Danica Patrick signs autographs for fans before taking her qualifying lap for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Michigan International Speedway. She will start 28th in today’s Pure Michigan 400.
THE BLADE/JEFFREY SMITH
BROOKLYN, Mich. — Two months ago in Michigan’s Irish Hills, Danica Patrick quietly drove to one of her best finishes in her first season of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup competition.
Yet that finish was lost in the chaos that came in the final laps of the June’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Jimmie Johnson lost his best chance to overtake eventual race winner Greg Biffle with three laps left when his right front tire blew out. And during the race, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kasey Kahne, and Kurt Busch succumbed to perils of the second turn on the two-mile superspeedway.
Patrick finished 13th in June at MIS for one of her four best finishes in 22 Sprint Cup starts this season. She’ll start 28th in today’s Pure Michigan 400. Joey Logano won the pole Friday with a lap-speed record of 203.949 mph.
Like other drivers in the field, Patrick anticipates a fast field on a track considered to be one of NASCAR’s fastest. During NASCAR’s three Sprint Cup practice sessions Friday and Saturday, Johnson had the fastest lap speed of 203.55 miles an hour.
During qualifying in June for the Quicken Loans 400, Carl Edwards won the pole with a qualifying lap speed of 202.452 miles an hour and was one of 13 drivers to eclipse the 200-mile-an-hour qualifying mark.
“You’re seeing the speeds come up from the last time, and it means the teams have been working to make the cars better,” said Patrick, who drives the No. 10 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing. “We work our butts off, we do a lot of testing, and it’s nice that it shows.”
Even given her top-15 finish in June at MIS, she admitted that her first trip there as a Sprint Cup driver had its difficulties.
“We came here earlier in the year, and I struggled,” said Patrick, who drove IndyCar and Nationwide races at MIS. “I didn’t feel comfortable but we worked really, really hard on trying to get a car that was more consistent and more predictable and felt better. Actually, we kind of started working toward it here during the race [in June], and by the end of the race, I felt really good.
“It was the best the car had felt. We made a lot of improvements and have continued to make improvements since we were here last. When I first went out on the track, I thought, ‘Man, this feels like a whole different car.’ While it, literally, probably is, it just feels so much better than the last time.”
Patrick drove 10 races last season in Sprint Cup and spent the remainder of season driving in the Nationwide Series, where she finished 10th in the driver standings.
Yet her rookie season in NASCAR’s top tier hasn’t been smashing. She finished eighth in the Daytona 500, a week after winning the pole, but has only finished in the top 10 once and in the top 15 three times.
In addition, Patrick has crashed four times this season.
“Coming off last year, I expected to do a little bit better and I let things get me frustrated,” said Patrick, 27th in the Sprint Cup driver standings. “I let my spot on the track kind of take me out of my game a little bit. I pushed my limits a little bit too much.”
She’s taken some criticism, as well. Kyle Petty, a former NASCAR driver and current TNT analyst known as much for his opinions as he is for his bloodlines, offered his thoughts on Patrick in June.
“She can go fast, and I’ve seen her go fast,” Petty told the Speed Network. “She drives the wheels off it when she goes fast.
"She's not a race car driver,” added Petty, the son of NASCAR great Richard “The King” Petty. “There’s a difference. The King always had that stupid saying, but it’s true: ‘Lots of drivers can drive fast, but very few drivers can race.’ Danica has been the perfect example of somebody who can qualify better than what she runs. She can go fast, but she can’t race.”
Patrick offered her own rebuttal, and several drivers came to her defense, including Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Johnson, the five-time Sprint Cup champion.
More than a month after the exchange, Patrick admitted she discovered a certain mindset to take into competition.
“We took a week off, and I looked at my season and I said, ‘Man, every time I try so hard, something bad happens, and every time I take whatever the car will give me and what the race will give me, those are much better days,’ ” Patrick said. “It’s just figuring out yourself what makes you work and what makes you get the best results possible. It’s just figuring that out.”