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What more do you want from Danica Patrick?

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Danica Patrick's determination is tangible in her handshake.

Her petite frame and polite eye contact belie the gumption and grit she gives off when shaking your hand. In the early years of Patrick's racing career in particular, it was a defining characteristic and not-so-subtle message about underestimating her.

It was amusing to watch the faces of those meeting her for the first time and seeing men twice her size taken aback by the intensity of that grip.

The bigger message, however, was always delivered on track.

And while Patrick's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career-best seventh-place finish at Kansas Speedway may not scream triumph, it signals progress. Rather, continued progress.

Other than winning the 2013 Daytona 500 pole position and leading laps, Patrick's stock car education hasn't always come with roaring headlines and piles of accolades. Unlike her handshake, it's been more understated.

And it wasn't just Saturday's outcome at Kansas, but the path she took to get there which resonates most with Patrick and her Stewart-Haas Racing team. She pulled off daring passes on the outside and ran among the leaders consistently for the duration (she was as high as third) -- something she hadn't done regularly at non-restrictor-plate tracks.  

In a season with more hard work in the trenches than "wow-that-was-fun moments," Patrick was able to enjoy the view out front. And her team was able to enjoy watching her enjoy the view out front.

"I've always believed in myself," Patrick said. "I've always believed that in the right situation, that I can do it. And with all respect, these little moments like when you drive by Jimmie Johnson on the outside, stuff like that, that makes me really proud of myself and little moments like that give me a little more confidence."

Her veteran crew chief Tony Gibson wondered if the race wasn't the single best effort -- from unload to checkered flag -- that her No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet has had at the Cup level.

"I know that we got pretty excited with some of the moves she was making when she was passing guys on the outside," Gibson said. "It was just fun to watch. It was just a really good weekend for us. We had a good car right off the truck, a good qualifying effort and we backed that up with a good race.

"I'm really proud of what Danica did. I'm really proud of the cars that the guys are SHR are building. This is probably one of our best-ever weekends, and hopefully this will be something that we can build on."

Steady, slowly and simply, Patrick has shown improvement navigating her sophomore year in NASCAR's big leagues.

She's improved her 2013 finishes in eight of the 11 races this season. She had only two finishes better than 25th last year at this point, and she has had six finishes better than 25th this year.

Before the season, she said there were some specific things the team needed to work on: unloading fast and qualifying well.

Both of those things occurred over the weekend.

She's had three top-10 starts this season -- including back-to-back at Talladega (seventh) and Kansas (ninth) -- compared to one (Daytona) in all of 2013. Her time at the front of the field put her around better drivers in better equipment  -- a valuable lesson she's not had before.

The pace of Patrick's learning curve may not be what everyone else considers success, but improvement is improvement.

Far too often, Patrick is an easy target for the lingering members of the "doubting press corps," or for fans that continue to set the bar unreasonably high for someone transitioning from a different racing genre or see her only as a marketing tool, not a viable competitor.

When a former series champ wrecks while racing her, guess who gets the blame?

When Patrick gets lapped? It's, "here we go again." Eye roll.

But the truth is, if Patrick's performance Saturday is encouraging, her body of work this season is persuading.

Give her credit when it's due. And this season it's due.

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