Danica Patrick is showing signs of progress

Peter Casey/USA TODAY Sports

The .526-mile, paper clip-shaped track at Martinsville generally eats up rookies, but Danica Patrick stunned her crew with a 12th-place finish.

The month began with Danica Patrick reading to children on the South Lawn of the White House during the annual Easter Egg Roll. It also has included being hoisted into the air so a former member of the Dream Team could get a proper photograph during the drivers' meeting at Texas Motor Speedway.

In between there's been some racing, too. And some encouraging racing, at that, at one of NASCAR's trickiest venues.

Five Observations:

1. The more impossible the challenge, the better Patrick responds: Little short of an unmitigated spectacle seemed to be the expected outcome for her first trip to the .526-mile, paper clip-shaped grinder that is Martinsville Speedway. But despite starting in the back after changing an engine -- which she admitted breaking while shifting in practice -- Patrick overcame a spin, a hail of traffic and all of the animosity that comes with short-track racing to produce a 12th-place finish. Crew chief Tony Gibson deemed the result stunning.

2. Rookie of the year award is not out of the question: Yes, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is a talented and accomplished driver, but his debut season at NASCAR's highest level has looked more like his transition to the Nationwide Series than when he was winning titles there the past two seasons. The system used to determine the top rookie pits the competitors directly against each other and assigns points accordingly. Patrick, 26th in points, has a top-10. Stenhouse, 20th, doesn't, and has seen his finishes worsen the past three races. Patrick, meanwhile, has improved her finish position every race except Texas since a season-worst 39th at Phoenix.

3. Finding a baseline comfort remains tricky: When a race goes poorly for Patrick, especially on intermediate tracks, the typical diagnosis has been an ill-handling race car. Such was the case again at Texas. Finding the right combination of grip, power and handling is the weekly monotony of stock car racing, and even with the progress they have made in their short time together, Patrick and Gibson continue to grope for consistency.

4. She's gaining respect: Patrick's on-the-job training in the Nationwide Series appeared to occasionally rankle her opponents, either because the apex of her learning curve sometimes cut off their racing line, or they simply felt the newcomer was soaking in an inordinate amount of attention. But her efforts have seemed to engender respect with her Cup peers, audibly notable in Clint Bowyer's compliments at Martinsville.

5. Everybody still wants some of her time: Former NBA All-Star Karl Malone so wanted a photograph of Patrick during the drivers' meeting at Texas that he hoisted her into his arms to mitigate the height difference. There is no recorded instance of this happening to Mark Martin.

Atwitter: Patrick's boyfriend, Stenhouse Jr., is an avid golfer, but she apparently got the best of him during some down time in Dallas, judging by this photograph. (Note her T-shirt, by the way. It's the race car driver's slant on the letterman's jacket, perhaps).

Danica Patrick ‏ @DanicaPatrick
What just happened?!?! Thank you @ljdgolf for my instruction=victory! http://img.ly/u4Qr

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