Daytona awaiting Danica Patrick

Danica Patrick finally gets to cash in on her win from the 2013 NASCAR season.

No, the former IndyCar Series star did not win a race in her rookie season in the Sprint Cup Series.

She did, however, kick off the season by winning the season-opening Daytona 500 pole.

That earned her an automatic invitation into this season’s Sprint Unlimited non-points race, scheduled for Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.

Patrick’s rookie year was a rough one – her only top-10 finish came in the Daytona 500, where she finished eighth. By virtue of her pole, however, she’ll get an early start to her sophomore season.

Patrick said her strong run in last season’s 500 provided valuable experience in what moves to make and when to have a chance to win the race.

“I’m very fortunate to be in the (Unlimited) the weekend before the (500) so that I can practice those kinds of things and have more track time and especially more racing time,” Patrick said.

“I think that there is an element of having an idea of what to do, and there’s also the element of being around for a while that people trust you and are willing to work with you a little bit. So, I think it’s a little bit of both, but you’re not going to get their respect if you don’t try.”

One of Patrick’s biggest struggles in her rookie season was in qualifying. Her poor starts often left her in danger early in many races of getting lapped.

She’ll be in no such danger Saturday night, as a fan vote will determine several elements of the race, including the starting lineup.

Patrick, however, knows qualifying will remain an area this season where she will need to improve.

“I still need to work on a lot of the same stuff that I was working on from the beginning of last year. I think the weak areas tend to be the ones that for me I always have to work on,” she said.

“One is improving on qualifying, which I think that we did through the end of the year last year a little more. We started to get into a good pattern with that.

“For us, it was a matter of not throwing big things at the car and not trying to throw the kitchen sink at it during practice but hopefully arriving (at the track) with a close enough set-up and then fine-tuning.”

Last season at Stewart-Haas Racing was also one filled with turmoil. Team co-owner Tony Stewart missed most of the second half of the season after breaking two bones in his right leg in a dirt racing accident. Teammate Ryan Newman was in the final year of his contract.

Stewart will return in this weekend’s Unlimited and he and Patrick will be joined this season by two new teammates – Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick.

Stewart has won three championships in his career and he, Busch and Harvick are all multiple-time race winners.

“I think that this is going to be a year for opportunity, really. I think that for me I’m able to feed off of their experience and making the car better,” Patrick said. “So, I’ve always felt like, whether it was IndyCar or now, I learn a lot more when we make good changes and make the car right, or better.

“Good changes help me learn what’s really possible with the car, and I think that’s what comes from guys with a lot of experience – they know what to do with the car.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer