Progress has been slow for Danica
CONCORD, N.C. -- The few minutes of Coca-Cola 600 qualifying Tony Gibson could impact had passed more than a half-hour ago, but the crew chief hunched on the edge of a chair in the front chamber of Danica Patrick's hauler, squinting at the timing and scoring monitor on the far wall. Patrick was currently 22nd. Two cars had yet to qualify.
A top-25 starting spot was a prime goal of the weekend, Gibson said. When reminded that it was guaranteed even if Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer posted better times, he remained unswayed and virtually unblinking.
Of course, he already knew that. Then he chuckled, ever focused, but seemingly cognizant of how his vigil must have appeared to anyone not in an electric green crew shirt such as his.
"We set our goals a little different around here," he said, forefingers squeezing chin.
Such was the most recent segment of Patrick's debut season at NASCAR's highest level: some setbacks, gradual growth, perhaps imperceptible without a long, hard stare at the data.
1. Doppler effect: Patrick's quip this weekend at Pocono that rain-forced cancellation of qualifying would actually improve her starting position spoke to a continuing trend. Improving the quality of those mundane but crucial laps alone remains an as-yet-missing element of her development as a stock car driver. Patrick has an average start of 31.7 this season, with a best of just 23rd (Talladega) since winning the pole for the Daytona 500. Statistically, Patrick almost always improves during a race, so starting higher would seemingly be a logical next breakthrough.
2. Testing, testing: An increased Stewart-Haas Racing testing regimen has immediately yielded positive results for team owner/driver Tony Stewart -- who won at Dover and was fourth at Pocono -- and Ryan Newman, who has three top-10s in his past four races. Patrick's finishes have been nowhere close, but while recent test sessions as Nashville, Dover and Pocono were tasked with correcting the early-season ills of her veteran teammates, they may also serve to speed her NASCAR education. Every lap means something, even for veterans. For a driver still visiting tracks for the first time in a Cup car, they are crucial.
3. ROY not much of a race: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s Fenway organization and Patrick's Stewart-Haas Racing have underperformed this season -- although Stewart appears to have commenced his customary summer blitz -- but Stenhouse has methodically distanced himself from his lone full competition for the rookie of the year award. Stenhouse is 20th in driver points after showing some signs of a breakthrough recently. Patrick, meanwhile, hasn't produced a top-10 finish (they're worth bonus points in ROY standings tabulations) since finishing eighth in the Daytona 500.
4. Those crazy kids worked it out: Stenhouse's triggering a wreck that claimed Patrick late in the Coca-Cola 600 was met with breathless anticipation, especially when Patrick began questioning her crew to confirm her correct suspicions about the cause. Titillation increased when neither spoke directly to the media after the race, but following what Patrick admitted were "a few silent moments, for sure -- or many moments," the fated first tangle was put aside … until the inevitable next. It's not like working with your boyfriend at the snack bar.
5. Fans remain ardent: Fans who don't like Patrick click on stories about her to leave sneering comments. Fans who do love her vote for her in online popularity contests. While the battle to unseat 10-time defending champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. as NASCAR's "Most Popular Driver" remains afoot, Patrick's legion of loyal clickers sent her into the Sprint Cup All-Star race as the wild card.