TALLADEGA, Ala. -- They brought it to the wind tunnel once to check the aerodynamic numbers, cleaned it up and loaded it into the transporter. The No. 10 car Danica Patrick will drive at Talladega Superspeedway is the same one in which she made so much history in the Daytona 500 -- and this weekend will determine whether she experiences the same degree of success on the track.
Talladega brings the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series restrictor-plate race since Speedweeks, where Patrick dominated headlines by becoming the first woman to win the pole for NASCAR's biggest race. She backed that up with an eighth-place finish, the best ever for a female driver in the event, generating an electricity that jump-started both the NASCAR season and her first full-time campaign on the sport's premier circuit.
The weeks since have been more arduous, to say the least. Other than Daytona, Patrick's only other lead-lap finish this season was a surprising 12th at Martinsville Speedway on her first visit to the short track. But Talladega brings another race at the kind of big, fast restrictor-plate track on which Patrick historically excels, and another opportunity to recapture the magic from Daytona.
"I suppose it's fair to say that there should be a little spike in expectation, but you also have to take into consideration on these big speedways that there is a whole lot of luck that comes into it," Patrick said. "Everything has got to be clean. The stops have to be good. You have to stay in the pack, no issues, not getting caught up in an accident. From what I remember last year even at Talladega it was more of a pack race than Daytona, even. ? Obviously, this is a wider track than Daytona, so when we start getting four-wide, that is when stuff starts to get a little exciting. We will just have to hope that we are in the right place at the right time."
No question, the degree of unpredictability at Talladega exceeds even that at Daytona, where Patrick took the white flag in third position and ended up eighth after winner Jimmie Johnson and runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. made big moves to the front. But it can't hurt to have the same car, which turned the third-fastest pole speed of the restrictor-plate era at Daytona, and emerged from the 500 with barely a scratch. Crew chief Tony Gibson said the No. 10 team took it to the wind tunnel once, wiped it clean and put it in the truck bound for north Alabama.
"You never think your car is going to survive on a speedway. So going into Daytona, that was not the plan," Gibson said. "Obviously, the plan was to win at Daytona and leave it there. After we got back home, we didn't have any damage on it. It was clean. We knew it was fast, had speed. So we decided to bring it back here, which is a good thing. When you can survive restrictor-plate races and bring back your car, that's a good thing. But after Daytona we got home, and decided we'd bring it back here."
It's not completely the same -- Gibson said internal parts like the engine, gears and transmission are different, and you never know if they're going to perform as flawlessly as they did in Daytona. But he knows the vehicle has speed, and feels like Patrick can contend for the pole here just as she did in the 500, weather permitting. Qualifying is set for Saturday, when there's also a heavy chance of rain in the area, which means the starting lineup could be set by opening practice speeds from Friday afternoon.
But not even a gloomy forecast can darken the confidence the No. 10 team, which sees this weekend as its best opportunity to contend since Daytona. "Absolutely. You look at places where we can shine at, with our early stages of this team. You look at places like here," Gibson said.
"Martinsville was a shocker to all of us. We've always had good cars there, but her not ever seeing the place before, that was quite a shocker to run that good. So the momentum from Daytona carries us a long way. ? We carry that momentum everywhere we go, but more so from Daytona to these restrictor-plate races. She does a really good job of that. I think it fits her wheelhouse as far as finesse. She thinks things through. So I think all of it brings momentum for us to this place. And bringing this car back, that ran so good at Daytona -- it's a confidence-booster, at least coming in here."
Patrick showed that much Friday, qualifying fourth for a NASCAR Nationwide Series event she'll run for Turner Scott Motorsports. Clearly her driving style best fits plate tracks, which most closely resemble the big, flat-out circuits like Texas and Indianapolis that she thrived on during her open-wheel career.
"I don't know if the confidence level shifts a tremendous amount as much as the comfort level does," said Patrick, who owns the best finish at NASCAR's level by a woman, fourth in a Nationwide race at Las Vegas in 2011. "It's just being comfortable on these big speedways and comfortable with this pack style racing that I was so used to in IndyCar on the ovals. Just having a feel for it. It is something that I probably caught on to quicker than anything in stock car racing. I guess I show up here and it's just a little bit more comfortable."
At Talladega, that comfort is easy to see. Gibson went turkey hunting earlier this week in Georgia, but came up empty because of wet weather and blustery winds. Now, he's pursuing much bigger game -- a history-making first victory for Patrick, whose team has had Sunday's race circled on the calendar ever since their driver's impressive run at Daytona.
"All of our restrictor-plate races we look at as places where we can possibly win a race," Gibson said. "Those are the ones we've circled for sure. We feel like our road racing stuff should be pretty decent. She seems to be a pretty good road racer, so we've got those circled. And hopefully we can go there and give her a car that can live up to her standards. But momentum is everything, man. I hope we'll be able to qualify. ? But I think our car has good speed in it, so we should be able to motivate come Sunday."
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