by Ryan Isley
If you have watched a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race in the last two seasons, you have undoubtedly seen Danica Patrick in a commercial or two or 50. One place you haven’t seen her is in victory lane. Or in the top-5 for that matter.
She needs to focus on changing that in 2015.
While NASCAR – like any other sport – is about money at the end of the day, the name of the game is still winning. There is no doubt that Patrick has the money-making part down, as she is a marketing godsend. What she has yet to master, however, is the part about actually being competitive. You know, the racing part for which she has trained.
The toughest part for Patrick might end up being the first part of the season, where she has struggled in her first two seasons in the series. In order for Patrick to make people see her as a serious contender to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, let alone compete for a championship, she needs to get off to a much better start than the ones that have plagued her in the first two seasons.
She has just one top-10 finish in the first 10 races in a season of her short Sprint Cup Series career, and that came in her first race as a Sprint Cup Series regular in the 2013 Daytona 500. In the other 19 races in the first 10 weeks of those two seasons, she has 13 finishes of 25th or worse.
While her average finishing spot of 23.7 in 2014 was slightly better than during her rookie season when she averaged a finish of 26.1, there wasn’t enough consistency to make people believe that Patrick is a racecar driver first and an actor in commercials second. There just might be hope, though. Despite Patrick finishing in the top-10 just three times and in the top-20 only 14 times in 2014, she started to show some improvement towards the end of the year.
Her best finish came when she crossed the finish line 6th in Atlanta (the 25th race), which also happened to be a career best. The race in Atlanta was the beginning of her most consistent stretch of the season, as she finished in the top-20 in four straight races and six out of eight, compiling an average finishing position of 18.3 during those eight races. But back-to-back finishes of 34th and 36th at Martinsville and Texas as the season came to a close halted the momentum she had obtained. She bounced back to end the season with a 22nd-place run at Phoenix and then an 18th-place finish at Homestead-Miami to finish 2014.
Following the 34th-place finish at Martinsville, Stewart-Haas Racing stepped in and made a change, swapping crew chiefs between Patrick and teammate Kurt Busch with three races remaining in the season. Tony Gibson went from the No. 10 car of Patrick to the No. 41 of Busch, while Daniel Knost went from the No. 41 to the No. 10.
The switch might just be the wake-up call that is necessary for Patrick moving forward in her career. Instead of staying with the status quo, Stewart-Haas showed it is willing to make moves they feel will help the entire team, not just Patrick. The move was made heading into the final three races of 2014,
While much has made about their lack of success or cohesion between Knost and Patrick in those three races and the decision to name Knost as the full-time crew chief for 2014 was met with surprise from many, it might be a good thing. Just look at those last three races for example. While it was maybe not the success that Stewart-Haas was hoping for instantly, the fact that Patrick was able to improve her finishing position in each race with Knost has to at least be a glimmer of hope heading into 2015.
One thing that might help out Knost when it comes to handling his new driver and her fiery temperament could be that Busch is wired the same way. Getting a season (or most of a season) under his belt with Busch, who won a race and had a win and six top-5 finishes with Knost as his crew chief, should prepare the 36-year-old for the challenges he will face with Patrick. Whereas Busch was already a proven winner, Knost will now have to help mold Patrick into the contender that Stewart-Haas hoped it would get when the team signed Patrick to a Sprint Cup Series deal.
If Danica can just add that competitive racing piece to the existing marketing piece she already has going, she might become an unstoppable force unlike anything we have ever seen.
Otherwise, she could just end up being the Johnny Manziel of NASCAR – all sizzle, no substance.