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2014 presents opportunity, pressure for Danica Patrick

NASCAR.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- There is a palpable sense of optimism surrounding the revamped Stewart-Haas Racing organization, a feeling that stems from the addition of two new championship-caliber drivers as well as the continued recovery of the co-owner from a broken leg. Danica Patrick is well aware of all that hopefulness, and the opportunity it might present for her as part of a team poised to rebound from a rough 2013.

But with that opportunity comes something else.

"I do think that the pressure builds more and more each year, because there's less and less excuses," Patrick said at Daytona International Speedway. "I feel like we have a lot of really cool stuff going on at the team, and a lot of really interesting changes and new drivers and new personnel. I don't know if anybody is as excited as Kevin Harvick is right now. He seems just super excited. But everybody is really looking forward to the year, and I think we all feel a lot of opportunity ahead of us. I'm always pushing hard. I mean, I can't push harder. But you can find new ways and areas to do it. I'm all for that."

Indeed, the arrivals of regular title contender Harvick and 2004 Sprint Cup Series champion Kurt Busch increase the ammunition at the team that's also expected to have three-time titlist Tony Stewart back from his broken leg by Speedweeks.

"I think every week we for sure have three guys that can go out and win the race," Stewart said. The omission in that reference is of course Patrick, who finished 27th in final points last year in her rookie season, and for whom the goals are more modest -- consistency and improvement.

No question, there are new pieces in place to aid that effort. Patrick herself now has a full year of Sprint Cup experience behind her -- to this point, she's still started only 46 premier-series events total -- and with a pair of new drivers and new crew chiefs in house, the potential for shared new ideas is evident. The hope is that all the accumulated experience and expertise can buoy the No. 10 program along with everything else.

"I think that this is going to be a year for opportunity, really," Patrick said. "I think that for me I'm able to feed off of their experience and making the car better. So I've always felt like, whether it was IndyCar or now, I learn a lot more when we make good changes and make the car right, or better, because I start to learn the potential of the car as opposed to not knowing what the potential is and not knowing what I have to deal with and settle for. So good changes help me learn what's really possible with the car, and I think that's what comes from guys with a lot of experience is they know what to do with the car."

Patrick's rookie season was highlighted by an eighth-place finish in a Daytona 500 where she won the pole, and a 12th-place run later in the spring at Martinsville. Crew chief Tony Gibson returns to oversee a program that recorded nine finishes of 20th or better in 2013.

"It's still a work in progress," Stewart said. "She's still learning. This year, I think, will be a big year for her. I think having that first full season under her belt now and being able to go to every place twice, and get the feeling of what a Cup weekend is like -- I think all the newness wore off of that (last) year. And I think she knows more what to expect, and it's more a matter of focusing on the things that she can be better at."

A primary focus at SHR is on bringing better- and more similarly prepared cars to the race track, and reaping more improved performances as a result. As far as Patrick's program specifically is concerned, although she became the first woman ever to win a pole in NASCAR's top series last year at Daytona, one of her problem areas in 2013 was qualifying, which she feels her team worked on over the latter part of this past season. When it comes to adjustments over the course of a race weekend, her team hopes to narrow the focus from bigger swings in setup to more fine-tuning.

"That's the things that you learn over time," Patrick said. "We were all doing everything we could earlier in the year to throw different things at it to see if it was better. But working more methodically at the end of the year seemed to help that. Between that, and ... what shows itself in getting more comfortable in those first laps qualifying, first start of the race, restarts, all those things, they all kind of go hand in hand, and those are the areas that I have to work on."

Patrick's comfort on restrictor-plate tracks was evident again in Friday's rain-shortened Preseason Thunder test session. Then again, going fast at a place like Daytona was never a problem, as last season's pole speed might suggest. Her biggest hurdle in the Daytona 500 came at the end, where she found herself third in the waning laps but wound up eighth after being unable to make a move for the victory.

Might another year of experience, and three more plate events, help her if she finds herself in a similar situation next month? "Possibly. I mean, I think that I definitely learned how to make the run and do it. I also learned that you have to practice it a little bit. You can't just go and bomb it on the last lap of the Daytona 500," she said.

"I'm very fortunate to be in the (Sprint Unlimited) the weekend before the race so that I can practice those kinds of things and have more track time and especially more racing time. I think that there is an element of having an idea of what to do, and there's also the element of being around for a while that people trust you and are willing to work with you a little bit. So I think it's a little bit of both, but you're not going to get their respect if you don't try. So I think it's sort of a parallel progression."

As is her development as a NASCAR driver as a whole. She'll certainly have help at Daytona, where her fellow SHR drivers are all restrictor-plate aces. "She's got three teammates that are going to be behind her 100 percent," Stewart said. He was speaking about the season and not specifically the Daytona 500, but in Patrick's case, he could have been referring to both.

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