KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Even if Danica Patrick's finishing position hadn't been a career best, it was no stretch to say that her performance Saturday night at Kansas Speedway was the best of her career.
After qualifying ninth, Patrick ran in the top 10 for the entire race and finished seventh, her best-ever finish at NASCAR's top level and the ninth time a woman has finished in the top 10 in a NASCAR Cup race.
"That was by far the most consistent up-front car," Patrick told her team over the radio after the race. "All I wanted to do was stay up front and I did."
She did more than stay up front. At one point, she made an impressive move from fifth to third in the span of turns three and four. The two cars she passed on the inside? Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart, her car owner.
After the race, Patrick said she was most proud of passing Jimmie Johnson, the six-time Cup champion.
“Honestly the most rewarding part of my night was probably when I drove around the outside of the No. 48 on a restart," Patrick said. "That was probably my most rewarding thing of the night. I say that with all the respect in the world. It’s a big deal because he is Jimmie Johnson. Aside from that I was really just overall proud that we stayed up front all day. That was the biggest thing."
Shortly after the pass of Junior and Stewart, you could hear the contentment in Patrick's voice as she described the way her car was handling, asking only for minor adjustments for an upcoming pit stop. When you're not running near the front of the field, you don't get to request only minor adjustments very often.
The finish was only the second top 10 of Patrick's career. Her first was at the 2013 Daytona 500 after she started first and finished eighth.
But the nuances of restrictor plate racing are much different than they are at most of other NASCAR's tracks. At Daytona and Talladega, your finish is largely predicated on the draft and accident avoidance. At intermediate tracks like Kansas, large accidents are a rare occurence and air off a car ahead is disturbing, rather than beneficial.
Plus, intermediate tracks make up a large portion of NASCAR's schedule, and Patrick hasn't run well on them. That's why Saturday's performance is so striking.
Of her nine top-20 finishes, only three have come at non-restrictor plate tracks larger than a mile. It was not only a best, but a stark contrast to her previous struggles. Plate tracks haven't been an issue for Patrick; it's been the high-speed ovals where she's searched for a balanced car. Often times she's gone down a lap early in a race thanks to an ill-handling car and hasn't been able to recover.
Is Kansas a sign of things to come? She has her first chance to post consecutive top-20s for the first time in her career at Charlotte, a track fairly similar to Kansas. If Patrick does and it becomes a trend, it'll go a long way to show that Saturday wasn't a fluke and perhaps legitimize her as a race car driver in the minds of some.
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