapped my head around it better and feel more comfortable, and have a better feel for things."
There's no question, one year later, Patrick is more comfortable in the NASCAR arena -- it's evident in things like her body language, and the ease with which she talks about boyfriend and fellow Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Back in Darlington, she's clearly more relaxed. "But that doesn't mean I'm not a little worried," she said a few hours before earning a Darlington stripe dark enough to park her primary car.
"It's a challenging track, and when the car doesn't feel right, challenging tracks get really, really challenging," she added. "It still very much matters what the car feels like, and that very much dictates your weekend. ... You just get to a comfort transition of where you know you're OK all the time, and it's just a matter of trying to be great. I'm not there yet."
At Darlington and elsewhere, the journey continues. Patrick's first full Sprint Cup season has had its share of taxing moments, and the cumulative effect is a 27th-place standing in points. No question, she has progress still to make in qualifying. She's trying to maintain speed in her car throughout the course of an event. Like the other members of her Stewart-Haas Racing team, she's playing catch-up on the development of the new Generation-6 car. And she and crew chief Tony Gibson continue to search for ways to make her more comfortable behind the wheel.
"As a team we need to improve, and Gibson and I just need to figure out what makes me happy when I'm out there, and what makes me comfortable, and unload closer and quicker every weekend so that we can just have better weekends," she said. "There's not a lot of time to move mountains around here. What you arrive with is generally what you arrive with. Every now and again, and it happens every other weekend or so, maybe you have one good change to start practice, and you're like, 'That's it!' ? But that doesn't happen every time, and sometimes you learn things you don't want to do."
So much of it is a work in progress. Patrick said she's still unsure of what her strengths and weaknesses are, still learning. She and Gibson tested for two days earlier this week at Nashville, have more tests coming up at Dover, at Pocono and Virginia International Raceway. The goal is to make the No. 10 a top-20 car, which is where Patrick feels it needs to be.
"I feel like that's where we were last year, almost," she said. "And we're not there right now sometimes because we just have this new car and don't have a good grasp on the balance that I need. Sometimes it's been luck. ? At least result-wise, there's lots of times that we should have been better off than we are, but that's the name of the game. Consistency is the hardest thing, because here are so many things. So many cars, and so many variables."
That much was on display last week at Talladega, when Patrick's attempt to build on her restrictor-plate success from Daytona was thwarted by a 12-car crash. But if there's anything for her to hang her helmet on thus far in her NASCAR education, it may be an interesting by-product of the rigorous introductory schedule Stewart set up for her. Patrick has enjoyed some of her better moments on some of the sport's more difficult tracks, a pattern repeated in her 12th-place run on her first visit to Martinsville earlier this year.
She was en route to a potential top-20 finish at Bristol before being caught up in a crash, and her clean Nationwide race last year at Darlington raised eyebrows. Asked about her penchant for exceeding expectations when they're at their lowest, Patrick laughs. Yes, she's noticed.
"I don't know why that is. I think that I tend to thrive in high-pressure situations," said a former open-wheel driver who was often at her best in the Indianapolis 500. "I have no idea what it does to me. I wish I knew. I wish I could recreate it every weekend. But I don't know if it has to do with more questions, more attention, more tension from me. I don't know. I'm not really sure. But it does seem to happen."
Whatever it is, she could have used a little of it Friday, when she hit the wall on sticker tires in practice, and then qualified 40th in her backup car. But those professional headaches seem offset by the giddiness Patrick exudes over her personal life, and a relationship with the always-on-the-go Stenhouse that's added plenty of new twists to her daily routine. She still works out, still cooks what she wants, still enjoys her wine. But so much else has changed.
"Now I go shooting clays at Kansas, or I go play golf one night. Or we go hang out with parents in the bus lot, or I'm sleeping over in that bus or this bus. There's much less of a routine," she said. "But that's fine for me. I think that it's all about kind of being happy and having fun, especially with how big the season is and how long it is. It's fun sometimes when we get away from the track. It really feels like I'm not racing right then. It feels like I'm out doing an activity and I don't feel like I'm on a race weekend. ? I'm not used to doing that, when it really feels like you get away. It's nice to break up the weekend sometimes like that, because this is such a familiar environment."
She just needed a push -- before Stenhouse, she admitted, she wouldn't have even thought of getting away from the track and doing things like horsing around on a driving range. Now, she thrives on it. No, Danica Patrick's performance in the race car isn't quite where she wants it to be. But as the Month of May begins in that other series she used to drive in, it's clear she's never been more comfortable in NASCAR. So much has changed since that first hectic Friday at Darlington Raceway, one long season ago.
"You just kind of adapt and try not to think too much," she said. "Try not to take things too seriously. Try not to worry so much. Just get on with life.
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