Two years ago, Danica Patrick kicked off her first full-time season in NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup Series by winning the pole for the sport’s most prestigious race, the Daytona 500.
Now entering her third season – and the last under her current driver and sponsor contracts – that pole remains her career highlight.
In the past two seasons driving the No. 10 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing, Patrick has shown flashes of potential but she has failed to find the consistency to compete regularly for race wins, a virtual necessity to have a chance at winning the series championship.
She enters the final year of her current contract at a crossroads in her NASCAR career, a season to determine whether she can match her success in marketability with results on the track.
Qualifying to set the front row starting positions for the Daytona 500 is 1:35 p.m. Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.
“I feel like from the beginning to where I am now, I feel like it’s a lot different. I mean, I can remember the first real race I was in a Cup car was Darlington (S.C.),” Patrick said. “I didn’t have any idea what I was doing.
“I was like the slowest car out there, and I was just thrilled that I wasn’t last in qualifying. Then to progress from there and find myself qualifying in the top 12 and having top-10 finishes (last season) is a lot better.”
Since her Cup debut, the former IndyCar Series winner has appeared most comfortable on NASCAR’s superspeedways, where horsepower-reducing restrictor-plates limit speeds and bunch the fields.
In her rookie season, she followed up her pole in the Daytona 500 with an eighth-place finish. However, that ended up being her only top-10 of the 2013 season and she finished 27th in the series standings.
Last season, Patrick improved markedly in qualifying, which put her in a much better position to capitalize on a fast car once the race began.
She ended the year with three top-10 finishes in 36 races, including a career-best sixth-place finish at Atlanta. Yet by season’s end, her inconsistency still left her 28th in points.
There is no question Patrick has, at times, shown herself to be competitive. But the reality is she is rarely in position to win races.
She has completed 23,281 laps of competition in her Cup career and led just 15 of them.
“Last year I feel like we were pretty comfortable like a top 15 car a lot of the time, and while we didn’t finish there a lot of the time, we had that kind of speed, and a lot of times we were running there or were on pace to get there,” she said.
“So, hopefully we can run there more consistently.”
Patrick’s teammate and team co-owner, Tony Stewart, remains convinced Patrick is making solid progress.
“She’s just got to build on what she did last year. She kept making gains last year. (It) didn’t show up at the end of the day, but during the course of the races she definitely gained momentum,” Stewart said.
“She had better finishes, and there were a lot of races that she had better days going and didn’t get the results she was looking for. But she needs to just kind of keep building on the momentum.”
That may be elusive, at least in the short term.
At the end of last season SHR elected to swap crew chiefs between the teams of Patrick and Kurt Busch, sending Tony Gibson to Busch’s No. 41 team and Daniel Knost to work with Patrick.
In three races last season together at the end of last season, Patrick finished 36th, 22nd and 18th.
“It’s going to take a little bit of time to get there with a new crew chief. And I say a new crew chief because he’s also a new crew chief. He’s only in his second year,” Patrick said of Knost.
“I’m new and he’s new, and it’s a new relationship. I feel like it’s going to take a little bit of time, but I feel like the things that I learned last year on the race track and with my team will hopefully send me in the right direction to making that go as fast as possible.”
Patrick has been asked repeatedly this week at Daytona and last month during the NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte about her future with SHR and the importance of the upcoming season.
She has appeared uncomfortable addressing the issue.
“I believe y’all are making that story. I feel like every year is a pivotal year,” she said. “When I first got into IndyCar, I thought I really needed to do a good job so I could stick around, and every year is a pivotal year.
“The most important thing for me is that my sponsor is happy and that GoDaddy is getting what they need from the relationship and there’s ROI (return on investment) for them.”
GoDaddy, an internet domain and Web site hosting company, has given no indication whether it plans to continue the high-dollar sponsorship of Patrick in NASCAR beyond this season.
The company has, however, featured Patrick less and less in its recent national advertising campaigns.
Patrick was to have a bit part in the company’s most recent Super Bowl ad, but that ad was pulled before it aired after raising the ire of animal rescue activists. She was not used in the company’s replacement ad.
During Thursday’s Daytona 500 Media Day, Patrick was prodded again on whether she has had substantive contract renewal talks, a question which she seemingly did not appreciate.
“It’s frigging February, buddy,” she told the reporter asking the question. “It’s really a matter of cart and horse. It’s sponsor and team.
“Both are happy, so it’s a matter of getting GoDaddy in a place where they’re happy and committing to something, and from my understanding the team wants that, too, and it’s just a matter of time.”