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NASCAR Cup Series

Patrick’s Cup Progression ‘Right Where I Need to Be’

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By Kelly Crandall – Not since the days of the youngest Earnhardt joining the Sprint Cup Series have so many eyes scrutinized the season of a rookie.

Danica Patrick is five races from completing her first full-season at NASCAR’s highest level. While she never brazenly stated outlandish goals, the expectations placed upon her by others were mighty ambitious. Perhaps because of her fast arrival on the scene or the attention she brought.

Regardless, Patrick has progress as any rookie would. It’s been a struggle with some days being much better than others. Last weekend in Charlotte she finished 20th after starting 35th, one of her better finishes in 2013.

“I’m right where I need to be. I’m right where I was going to be,” Patrick said Friday at Talladega Superspeedway after announcing that Aspen Dental would be the primary sponsor on her No. 10 Chevrolet for two races next season.

“All I know is that I’ve done everything I can to prepare for the year, to learn throughout the year and that is what’s going to lead into next year. And trying to really put it altogether to get great results for GoDaddy and for Aspen Dental next year.”

Having started the year by winning the pole for the Daytona 500 before leading laps and finishing eighth, it’s been downhill. She’s 28th in points and has failed to finish in the top 10 since. But according to the driver, the biggest thing is that she’s learning and she’s doing so in her own way and pace.

“I don’t think that you can ever plan how it’s going to go or give yourself a grade because everybody learns at a different rate,” Patrick said. “There are times that I probably was unexpectedly better than they thought and worse than they thought. It’s just my own personal progression and everyone’s is different.”

Where Patrick has seemingly taken greater comfort in are the big tracks, such as Daytona and Talladega, and the much smaller tracks, like Martinsville. She earned top 15 finishes in three of those four races this season and appeared much more competitive than other weekends.

Even while running in the Nationwide Series, the restrictor plate tracks were where Patrick excelled. Sunday she returns to Talladega where she finished 33rd in the spring after being caught up in an accident.

“Having a good attitude always helps. As I have said before IndyCar racing on mile-and-a-halfs was much like this kind of racing,” Patrick said about her restrictor plate success. “Flat out, close quarters and just trying to do whatever it took to keep the momentum up. I feel like visually it’s very familiar racing to me. Aerodynamics work different, but as far as the visual of how it goes and needing to keep the momentum up is very similar.”

Credit also went to Stewart-Haas Racing for having fast speedway cars. And it was this company that many pointed to as seeming to have started off behind most others with the debut of the new Generation6 car. Instead of being an equalizer for Patrick, as she too would be driving a car that no one else had, SHR had a lot of work to do.

Tony Stewart didn’t win a race until June and was fighting for a Chase spot when he was injured and sidelined for the remainder of the season. And Ryan Newman went until Indianapolis in July without a victory, also while fighting to make the Chase. For Patrick, the car itself has had a good year but SHR had to learn as the season progressed how to balance it to their liking. Add in her inexperience, she couldn’t offer much in terms of how to fix what was going wrong.

But now, as Patrick returns to the tracks of Talladega and Martinsville for a second time, she does know what she needs. As well as how she can capitalize.

“I think that what that shows is what is possible when you have a good car to work with,” said Patrick on Martinsville being her season’s best finish (12th) outside of the Daytona 500. “I feel like I definitely had that at Martinsville so the challenge for me this time around will be to not down shift from fourth to third when I come out of the pits and over rev the engine and have to start from the back in general just have a better qualifying run so that I can start further up and work from there.

“It’s a short track and those leaders are on you very quickly if you don’t have a good qualifying run. Qualify better and let it play out from there.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

POPULAR SPEED is a Social Media driven website featuring exclusive content, photographs, news and pointed editorials. It’s makeup consists of veteran motorsports journalists as well as the unique voice of developing young talent. POPULAR SPEED was launched in 2013 under the direction of former Sprint Cup Series spotter, Mike Calinoff.

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