Every four weeks during the Sprint Cup season we'll offer five observations of Danica Patrick's performance. This is the first installment.
At Daytona, Danica Patrick became the first female to win a Sprint Cup pole, and the first to lead laps under green and finish as high as eighth in NASCAR's signature event.
At Phoenix, she had a blown tire and was involved in a violent collision.
At Las Vegas, she was hit in the head with a rock while attending a dirt track race.
Bristol seemed to pass without any similar calamity, but a tone had been set. The confetti had cleared from the Daytona 500, and the rough business of learning to be a Sprint Cup driver was going to be strenuous.
Patrick and crew chief Tony Gibson need to solve the handling problems she's had since the series moved off the high banks of Daytona and onto the type of intermediate and short tracks that make up most of the schedule. With scant offseason testing and a new Gen-6 car to grasp, that figures to be a difficult test, as Patrick is just 14 races into her Cup career.
1. This looks a lot like Patrick's first full Nationwide season: In Patrick's full-time foray into NASCAR's second-tier series last year, little glimmers of progress were apparent, but the long slog of 33 races exposed weaknesses and tested her resolve. Patrick's recent Daytona 500 performance was significant, but the incursion into the 36-race Cup schedule has so far been the travail it was expected to be.
2. This will take longer than mainstream America's attention span can last: If Patrick is to become proficient enough to create more Daytona-like spikes in performance, it will not come quickly, no matter how made-for-TV-perfect the season opener made it look. Her old friend and IndyCar foil, Sam Hornish Jr., is an apt comparison: A three-time IndyCar champion, he needed four seasons to round into a title contender in the Nationwide Series. This is going to take a while.
3. Stewart-Haas Racing is struggling as a whole: Patrick's race team is in a mire because of a noxious mix of middling performance and racing incidents beyond control. Ryan Newman is 23rd in points, Tony Stewart 24th and Patrick 28th, the rookie having managed five of the team's eight laps led.
4. Talladega is the next highlighter weekend: Patrick's history-making in the Daytona 500 reinforced her affinity for restrictor-plate racing. She gets her next chance at Talladega Superspeedway on May 5. There are three intermediate tracks and two short tracks in between, with Texas and Kansas -- sites of two of her Nationwide top-10s -- crucial chances to build momentum.
5. If the season ended today: She would be the Sprint Cup rookie of the year. Although Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 11th in driver points and has not finished worse than 18th, he trails Patrick by a point because her top-10 finish in the Daytona 500 was worth eight bonus points.
Atwitter: Danica Patrick @DanicaPatrick. New clock in the @godaddy hauler...... http://img.ly/thu2