Subpar qualifying has hurt Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick began her rookie Sprint Cup season leading the field to the green flag in the Daytona 500. She's come nowhere close in seven subsequent races.
She doesn't need to be told her qualifying performances have been subpar. She knows it. But the remedy might be found while resolving broader problems, she said, rather than by focusing just on one quick lap every weekend.
"I was over talking to [owner/teammate] Tony [Stewart] after practice and said, 'Look, I gotta figure out how to qualify better,' " she said Friday at Kansas Speedway. "And a lot of the runs, there have been obvious issues, whether it be really loose or really tight or having a moment at the end of the first lap which leads into the next lap, which kills both of them.
"There's been reasons, but all in all it's not necessarily my strong area, and I know that."
Patrick's pole in the season-opening Daytona 500 was historic. It was the first for a female at NASCAR's highest level and became a highly celebrated precursor to a race in which she set gender history by leading laps under green.
But Patrick quickly asserted, as she had in 2012 after winning the pole for the season-opening Nationwide event at Daytona, that her feat was more about the engineering and setup of her car. Qualifying at restrictor-plate tracks is about floor-board speed around a broad 2.5-mile track (or 2.66 in the case of Talladega Superspeedway) and a well-prepared car that can exploit it.
Qualifying at smaller tracks with less forgiving banking requires more nuance from the driver and a razor-thin balance of engineered performance and comfort. Patrick and her race team have struggled with that parlay so far.
It is no coincidence that many of the problems Patrick has experienced in races have been attributed to ill-handling race cars.
"I think the best thing we can do at this point and time is to try and get a car underneath me that I feel comfortable with and try to develop a good platform that we can go each and every weekend to these mile-and-a-halves and the short tracks then, too, and just know what I have," she said. "It's just knowing what you have underneath you so that you know what it's going to do when you push it."
Former Sprint Cup champion and ESPN analyst Dale Jarrett agreed that finding a baseline comfort zone for all facets is likely the best remedy for Patrick. He thought before the season that the increased downforce of the new Gen-6 Sprint Cup car would benefit Patrick but said the increased speeds have been a detriment.
"There's a lot of drivers out there that aren't great qualifiers," he said. "You can go back to Dale Earnhardt: Great champion, not a great qualifier. Now certainly, we're not talking down where Danica is, but he kind of experienced that. Even her boss, Tony Stewart, is not one of the greatest qualifiers you will find. He has his moments where he does that, but Tony is more in race mode with his mind-set. It is a difficult thing.
"I think as an organization, if they can work to find something that will give them the security and that little bit of speed they are all lacking, we would see them all move up the board."
Patrick qualified 25th for the race Sunday, her highest start -- excluding the Daytona pole -- since a 23rd-position at Atlanta last year. Her average in eight starts this season is 33.2, and it's 34.3 for her career. She has qualified 40th or worse four times this season.
Though a qualifying position deep in the field can be overcome with the right combination of talent, strategy and racing fortune, navigating waves of traffic is a perilous formula for a strong finish. Every car in front is an uncontrollable variable.
Patrick's Nationwide qualifying began to improve last season in her third campaign. She followed the Daytona pole with starts of ninth (Iowa), third (Charlotte), fifth (Michigan), third (Daytona), fourth (Montreal) and eighth (Texas), which were encouraging considering that encompassed superspeedways, intermediates, a short track and a road course.
"Once I really got comfortable in the car, understood it and what it did when you pushed it, and obviously developed a setup that I am comfortable with, things really changed," Patrick said. "All of a sudden it was like a light switch. And I was like, 'All right, I am actually not so bad at qualifying these things anymore.'
"So, it took time. I'm sure it does happen like that with me. All of a sudden something happens, and I feel more comfortable and there's more speed there. But it doesn't stop me from pushing now and trying to figure out how to get better at it."
ESPN.com's David Newton contributed to this report.