Danica Patrick seems to be spinning her wheels
DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The young men with the beers in their hands and the sway in their hips were in full voice attempting to garner Danica Patrick's attention from their seats behind the catch fence. Judging by her and her team's attempts not to laugh out loud as they stood in rank and file on pit road Saturday at Darlington Raceway, it was working.
The lads' rendition of the national anthem was pitchy but ardent, and when they noticed that their serenade had coincided with Patrick smiling, it got louder. One of the more creative of the lot even inserted her name into a verse: "O say does that star-spangled Da-ni-ca-ah yet wave?" Clever.
There's never a dull moment, in the prerace festivities or on the track, for Sprint Cup's most celebrated rookie.
1. Unfulfilled: Patrick's season-opening splash at the Daytona 500 -- winning the pole, leading laps, finishing eighth -- stoked legitimate expectations for a return to restrictor-plate racing at Talladega. Her weekend was marred from the start, however, when qualifying was washed out and starting order was set by practice times. Bogged deeper in the field (23rd) to start than her past plate success would have predicted had she been able to qualify, she spent much of the race trying to advance through the pack. She eventually neared the top 10 only to get snared in a late wreck, finishing 33rd.
Darlington proved to be a similar tangle, as a practice wreck sent her to a backup car her team couldn't ready for mock qualifying runs because of limited practice time. She finished the demanding course again, rallying late to place 28th, but it didn't feel like a quantum improvement over her 31st-place result as a first-timer last season.
2. Blank slate: The new Gen-6 race car has not been so much a clean sheet of paper that reduces the information/experience gap between Patrick and her peers as it has erased the institutional knowledge she gained in three previous NASCAR seasons. "From the beginning of the season until now, this car is challenging," Patrick said, when asked if her 28th-place finish at Darlington showed growth from a 31st last season. "This car is hard to nail. It's tough to get it right, and we're still working on that. We went to Nashville last week for a couple days and tried to figure out what baseline setup I need to drive the car, and that's what we brought here and we'll work on it."
3. Qualified success: Granted, she concedes, there is vast room for improvement for what has been one of the slower-developing facets of her progression as a stock-car driver, but a 25th-place qualifying performance at Kansas and 30th at Richmond represent her second- and third-best results of the season besides the Daytona 500 pole. She started 23rd at Talladega on practice time when qualifying was rained out.
4. Squabblin's racin': Patrick has believed that David Gilliland races her with a different code of conduct than other drivers since her 2012 race at Darlington, and her frustration gurgled over the team radio following another perceived slight at Kansas. Gilliland responded, through a team spokesperson, "Shut up and race." Hey, tough words. Tougher if you deliver them in person.
5. Open book: Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are not shying away from personal aspects of their relationship. Whether discussing their dining habits -- she cooks, he eats -- taking in a Blackhawks game or discussing each other in television interviews, the power couple continues to masterfully navigate what had the potential to be a distracting sidebar to their rookie seasons. Things are good, she said, so it feels right talking about it.