In Danica Patrick's biggest race, trust was key
Danica Patrick had very little fuel, very few laps left and very little margin for error. She had a few doubts but a copious amount of newfound trust in race strategist Kyle Moyer.
He had assured her numerous times that April day in 2008 at Twin Ring Motegi, Japan, that her fuel-conservation efforts amid their cagey pit strategy would allow her to outlast the IndyCars racing in front of her. Those other cars would all require pit stops in the final laps. She would pass. She would become the first woman to win a major North American-series professional race.
It worked. Trust was rewarded.
"Once she got that confidence in me, she'd do anything you ask," said Moyer, who is still at Andretti Autosport as general manager. " If she doesn't believe in you, she will question it."
Different race car drivers require different traits from their crew chiefs. Some need a cheerleader, some a psychologist, some a mechanic.
Patrick prefers a proven ally who trusts her in return. From the beginning of her stock car odyssey in 2009, she had such in Tony Eury Jr. His departure from her JR Motorsports Nationwide Series program last month has left her trying to form a rapport with interim crew chief Ryan Pemberton as she concludes the final four races of her tenure there.
In Sprint Cup, she has such a bond with Greg Zipadelli, but he will cede the pit box for her full-time launch next season with Stewart-Haas Racing to Tony Gibson, Ryan Newman's crew chief. Gibson takes over beginning next week, Stewart-Haas confirmed Friday.
Those who have worked with Patrick as either crew chief or the equivalently empowered race strategist in IndyCar commonly list trust among her most elemental of necessities. That's because it proved vital in one of the most crucial moments of her career.
If not for the confidence Moyer established with her on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., two weeks before the Motegi race, Patrick might not have scored her lone big league win. On that day, too, Moyer had devised a fuel-saving regimen for their second race together, and Patrick was wary. She complied, however, finished 10th and grew to trust Moyer.
"That was my first year with her, and at St. Pete, it was really, really bad," Moyer said. "It was a fight between her and me, 'You can do this,' 'No, I can't, I'm going too slow' and everything. You look at it after and say, 'OK, that turned out pretty good.'"
With a baseline of mutual respect and competence established, Moyer said, mistakes are forgiven, diagnosed and used as benchmarks for improvement.
Gibson brings a combination of technical expertise and affable demeanor. Involved in three Sprint Cup championships as car chief for Jeff Gordon and Alan Kulwicki, Gibson also shares a characteristic with Moyer and Eury in being eager to undertake a potentially historic, undoubtedly highly scrutinized project.
Patrick said in September that at this point in her stock car career, she was on a "trust basis" in believing Stewart-Haas would make the proper selection. She said she selected JR Motorsports for her first full-time Nationwide Series campaign for the same reason.
"For me to be involved in the process," she said, "really, it's nice when they don't just sort of drop things on you. Sometimes, I guess, in light of [Eury leaving the organization], it can't be helped, but it is nice to be informed along the way, and that's all I can ask for, or really need at this point."
Although Eury had been more vocally critical of Patrick in the final weeks of their tenure, they appeared to have established a strong bond since her first stock test in 2009. At various points this season, especially in the first months when she was encountering situations and venues for the first time, she praised Eury over team radio for properly reacting to her feedback, either by heeding or disregarding it.
At Las Vegas this spring, she thanked him for "being a veteran" after he opted not to make a requested correction to the No. 7 Chevrolet that he knew was counterproductive. Patrick went on to finish 12th, her best of the season until finishing eighth at Texas. Eury displayed allegiance outside the car also, sparring verbally in a heated exchange with Jacques Villeneuve after his last-lap bull rush knocked Patrick out of a top-5 spot at Road America this summer.
"I think the things I have learned so far have been that I need someone who is going to trust me no matter how crazy I sound in the car and how far they have to go in the car to make me feel comfortable," Patrick said. "I feel like it keeps my confidence up when I can tell him what the car is doing and they continue to follow my feeling throughout the process.
"Eventually you get to the point where you can get the most out of the car from the get-go and the car is receiving all the right inputs that make it feel the way it is intended to feel. Just patience with me and to stay upbeat and not get frustrated."
Patrick enters the Nationwide race at Kansas Speedway this weekend 10th in points. Her Sprint Cup start will be her eighth of a scheduled 10.
Moyer, who worked with Patrick for only the 2008 season -- helping her finish sixth in driver points -- said she is adept at sensing how a car is performing but seeks suggestions on solutions from her crew chief. She is not unusual in this regard, he said, but added that those who can assess and diagnose -- such as Jimmie Johnson, Gordon and Dario Franchitti -- "tend to have [championship] rings on their fingers."
"I believe she feels a little bit of the, 'You're here for a reason: to make my car quicker. I'm here for a reason: to drive the s--- out of it and tell you what's going wrong and right,'" he said.
Such was the formula for Patrick's Motegi victory. Sort of. Moyer's strategy forced her to race conservatively, which even for a driver as calculating as Patrick was at times maddening. Moyer informed Patrick after a final fuel stop that under their strategy, she had, in essence, a 30-second lead on the field.
Patrick had to slink into eighth place trading horsepower for lesser fuel consumption, then watched Helio Castroneves assume the lead on Lap 196 of 200 as the rest of the top six had to pit for fuel. Castroneves held a 1.7-second lead over Patrick on Lap 197 but yielded to conserve enough fuel to finish the race.
"With a couple laps to go, she saw him start to drop, and she thought, 'OK, we've got him now,'" Moyer recalled. "And then, of course, there's always the check, you know. About a lap and a half to go she said, 'Are you sure?' and we said, 'Yeah, we're sure. We're good.'"
Trust had been rewarded. The quest for another such relationship, and the elusive next win, soon begins.