Danica Patrick continues to play catch-up in Sprint Cup Series

The driver opened the season by winning the pole position for the Daytona 500 in February but has qualified poorly since. Patrick will start 40th for Sunday's Auto Club 400 at Fontana.

March 22, 2013|By Jim Peltz
  • Danica Patrick stands on the grid during qualifying at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.
Danica Patrick stands on the grid during qualifying at Auto Club Speedway… (Jonathan Ferrey / Getty…)

Danica Patrick was talking about racing at Martinsville Speedway next month when a reporter asked whether she also would eat one of the Virginia track's famous hot dogs.

"I will at least have half of a hot dog," she said Friday. "I'm a half person. I have half of a cookie, half of a brownie, half of a hot dog."

A more pressing issue is how soon the struggling Patrick again will be racing with the front half of the field as she continues her first full season in NASCAR's top-tier Sprint Cup Series.

Her next opportunity is Sunday's race in Fontana, where Patrick will make her first appearance in a Cup-level car at Auto Club Speedway.

Patrick, who turns 31 on Monday, opened the season last month with a bang by winning the pole position for the Daytona 500 — the first time a woman had done so — then leading five laps and finishing eighth in NASCAR's most celebrated race.

But it's been tough sledding for Patrick and her No. 10 Chevrolet ever since. She finished 39th in Phoenix after a blown tire sent her crashing into the wall, 33rd in Las Vegas and 28th a week ago in Bristol, Tenn. She's now 28th in the Cup title standings.

Part of the problem is that Patrick hasn't qualified well since Daytona, so she has started each race deep in the 43-car field and then struggled to reach the leaders.

It was more of the same Friday. Patrick qualified 40th at 179.305 mph on the two-mile Auto Club Speedway oval, while Denny Hamlin won the pole position with a lap of 187.451 mph.

Greg Biffle qualified second, reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski was third and Hamlin's teammate Kyle Busch will start fourth.

Before Friday's qualifying, Patrick said that while she remained confident of improving this season, "I always have believed that it's going to be a difficult year."

Patrick drives for Stewart-Haas Racing, the team co-owned by Tony Stewart — the three-time Cup champion and defending Auto Club 400 winner — that also includes driver Ryan Newman.

All three have struggled early this season as they and the other Cup teams adapt to the new Gen-6 car that NASCAR introduced this year.

"She's coming in a pretty hard year where everybody has to adjust," Stewart said of Patrick during an appearance at Martinsville Speedway last week. "We're all three trying to find combinations that are working now."

Even so, Patrick said, "I feel like it's all my fault so far and you have to stay confident, though, at the same time."

Patrick formerly raced in the IndyCar series — she first gained fame in 2005 by nearly winning the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie — before migrating to NASCAR. She's previously raced three times in Fontana in NASCAR's second-level Nationwide Series; her best finish was 30th in 2010.

Patrick disclosed late last year that she was getting a divorce and since then she's started a relationship with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a former Nationwide Series champion who's also is in his first Cup season. Stenhouse qualified 31st for Sunday's race.

Stenhouse has encouraged her to be more assertive with her team about what she needs to make her car run faster, Patrick said. He's told her that "if you think you need something … don't suggest it, make it happen," she said.

Is Patrick also willing to be more assertive on the track in terms of "trading paint" with other drivers to gain positions? It's not likely until she gains more experience in a Cup-level car, she said.

"I'm a methodical learner, I build up and I continue to get faster," Patrick said. "When I get comfortable with the car is when I start looking more brave."

But Patrick also noted she showed her willingness to send a message to another driver last October at Kansas Speedway, even if the maneuver backfired.

"I'm clearly not afraid to crash because all I know is that I tried to take Landon Cassill out last year and I took myself out," with her car hitting the wall after she spun Cassill, she recalled. "When it needs to be done, it needs to be done."

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