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Monday, November 19, 2012
Challenging year comes around for Danica Patrick

By Brant James

Danica Patrick was making brisk progress off pit road at Kentucky Speedway, a halo of videographers and autograph seekers attempting to maintain proximity.

Patrick's first race with Nationwide Series crew chief Ryan Pemberton that September day had been good enough -- 14th place -- given that two hot dog wrappers had plastered themselves to her grille, overheated her engine and forced an extra pit stop.

Tony Eury Jr., the crew chief since the commencement of Patrick's stock car career, had left JR Motorsports days earlier amid a philosophical impasse with his cousins and team co-owners, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt-Miller. Patrick had seven races left in her first full season in NASCAR's second-tier series and a gaze on her first full Sprint Cup season with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2013.

While her transition from IndyCar to NASCAR had been heavily publicized and well-supported, it had not been gilded. Despite the reams of merchandise sold and the collective embrace of the series, she had yet to conquer anything. It had been exhilarating and humbling. Sometimes humbling came at strange times.

"Good job, Dana!" yelled an elderly man, apparently in complete sincerity, from atop the pit road wall.

"Dana …," Patrick muttered, not breaking stride. "Close enough."

Patrick's first full NASCAR season was imperfect in many ways but perfectly acceptable in many others, given her relative level of inexperience in stock cars and the fact her education was undertaken at NASCAR's two highest levels. But with 97 days remaining until she becomes the first female to contest a full Sprint Cup season, beginning with the Daytona 500, it, too, will have to be close enough.

What went right

Tony Gibson subtly lobbied to become Patrick's Sprint Cup crew chief after watching her for half a season and deciding for himself, he said, that "she gets it." She proved that in various ways. In what was in essence a 43-race, televised tutorial, Patrick was able to race her way into contention or consideration at various moments. Most notably, she led 14 laps before being caught in a massive wreck at Daytona in July, finished eighth at Texas in the spring race and finished ninth at Bristol in the summer. In between, there were mundane moments of learning and check-listing, attempting to absorb in parts of three seasons what many of her peers had made second nature since they were teens or younger.

Crew chief changes seemed to spur Patrick late in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup seasons. She entered the Homestead finale as the fifth best points-earner in the six races since Eury was replaced by new JR Motorsports competition director Pemberton. And she collaborated with Gibson to finish 24th at Texas and 17th at Phoenix, her best Cup finishes of the season.

"Definitely at the end of this year, it has come around," Patrick said. "We're competitive and running well, and I said [in] late summer, hopefully by the end of the year, it can go really well so we can go off on a really happy note for my Nationwide season, and that's what's happening right now.

"It's a nice way to leave off, and everyone is excited, and isn't it wonderful they can spend the next couple of months really, really excited and optimistic about next year? I think that's great."

What didn't

Neither Patrick nor Eury expected to win a championship in her first full season in the series, yet they clearly expected more after a partial 2011 season in which, she said, "we definitely caught breaks."

A sobering beginning forced a recalibration of expectations. Reality hit hard, just like Patrick's race cars during Speedweeks. She was turned wickedly hard into the backstretch wall of the last lap of her pre-Daytona 500 qualifying race, was erased in a drafting mishap by Cole Whitt in the season-opening Nationwide race, then was involved in a second-lap incident in the 500, fouling her first start in NASCAR's premier event. An unwieldy car at Phoenix made a 21st-place finish even worse than it was. A piece of metal pierced her radiator and led to a DNF at Fontana, Calif., and the team tumbled into what Patrick called "a really trying summer."

After Austin Dillon caused Patrick to spin out at Michigan by taking air off her spoiler, Eury claimed many of her male counterparts lacked proper respect for what Patrick was attempting to accomplish. Patrick, as has been her wont since becoming of media interest, deflected gender discussions.

There were other sources of frustration. She responded to a perceived slight by wrecking longtime friend and rival Sam Hornish Jr., on the cool-down lap at Talladega, sent Reed Sorenson spinning while attempting a risky pass in the Nationwide race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- eliciting a rebuke from Eury -- and wrecked herself attempting to retaliate against Landon Cassill in a Sprint Cup race at Kansas.

Patrick said her first season of complete NASCAR saturation was a "little bit better and easier than I thought it would be," and there was promise by the middle of the summer, albeit unfulfilled.

"I think even in the middle we were running so much better," she said. "The thing I remember feeling was how we were so much faster in practice. We really came up in the middle of the year, early on in the middle, and then we had those great road-course races.

"Our short-track races got a lot better, but it just seemed like any time we were about to have a really good day, a really good finish, something happened, whether it was hitting a shoe or blowing a right front, or things like that, getting taken out on the first lap, a blown tire or a yellow flag that messed up our strategy. It turned out to be a really trying summer."

