A little of the gloss is off the rose known as Danica Patrick after a difficult and disappointing season.
Not only did the IndyCar glamour girl slip from fifth to 10th in the open-wheel points – her worst finish since finishing 12th as a rookie in 2005 – but Patrick’s first foray into stock car racing was less than stunning.
She got off to a solid start with a sixth-place finish in the ARCA race at Daytona in February, but in 13 NASCAR Nationwide Series events, Patrick’s best finish was 19th at the season finale in Homestead. It was a struggle for her to just stay on the lead lap in most of her NASCAR races.
But it wasn’t a total failure by any means. Patrick visibly improved as the season went on, putting a solid dent into the huge learning curve that comes with jumping from a small, agile Indy car to a bulky, heavy stock car.
Patrick plans to be back in a JR Motorsports entry for a similar NASCAR schedule in 2011.
“I’m really looking forward to putting all the things I learned this year to work next year,’’ she said. “At Homestead, I felt a lot more comfortable with everything – the car, the track, the traffic, everything.’’
That’s good news for the promoters, who are looking for anything that will help them put fannies in the seats. And, for good or bad, Patrick does just that.
But is quick to acknowledge that her IZOD IndyCar Series ride with Andretti Autosports, and the Indianapolis 500 in particular, remain her main focus
“While it’s been fun to try something new and learn a new car and a new series, my primary focus this year continued to be driving the No. 7 GoDaddy.com car for Andretti Autosport,’’ Patrick said.
“Overall, it’s been a challenging year, at least when you look solely at our results on track,’’ she added. “Coming off last year’s performance, when we finished fifth in the standings and led the way for our team, I had pretty high expectations. But, for whatever reason – probably a combination of deeper fields, a little bit of bad luck and a few tenths of a second here and there – we didn’t have as much success this year.’’
Of course, it wasn’t all bad.
“Despite some frustrating days, there were certainly some highlights,’’ Patrick noted. “After a tough month of May at Indianapolis, race day came around and we made the most of what we had. We made up 17 spots during the day and drove to a sixth-place finish.
“As badly as I want to win Indy, this wasn’t going to be the year. Nobody really had anything for (Indy winner) Dario Franchitti, and … I think we made the most of what we had.’’
The next week at Texas was even better for Patrick.
“All things considered, it was probably not only the best race of my season but probably also the best oval race of my career,’’ she said. “We were strong all weekend and in the race. We ran in the top five the whole time. And I really managed my car well in Texas (in finishing second to Ryan Briscoe).’’
She noted that a strong finish to the season built some momentum for next year.
“We ran fifth in Japan and then won a tough battle with Tony Kanaan to finish second at Homestead,’’ Patrick explained. “Like I said, it’s been a tough year and it’s been very frustrating at times, but the last two races were a nice way to end the season.’’
Patrick said the most important thing was that everybody on her team stayed focused and kept digging hard throughout the year.
“We revised things as we went along,’’ She said. “We said, `This isn’t working for us; what do we need to do to improve?’ And, we adapted.
“It’s what you need to do as a team,’’ Patrick said. “And, my engineers, my mechanics, they all kept their confidence in me. And they did a fantastic job.’’
Next season could be a watershed year for Patrick. She needs to get back to being a week-in, week-out competitor in IndyCar and to keep improving in NASCAR.
At 28 years old, Patrick still has time to get the job done in both arenas. It should be fun to watch.