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CUP: Top 10 Stories – No. 7, Danica’s Year Of Hard Knocks

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When car owner Tony Stewart put together Danica Patrick’s 10-race schedule for her first season of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing, he vowed to make it as hard as possible. And he proved true to his word.

Patrick ran the full NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule in 2012 and a partial Sprint Cup schedule in preparation to moving to Cup full-time with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2013. Her just-completed season proved to be more of a learning experience than a quest for good finishes, especially on the Cup side.

The hard knocks started early.

Patrick got wrecked on the second lap of the Daytona 500, finishing 38th. From there, Patrick had a 31st-place finish at Darlington, followed by a 30th-place run in the Coca-Cola 600 and a pair of 29th-place finishes at Bristol and Atlanta. Then came a 25th-place result at Chicagoland Speedway and a 28th at Dover.

In the fall race at Kansas Speedway, Patrick was angry at getting hit by Landon Cassill, so she tried to wreck him deliberately. Instead, she wound up crashing herself out, finishing 32nd.

But then things got a little bit better. Prior to the Texas race in November, Stewart moved crew chief Tony Gibson from Ryan Newman’s car to Patrick’s, and she promptly went out and finished 24th, her best Cup result of the year up to that point.

She then bettered that with a 17th at Phoenix, which might have been a top-10 had she not gotten hit by Jeff Burton in the closing laps.

On the Nationwide Series side, Patrick ended the year 10th in points, becoming the highest-finishing female driver in the history of NASCAR's three national series. The previous record was held by Sara Christian, who finished 13th in 1949 in the Cup series. Patrick was also named the NNS Most Popular Driver.

Mostly, though, she’ll remember 2012 as a year of learning.

“That is a lot of transitions and a lot of changes and a lot of things to get used to whether it is new cars, new schedules or new crew chief,” Patrick said. “It’s just been a lot to get used to, but I think that it all helps me adapt quicker. It helps me focus on being more specific with my words and being more (precise) with what I want. There has been a lot that I have learned, for sure, and I have a lot left to learn. Just understanding the cars and how they change from practice to the race, and how they change throughout the race, those are things that are just so much more unique to NASCAR than they are to IndyCar, I feel.”

As for next year, Gibson will remain Patrick’s crew chief, and he vowed to keep expectations realistic.

“She puts more pressure on herself to do good because the media puts pressure on her to do good,” Gibson said of Patrick. “For us, it’s all about learning and growing together. Like I told her, we are going to set small goals and achievable goals for us. Whether if it’s by the end of qualifying practice to be on the left side of the board and qualify 25th, 23rd, 20th, 18th, let’s set goals that we can achieve together as a race team and grow together. I’m not putting any pressure on her or any set, ‘We’ve got to win a race or we’ve got to run a top five,’ so I’ll judge everything off how we are getting along, how our team is building, more than I am results.”

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.