By Aaron Burns
The statistics don’t show it, but Danica Patrick’s third season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was easily her best.
Eight races into the campaign, Patrick was in contention for a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth. The 33-year-old native of Roscoe, Ill., had two top-10 finishes, was 13th in points and appeared ready to take the next step toward Victory Lane.
But as has often been the case since Patrick left Indy car racing for NASCAR in 2012, things quickly came unglued.
Patrick proved her short-track prowess by finishing seventh at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in March and ninth at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in April before everything fell apart.
Patrick’s hopes of a Chase spot ultimately went unrealized and she tumbled to 27th in points by November.
The culprit: Only one top-15 finish in a 25-race stretch after her top-10 showing at Bristol. Patrick’s struggles culminated with a 40th-place result on Nov. 1 at Martinsville, and a 25-point penalty for tangling with David Gilliland multiple times during the race.
She finished outside the top 20 in 16 of the season’s first 26 events, a deficit too considerable to overcome without winning at least once.
But Patrick still showed the sort of potential that motivated team owner Tony Stewart to bring her to full-time Sprint Cup Series racing in 2013. Patrick’s seven-year IndyCar career left her with considerable experience on road courses and intermediate tracks, so many expected her to be more of a contender on the larger ovals.
Short tracks, however, have become Patrick’s strong suit. The only problem: they comprise just one-sixth of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule. And the unpredictable nature of short tracks makes it difficult for any driver, let alone a relative newcomer, to count on turning around a season at Bristol, Martinsville or Richmond.
Patrick remains an integral part of Stewart-Haas Racing’s long-term plans. She signed a multi-year contract extension on Aug. 18 and hopes to stay at SHR for as long as possible.
“I really do feel like family here,” Patrick said. “I feel like there’s nowhere else I want to be. I’m fortunate in that I didn’t have to look anywhere else.”