Country conversion

Patrick clearly has enjoyed NASCAR culture, from the atmosphere of the migrating community that is the motor coach lot, to the rural sensibility of her crewmen. Many of these new friends have made it a personal crusade to persuade Patrick to humor, if not actually become a fan of, country music.

A professed fan of grunge, Patrick long resisted. "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" still dumbfounds her, but she has relented on the genre. All it took was appearing in a music video.

"I do like country music now, and this is Miranda Lambert's fault," Patrick admitted. "But if it's anyone's fault, it ought to be hers, right? I got asked to be in her video. I knew she was really amazing, very successful. I didn't even hear the song ['Fastest Girl in Town'] before I went to the shoot. I went home and I bought her new CD and her Pistol Annies CD, and I was like, you know what? I think I like country music."

Four bearers

Eury was seemingly the perfect choice to shepherd Patrick from her first tests in a stock car with JR Motorsports in 2009 to her first full season. Demanding but personable and with an old-school sensibility that would immediately immerse Patrick in the rustic nuances of NASCAR, the cousin and former crew chief of Earnhardt Jr. was also versed in the ballet of managing a driver yoked by heightened expectation and fame.

The relationship worked well, personally, but as Patrick, 30, slogged through a summer of disappointment, Eury and JRM co-owner Earnhardt and vice president Earnhardt-Miller found their philosophical differences over the direction of the company untenable. Tony Eury Sr. was replaced by competition director Pemberton, and within two weeks Eury Jr. left the company -- in which he had an ownership stake -- with Pemberton replacing him as crew chief the final seven races. Patrick has been the fifth best points-earner in the series since Pemberton took over.

"I wouldn't say a bad thing about Tony Jr., ever," she said. "I love him. I think he's great. I love his attitude. I think he can get pretty emotional and fired up, but so can I. We got along great.

"Tony Gibson is kind of along the same vein, a good old boy, and I just like that style. But I think what we're doing now is we're definitely using more Hendrick [Motorsports] resources, so I think that's just making a big difference. I think we're putting focus and effort on areas of the car that we hadn't before, and we're maximizing the potential of the car a little more."

A Sprint Cup change was more orderly and premeditated, as veteran Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli ceded to former Ryan Newman crew chief Tony Gibson for Patrick's last two races of the season. The interminably positive and highly regarded Gibson, who has won three titles at NASCAR's top level as a car chief, guided Patrick to her best Cup finishes of the season: 24th at Texas and 17th at Phoenix.

Road to somewhere

Though Patrick's results on non-ovals were sporadic in IndyCar -- she finished second at Detroit in 2007 but recorded one career podium on non-ovals -- she became a factor among the twists and turns of the Nationwide Series schedule. Patrick led briefly (although not officially) and was racing in the top 5 on the last lap at Road America before being shunted into a runoff and a 12th-place finish by Jacques Villeneuve. She ran out front for 20 laps at Montreal before a combination of unrelated mechanical problems relegated her to a 27th-place finish.

The sublime

"The shoe," Patrick said. "That goes down as a weird one."

A brown, sensible-looking shoe was the prop for one of the oddest moments of the NASCAR season when it was chucked over a fence under caution and into the path of a field of cars led by Patrick in Montreal. It rumbled underneath Patrick's No. 7 Chevrolet, coinciding roughly with the beginning of a series of mechanical maladies, but was not culpable, Eury said.

Still, the shoe became a sort of odd symbol of a sometimes odd season. Series director Joe Balash took possession of it once the perpetrator was apprehended, Eury said. Perhaps he'll have it bronzed and mounted for mantel display at Patrick's home.

Patrick bit back any anger she felt after being rammed by Villeneuve at Road America, but Eury couldn't. His pit road egress brought him conveniently past Villeneuve as he slinked from his race car, and a terse exchange that seemed primed for escalation ensued. Eury defamed Villeneuve's family name and his racing code afterward -- actually saying the Canadian did so himself with his repeated transgressions -- and received hearty congratulations from his peers in the garage for doing so.

The start/finish line

Patrick, on completing all 513 laps of a Nationwide-Sprint Cup weekend and finishing 12th in the Nationwide race at Darlington Raceway, one of the most bedeviling on the circuit: "That was a turning point for me in general, I think, of people believing in me. That is one of those tracks that can really test your limits and comfort and ability to cope with something different and new.

"So I think people are kind of like, 'Wow, OK, all right, she can do this.' And I think confidence is a very important thing. I think that came from not only the garage, but from the fans, too. And it gave me confidence. I felt more confident coming away, going, 'Holy s---, if I can take Darlington, and be respectable out there …'"