The frustration on Danica Patrick’s face was evident when she walked into the Atlanta Motor Speedway Media Center after Friday’s 90-minute NASCAR Sprint Cup practice session.
Like at Bristol Motor Speedway a week earlier, Patrick had struggled mightily during practice, posting the 42nd-fastest time among the 47 cars that set time at the 1.54-mile track. Her best lap was nearly 1.5 seconds slower than the time set by Martin Truex Jr.
“I was having all kinds of fun out there this afternoon,” Patrick said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
Without question, Patrick has struggled trying to adapt to the heavy, ungainly NASCAR Sprint Cup cars, which have more horsepower and less downforce than her NASCAR Nationwide Series cars do.
“For me that's always the issue coming to a new track and a new car, which is every time I drive the Cup car right now,” Patrick said. “It's always better for me to start off a little on the tight side because my confidence stays up where I feel like I was just pretty loose, and it's pretty hard for me to trust getting into the corner harder when I, you know, have spent most of my laps feeling like I was sideways.”
And yet, two hours later, Patrick went out and qualified a career-best 23rd for tomorrow night’s AdvoCare 500, out-qualifying such big names as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Truex, all of whom are in the top 10 in the Sprint Cup points standings.
It’s been that kind of season for Patrick.
Last week at Bristol, she was the slowest car in the field during practice, yet in the race, she was running in the top 20 on the lead lap when she got wrecked with 65 laps to go. Her weekend began and ended poorly, but she showed tremendous progress in the middle of the race.
The most interesting thing, maybe, about Patrick is this: Her only real goal this year is to run as many laps as she can and get as much experience as possible behind the wheel of a stock car.
“It's true when I say I just want to finish the laps,” Patrick said. “With the way it's gone in practice every time I've practiced the Cup car, which is basically like pretty much last, it's nice and refreshing in the race when things come around and I get faster and you pass cars and you move up. You know, you feel like you're getting the hang of it.”
Asked about her expectations, Patrick added, “I think it's going to take more time for me to set an expectation level for myself. I just need more time and more races.”
Patrick is probably the only driver in the Sprint Cup garage who has the luxury of only having to worry about making laps and learning tracks this season. While drivers like Joey Logano and Sam Hornish Jr. are trying to perform well enough to hold onto their jobs or get new ones, Patrick has no pressure whatsoever to perform — yet.
In fact, last week at Bristol, car owner Tony Stewart said the media needs to back off Danica and let her learn at her own pace.
Friday at Atlanta, Earnhardt, Patrick’s Nationwide Series owner, admitted Patrick has been given a free ride so far.
“I think you guys have for the most part handled her with kid gloves,” Earnhardt told reporters. “I didn’t think that the media has been that tough. It’s an interesting, compelling story, especially the closer she gets to going into the Cup series and everybody anticipating that entire process.”
Surely at some point, there will be expectations of Patrick above and beyond logging laps — expectations from the team, from sponsor GoDaddy.com, who already is phasing Patrick out of its advertising, and expectations from Patrick herself.
When that is remains to be seen.
But for right now, it’s just learn.
“I've had lots of really, really nice people tell me, ‘Good job,’ from last weekend,” Patrick said Friday. “Think that's what matters for me at this point is that I'm continuing to learn. I completed most all the laps. I got faster and faster as the race went on, got more and more competitive lap time-wise. Those are the things I need to focus on.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.