Danica Patrick (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
A noticeably subdued Danica Patrick, after two lackluster days of testing her Cup car here, concedes "I've struggled…I don't really feel very comfortable."
But then her whole season has been like that.
This has not been the high point of her career. And what that may say about her full-time Sprint Cup schedule next season might not be good.
"I'll be going over to figure out how I can feel more comfortable…or what I'm doing wrong…because I'm sure there is a lot for me to learn."
But then maybe it's not just that but questions about her lucrative GoDaddy sponsorship: A Falling Star?
How does she react to that?
"It's more work for the general Danica racing team than anything, as they are working on my behalf to make sure that everything is going the way it should," she says.
That's not a very clear answer, to say the least.
"It's just how it goes," she insists. "It's really not a problem. I know they were saying 'sorry for the drama.' But I just drive the car."
Patience on the sponsorship side?
Patrick says yes. "I think my sponsors and partners have always been great about that. They don't just sponsor me and put the name on the side of a car.
"They go beyond that. They use my 'platform' and my reach with fans.
"While they want me to do well (on the track), I want to do well (too) and that's my primary goal. (But) the relationship has legs outside of that. That's why I've been fortunate to have sponsors stick around for a long time."
After her second full-time season on the Nationwide tour, her judgment is that "it's been an okay season.
"We need to find speed, and that's why you've seen the changes (bringing in new crew chief Ryan Pemberton, replacing Tony Eury Jr.).
"We all want to be more competitive. I feel we've been inching closer.
"Ultimately I am disappointed with the results."
Here, so far things don't appear much different.
"In the Cup car I'm not that fast at all," she says. "People could come up behind me, and I would just let them go, because it's hard to pass. You take the air away from them because you're running the same line.
"The toughest thing for me is I'm just so slow in practice. In the race, when everything kind of evens out, and there are not 'new' tires any more, all there is the beginning of a run -- which I still struggle with -- once everything kind of settles in, I'm better.
"I get frustrated when I think about how I'm doing out there in Cup some times in practice. Then I remember back to Nationwide and it didn't go so great there either.
"You have to feel that out, and be able to believe in that.
"I'm just not quite there. So each time I get to a new track it's always the same. I've got to build up my confidence.
"What doesn’t kill you makes your stronger, right?"
Patrick does have an interesting twist on the current questions about concussions. While there is talk about NASCAR needing to do 'baseline' mental testing on drivers in pre-season, to be able to diagnose when a driver has been dinged too hard, Patrick says drivers can game that.
Patrick, during her Indy-car days, had to do baseline testing, a 30-minute test. That, however, is not required in NASCAR.
She says it would be a good move for NASCAR to add such baseline testing for drivers.
"I don't think additional precautions, or testing, or knowledge is a bad thing," she says.
"I've been asked a lot about people sandbagging the tests. If you choose to sandbag, and not perform as well on the original test, so that you can do better later, it's your own fault. It's your life. If you choose to do that you can; but it's only affecting you.
"I thought baseline testing was a good thing. A lot of sports do that.
"When I had a big accident in Homestead at my first Indy-car race in 2005, I was fortunate enough to have a weekend off between that one and the next race, which was Phoenix. I took the baseline, and retested the baseline.
"Knowing more about your mental status and health is always good."
Tony Stewart, her boss, says he's taking the GoDaddy flap with a grain of salt. And he's not worried about it being a distraction for her:
“I never worry about how it is going to impact her on the track, because when she started last year in Nationwide everywhere she went it was crazy, but she is able to get in the car and focus on what she is doing," Stewart says.
"As far as what came out yesterday (in USAToday), it hasn’t even been to our department yet on our side. We don’t really have anything to do with that at this point.
"Whatever happens, it will be interesting to see when it comes Super Bowl Sunday for sure.
"As far as what she is doing with the race team and the commitment there, it is all the same. We read everything and laughed about it and went on.”
Maybe if Stewart had picked easier Cup races this season for Patrick....
"Her scenario is a little different than a lot of other drivers," Stewart explains. "She has been very eager to get to the Cup series... and I still think -- more so than some people do -- that she has the ability to be successful at this level.
"The learning curve she is going through has been a lot shorter than what it probably should have been.
"But that is why Ryan Newman and I are here -- as a support system.
"I believe she can do it. But it wasn't going to be easy."
"Next year she will see the benefits of that," Stewart says. "It is hard (right now), because she is running against top-notch guys on top-notch teams. There is not enough time to allow her to get caught up. But she is still learning.
"She is a confident person, and part of my job as a car owner is to say 'Hey, I know it's frustrating at times, but trust me, there is a benefit to what we are doing. I've been there before; I know.'"