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Wednesday, February 13, 2013
For Danica, 2013 could be over the top

By Brant James

It was going to be an interesting year already. Danica Patrick, one of the more polarizing drivers in recent memory, transitioning from a brief tutelage in NASCAR's Nationwide Series to stock car racing's big leagues was certain to generate copious amounts of attention, praise, scrutiny and scorn.

Then came the announcement of Patrick's pending divorce in November. Then came rumors, and finally a confirmation, of a romantic relationship between Patrick and fellow Sprint Cup rookie of the year candidate Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Now things are really interesting. With less than a week until Patrick's first full-time Cup campaign commences, here are 13 storylines certain to weave through the season:

1. More milestones: Though she has just one win as a big-league professional -- the Motegi, Japan, IndyCar race in 2008 -- she keeps reaching milestones first. That will continue this season.

The first woman to finish as high as third in the Indianapolis 500, the first to finish a NASCAR race as high as fourth and a season as high as 10th, Patrick will make history when she undertakes the first full season by a woman in Sprint Cup.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, she will eclipse Janet Guthrie's 1977 record of 19 starts at NASCAR's highest level.

2. Ricky of the Year: Patrick and Stenhouse acknowledged in January that they had become romantically involved, momentarily quelling the public fervor for the topic. Competing against each other full time for the Sprint Cup rookie of the year award does not figure to make the drama go away.

Every action and reaction when Patrick's No. 10 Chevrolet and Stenhouse's No. 17 Ford come within proximity of each other is likely to be divined for deeper meaning. And all eyes will be watching to see how Stenhouse reacts when Patrick has the inevitable confrontation with another driver.

3. Let the griping begin: Just 70 races into her stock car career, Patrick has one top-5 [fourth at Las Vegas in 2011] and seven top-10s. She is incredibly raw for an ascent to the sport's big leagues.

The question of whether she belongs will be renewed by critics with each mundane performance, and there should be many. Sprint Cup has been notoriously tough on rookie drivers.

But the bottom line is this: If a sponsor wishes to apply millions of dollars to fund her program, and if a team -- one that won the 2011 Cup title with owner/driver Tony Stewart -- wants her on its roster, that's all the belonging needed.

4. New chief in town: Tony Gibson combines the plain-spoken Southern sensibility Patrick so seems to enjoy and the zeal for technical concept in one effusively positive package. Their chemistry and results felt immediate late last season when Greg Zipadelli ceded his spot atop Patrick's pit box to afford the pair a head start into 2013.

In her final Cup race of the season -- her second with Gibson -- Patrick finished 17th at Phoenix, her best result of the year. Gibson, who brought his "pack of wolves" pit crew, the core of which has been together 11 years, said, "For us, the sky's the limit."

5. Off the Daytona Beach springboard: In 2011, Patrick burst from a 14th-place Nationwide finish at Daytona to fourth place at Las Vegas two races later in what proved to be a gilded start to her NASCAR career.

Last season, she was involved in wrecks in both prerace sessions and the Cup and Nationwide races. A humbling start to the season had her and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. reassessing goals.

What will it be this time?

6. New car smell: The "Gen-6" race car debuting this season should level the field, as there remain unknowns about how it will handle in unbridled race situations.

Much of the information accumulated by teams the past five years, particularly regarding setups, will not apply. Whether that will negate the paucity of test time Patrick had this offseason will be a key early question.

7. Can she win? Restrictor plate tracks such as Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway often have been the scene of upset victories. Patrick has an affinity for the draft-dependent style of pack racing endemic to these hulking tracks and has her best chance to shine there.

Patrick was highly competitive on road courses in the Nationwide Series and made great improvement by the end of 2012, not only in terms of on-track performance but in her ability to diagnose the mechanical needs of a car. She put herself in position for strong finishes for longer stretches of time.

In racing a shorter Nationwide season this year, it is unlikely she will reach Victory Lane. A top-5 finish would not surprise, though.

8. Popular signs: Patrick was voted most popular driver in six of her seven IndyCar series and also last year in her first full-time NASCAR season in the Nationwide Series.

Now she finds herself in the toughest popularity contest of her career, pitted against former employer and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. The son and namesake of one of the most celebrated drivers in the sport's history has been dubbed Sprint Cup's most popular driver for 10 consecutive seasons.

Patrick joked that she doesn't "want to make any [peers] mad," but she is savvy enough to realize her reach.

"Dale obviously has a huge following, and he does a great job, and he deserves it," she said. "We'll just play it by day."

9. No. 10 it is: There will be a No. 7 Chevrolet in NASCAR's top series this season, owned and operated by Tommy Baldwin Racing, which partnered with Stewart-Haas to administer Patrick's Cup program in 2012. It will not be driven by Patrick.

There likely will be some confusion among casual fans, as Patrick drove a No. 7 last season, albeit in the Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports. All of her Cup races have been, and will continue to be, campaigned in No. 10.

There was speculation in the offseason she might be interested in the No. 7 for her full-time Cup launch, but the number is of family significance to Baldwin.

10. Shiny, happy Patrick: If Patrick is emotionally roiling about the conclusion of her seven-year marriage to Paul Hospenthal, she is masterful in concealing it. She seems completely at ease with her new normal personally and comfortable and content with her place at Stewart-Haas racing.

"She is more happy than she has been in a long time," said her father, T.J. Patrick. "She's back to herself."

11. Nationwide on her side: Patrick's full-time job in Sprint Cup portends to be difficult, unforgiving and, at times, frustrating.

Eury, her former Nationwide crew chief, advocated for another full season in the series. He said it would be a "blessing" if Patrick could produce a top-10 Cup finish.

Her abbreviated Nationwide schedule this year should be as much a respite as a proving ground. Patrick hopes to gain confidence she can apply to Sprint Cup. Supporting her theory, her double-duty weekends at difficult venues such as Darlington and Bristol proved to be some of the most productive of her 2012 season.

12. The grind: Patrick competed in 33 Nationwide and 10 Sprint Cup events last season in what was the busiest schedule of her career. She seemed refreshed and fit through the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which is partly attributable to her well-regulated personal-fitness regimen.

This season she is scheduled to contest even more, with a 36-race Cup slate and an anticipated 10 in Nationwide.

13. Dream scenario: Picture Patrick and teammate/team owner Stewart drafting with each other all afternoon in the Daytona 500, running out front on the final lap.

Stewart has never won NASCAR's greatest race in 14 tries. A win for Patrick would be landmark for her, Stewart-Haas and NASCAR. Would he push her to victory or make a move for himself on the final turn?

Answer: Sorry, rookie.