Danica Patrick: 'I'm not positive enough'

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Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The two motor coaches sit side by side in the infield of Daytona International Speedway – Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin, neighbors.

"That's his bus," Patrick said, pointing out her kitchen window Friday morning, the day after Hamlin spun her out for the second consecutive day, requiring her and her team to stage a wild comeback in Thursday's Duel 150 to qualify for Sunday's Daytona 500.

What followed was a nationally televised argument complete with lapel grabbing, raised voices and little common ground.

"There were so many cameras around I had to make sure I didn't swear too much," Patrick said with a laugh some 12 hours later.

Hamlin, as of midday Friday, had not called Danica, had not texted Danica, had not come over with a plate of peace-offering baked goods or maybe a bottle of her preferred wine. He wasn't budging – or was possibly oblivious – even as their dispute was on near constant loop on the highlight shows because what's better than Danica getting in someone's grill?

This puzzled Patrick since she considers Hamlin one of her best friends on the circuit. Danica and her boyfriend, fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., regularly have dinner with him, golf with him, just hang out with him.

Why Hamlin hasn't been in touch probably involves men being from Mars, women being from Venus, or something like that, but that wasn't helping at this point Friday morning.

"I was mad enough after Wednesday [when Hamlin sent her spinning during practice, costing Patrick her primary race car]. So I texted him and said, 'What happened?' " Danica said. "I still think he didn't think much happened. He even said at the end, 'Go get them in the duels.'

"I'm like, 'Dude, you put me in this [expletive] situation.' It's not the end of the world, I'm only dropping back 10 spots, but still, he crashed my primary car."

And then the back up got wrecked, she almost failed to qualify, her third car was having trouble during practice on Friday and now … nothing. Hamlin did offer up an apology/non-apology on Twitter.

Patrick isn't going to egg his bus, but … she later sees a newspaper with his picture on it and jokes about using it to get a fire pit started that night.

It's all pretty funny and she understands that part. She shrugs. This is NASCAR after all. Doesn't something like this go down every week?

"I love the fights," she said. "I was so excited that in The Unlimited [a preseason all-star race] we already had a brawl. That's the stuff that is exciting."

Just less so when it happens to you.

____________________

Really, Danica is still rattled from the entire experience of qualifying for Daytona. Between this year's new system and Wednesday's crash in practice, she needed to get into the top 15 in a 150-mile race just to get into Sunday's main event.

She called it the most pressure she'd ever felt in racing. Greater than her first Daytona or Indianapolis 500?

"Yeah," she said, "because you're already there. To me that was more upside. And last night was all downside."

So she spent the day leading up to Thursday night's Duel all torn up, trying to focus on what she could control and not the fact that, especially on a superspeedway, it's so easy to get caught up in a crash that could finish you. Then she got caught up in the crash.

An upset Danica Patrick talks with Denny Hamlin about their late accident after the second Budweiser Duel.
An upset Danica Patrick talks with Denny Hamlin about their late accident after the second Budweiser Duel.

The terror of almost missing the Daytona 500 completely overwhelmed the thrill of actually surviving. She'll start 20th Sunday.

"I'm more mad that I was so close to not making it in than I am happy that I made it in," Patrick said. "I mean, to think I wouldn't have made it in if the car was too damaged or if I wouldn't have gotten by a few of those cars? I think it's crazy. I think that's [an] unfair [way] to qualify for the biggest race of the year."

There's more to it, however, than that.

Patrick acknowledges that she struggles with remaining positive. She tries, but it's too easy to focus on the critics, to the outside pressure, to the mistakes or near mistakes. And it's too easy to not recognize that while she may not have proven herself in the class of Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart, she's still one of the best few dozen stock car drivers in the world.

Danica Patrick, of course, has never won a race, which her critics love to point out. Forty-nine drivers came to Daytona this week and 23 of them had never won a Sprint Cup race. Five others have just one victory. She isn't exactly alone in still pursuing victory.

She counters by noting that her public profile, and off-track earnings, are greater and thus put her in a different spotlight. A spotlight, she says, she is grateful for. Still …

"I think publicity and attention create an artificial perception on what people think you should've done to deserve it on some level," she said. "So I can't control that.

"Its one of those things I have to deal with as far as keeping my confidence up and not letting what people say get to me. I just have to go back to progressing and getting better. It's just one of the things I have to mentally keep strong with."

____________________

Positivity is a process though. Patrick keeps coming back to what almost happened, the disaster of almost not qualifying for Daytona and then the big argument after.

"My reality is, if I don't make that race, what does that mean for perception, what does that mean for [her sponsor] Go Daddy, what does that mean for my team?"

She's missing the point. Lots of people are.

Thursday night she proved she had a car more than capable of qualifying for Sunday. Then she got spun. It was a wild scene as she slapped into other cars. She avoided slamming into the wall, she believes, because she has learned with stock cars never to hit the brake and instead just keep flooring it.

"I kept my foot in it the whole time," she said.

She got the car to pit road where her team pulled it together, sent her back out and with just two laps remaining she, along with a big push from teammate Kurt Busch, passed eight drivers to qualify dramatically. Then she gave as good-as-she-got in a post race shouting match.

What did it mean for perception, Go Daddy, her team?

How about she didn't quit, didn't panic, kept battling, got the comeback done, provided incredible excitement and then got her chief sponsor tons of airtime in the highlights while scrapping with a fellow driver?

Isn't that what all the NASCAR legends do?

Why not see it that way?

"Because, honestly, I'm not positive enough," she said. "I'm not positive enough. I need to be more. I always work on that. I used to be much more negative than I am now and I can still be much more positive for sure. It's something I work on, on a daily basis."

She takes a breath.

"It's just too much [expletive] on the line last night."

She promises to work on it. Maybe Hamlin will eventually text and they can meet in the 4 feet between their trailers and figure it out one night while sitting around that fire pit.

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