AVONDALE, Ariz. -- There were no national headlines, no appearances on network morning shows or the evening news. It didn't generate the seismic waves of interest and publicity that followed her pole-winning run last month at Daytona International Speedway. But to Danica Patrick, it might have been a breakthrough every bit as important.
The last time NASCAR visited Phoenix International Raceway, Patrick recorded what to that point was her top finish in the Sprint Cup Series, one day after posting her best-ever result at the track on the Nationwide tour. Those modest accomplishments were completely overshadowed by mayhem elsewhere, most notably contact that had Clint Bowyer chasing after Jeff Gordon in the garage area. But they were signs of progress that buoy Patrick now that she's back at the 1-mile oval in the desert.
"Phoenix is one of those places that, man, even in the Nationwide car, I just couldn't get the hang of it. I came here many times, and continued to kind of suck," Patrick said Friday. "I feel like at the end of the year was more of a breakthrough in the Nationwide car, and also in the Cup car. It was a good weekend."
The numbers bear that out. Patrick was running 13th on the final lap here last November when she was caught up in an accident that also involved Jeff Burton. Even so, the eventual 17th-place result stood as her best result on NASCAR's premier series until she finished eighth last weekend in the Daytona 500. Her 10th-place finish in the Nationwide race one day earlier marked a personal best at the facility.
So Patrick would have reason to return to Phoenix full of good feeling, even if last weekend's events at Daytona had unfolded differently. As it happened, though, it was one positive experience building on another, and it all leaves the Rookie of the Year candidate in a confident frame of mind entering the bulk of her first Sprint Cup season, though still very cognizant of the differences between Daytona and most everywhere else.
"I feel like it will give us a good baseline of where we need to start setup-wise for the weekend, so we can kind of pickup where we left off," she said, referring to her runs at Phoenix last fall. "I feel like we were pretty decent at the end of the race. Is qualifying on the pole, and leading laps what we should be thinking based on last weekend? No. I need to keep realistic expectations, and I think everybody else does too. Daytona is a very unique place, and this is kind of where the bulk of the season really starts."
And clearly, she's starting this season in a much better place than the last one, which began with a Speedweeks where she wrecked three times -- one each in the 150-mile qualifying event, the Nationwide opener, and the Daytona 500. Patrick will admit, she stewed over that experience perhaps too long, and let it affect her performance in the ensuing weeks. This year there was no such adversity at Daytona, which could portend better things in its aftermath. But she believes she learned valuable lessons in that regard nonetheless.
"I feel like last year, maybe that frustration and exhaustion kind of spilled over into a couple of days of work during Phoenix week that I had to do to the weekend -- coming here again in the Nationwide car for the third or fourth time, and being like 20th, and just feeling really kind of bad about myself, and storming off from (the media) on pit lane, and deciding that I didn't finish well enough to answer any questions. It is a different perspective," she said. "I feel just a little more mature. I feel like even if it would have been a bad weekend, I was more prepared to handle it. But at this point in time, understanding that it is a whole new race, completely different track, and this is when the real season starts."
That said, Patrick was clearly miffed at herself following the Daytona 500, disappointed that she didn't have a better grasp of what to do to record a higher finish. "If they had just thrown that yellow, you know? Third," she joked. It helped when car owner Tony Stewart told her she had more to lose than gain by pulling out of line and trying to make a move at the end.
"I thought she did a great job last week," Stewart said Friday. "She played a very, very smart race, because it's very easy to get over-anxious and want to do better than where you're at and cause yourself to have a worse day. And I thought she displayed a lot of patience and that's really hard to do sometimes. So, I thought she did a great job."
Race winner Jimmie Johnson also helped her put things in perspective, telling Patrick he thought her options were limited with eventual runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. charging in on the final lap. "I said I had wished I had a better plan," Patrick said. "? (Johnson) said that the two wins he had, he didn't have a plan, and sometimes you just have to take it on the fly and work with what happens in the moment."
Johnson also congratulated Patrick on having a solid day. "I'm happy that she performed like she did on Sunday," he said. "It could have set her up for some criticism if she had a poor race and fell to the back and didn't run right, but she didn't. She stayed up front all day long and raced for the win, and I think on plate tracks she's convinced me that she's capable of winning the race." Now the focus moves off plate tracks, and on to more traditional layouts like Phoenix, where Patrick made such progress a season ago. "Last weekend was what it was," she said. "But we're moving on."
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