Could Danica Patrick Crash the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase Party?

by Ryan Isley

Was the Daytona 500 just a sign of things to come for Danica Patrick as it pertains to the 2013 season? That is a possibility.

After watching the Daytona 500 and seeing how most drivers played it conservative until the last portion of the race, it made me wonder – if the rest of the season follows this pattern, could Danica actually find herself inside the top-10 in the standings after 26 races? While it may seem far-fetched, a quick look at the numbers makes it a little more interesting.

The key to making the Chase for Danica could have more to do with qualifying than with actual racing. Should Patrick continue to qualify well – and the probability is that she will – she will continue to run out in front of the pack, where she might be able to avoid most of the trouble during a race. One would also have to believe that Danica will improve as the season goes along, just as she did last season in the Nationwide Series.

Going with Danica’s stats from the Nationwide Series last season, it shows us something that we already knew – she is really good at qualifying when it comes to tracks that are 1.5 miles or longer. In her 18 races in 2012 on tracks of this length, she averaged a starting position of 11.6. This included her only pole (Daytona), all four of her top-5s and five of her six top-10 starting positions. Danica started inside the top-13 in 13 races last season, with 12 of those coming at tracks of 1.5 miles or longer.

Why is this important? 15 of the 26 races before the Chase field is set will be at tracks that are at least 1.5 miles. This will include three races at restrictor plate tracks, where Danica just won the pole and finished eighth this past weekend.

Breaking down the numbers from the last two seasons, it took 781 points for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to take the 10th spot in the Chase in 2011 and Tony Stewart needed 810 for that position last season. If we assume that it will take 800 points for someone to grab the 10th and final non-wild card spot this season, it would mean that driver would have to average 30.8 points per race.

Now take a look back at what happened at Daytona. Danica took the pole, led five laps, stayed around the top-5 for the majority of the race and then finished in eighth place. For her efforts, she picked up 37 points and starts the season in seventh place in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings. Let’s say she is able to repeat this performance at Talladega and then again at Daytona. Should that happen, she would need to average just 29.9 points in the other 23 races. Now add in that she could very easily have a better result in one of those two races – let’s say a third-place finish – and that would give her five more points. After the three restrictor plate races, she would have 116 points.

With 12 of the other 23 races being at tracks of 1.5 miles or more, it is conceivable that Danica could average around a 14th-place finish, which would give her 30 points without leading any laps. If she leads even one lap in at least six of these races, that would give her 360 points in those 12 races. She would now be up to 476 points before factoring in the shorter tracks. The 14th-place finish threshold is relevant because in her last nine races of 2012 on tracks of this length, she finished 14th or better eight times.

The other 11 races include nine at tracks that are shorter than 1.5 miles plus the two road course tracks. While Danica has struggled on the shorter tracks more than the longer ones in her career, she had four finishes of 14th or better in her final six races at tracks of less than 1.5 miles last season, including two top-10s. If Danica could grab an average finish of 17th in these 11 races, she would garner about 297 more points – bringing her to about 773 points after 26 races. That would be less than 10 away from what Earnhardt, Jr. had when he took that 10th spot in 2011. The total of 773 would also not account for any laps she might lead, which would also give her bonus points.

A better finish here or a few laps led there could very well lead to us watching Danica have something to race for when the Sprint Cup Series heads to Richmond for the final race before the Chase field is set. I still don’t think she will have enough to make the Chase this season, but she might not be as far away as some of us originally thought before the season started.

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