Danica needs repetition to learn
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The irony of Danica Patrick's rookie season in the Sprint Cup Series was that her greatest achievement and greatest weakness involved qualifying.
She began the 2013 season by becoming the first female to win a pole in the Cup series, which served as a springboard to a season-best eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500. Thereafter, qualifying became her single most-identified weakness, according to crew chief Tony Gibson and Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli.
Help seemingly was on the way with a new qualifying format allowing teams to make multiple runs in timed sessions. Perhaps with more opportunities, the thought was, Patrick could improve her poor average starting position of 30.1 in 2013.
However, Gibson doesn't think the new system will help because cars will still be prepared for one all-out lap. In qualifying, teams tape over air ducts left open in races to cool the motor, increasing aerodynamic performance but spiking engine heat to levels that could cause a terminal failure with prolonged duration.
"Your car is only the best when fully blocked off, less amount of drag, tires good when nice and cold and fresh. After that, they will not run any faster. " he said. "You can't run fully taped for more than two laps or you will burn the motor down."
An exception, Gibson said, could be at Bristol Motor Speedway or Martinsville Speedway, where tire wear is minimal and the track distance short.
"You can run multiple laps on tires," he said. "It's more about a rhythm."
Patrick found that rhythm in her first use of the new format in the season-opening Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway. The restrictor-plate veteran in a Turner Scott Motorsports contingent of rookie Dylan Kwasniewski and Kyle Larson -- a Nationwide newcomer last season who has advanced to Cup -- Patrick spirited the trio through traffic on the backstretch and helped Kwasniewski win his first pole in the series.
There are going to be some times it's going to be a total disaster. ... Like when we go to short tracks, I can't imagine what it's going to be like.Danica Patrick
Despite qualifying third in the Nationwide race, Patrick expressed wariness over the new format, saying, "There are going to be some times it's going to be a total disaster. Like when we go to short tracks, I can't imagine what it's going to be like. This, there's plenty of room, people can go wherever, there's many, many lanes, it's all about momentum. But when you go to places like [half-mile] Bristol and Martinsville -- shoot, [1-mile] Phoenix -- short tracks in general, it's just going to be a really big challenge."
Gibson said that Patrick tested in qualifying configuration, or "trim," in offseason tests at Nashville and New Smyrna. The presence of retired driver Mark Martin as an SHR adviser also helps, he said. But most of the work will be up to Patrick, who, through repetition, must learn how to find the narrow band of speed and control in an all-out two-lap qualifying stint.
Phoenix International Raceway, recently paved and therefore less abrasive to tires, might be more forgiving in the new format, said Patrick's SHR teammate Kurt Busch. Protecting fresher, so-called "sticker" tires will be crucial, he said.
"Tire management will be key," he said. "A set of sticker tires versus scuffs can be three-tenths. Three-tenths on the stopwatch in normal qualifying is first to 25th [place]. So that'll be interesting to see how that is balanced out. You can't cool the cars down during qualifying runs. So we'll have to let the rough edges drag in the beginning of qualifying sessions to see what patterns develop. But places like Phoenix, the tires don't drop off very quickly.
"Vegas, they're OK, but Fontana, you're going to get that one good lap and then you're going to wish you had stickers on, and that's when it's going to be very difficult to control a car at qualifying speeds with old tires."
The system -- characterized by veteran drivers at Daytona as "a lot hairier than I thought" and "just chaos at first" -- was not used for the 500 but will be used in the remaining three restrictor-plate races this season. Those assessments came after weather wiped out the final two Nationwide knockout segments. Although the opportunity for spectacle increases, so does the opportunity for large gains maybe, Patrick said.
"I think there is some potential for some highs and lows in that," she said. "I think there's more elements, there's more variables. There's 43 of us out there trying to get our run in in the beginning so we can cool it down for the second session. There will be things that go on that are unexpected, and they will benefit you some days and not other days."