Patrick looks to please harshest critic

Jeff Birchfield • Jan 21, 2013 at 5:28 PM

CONCORD, N.C. -- Danica Patrick’s toughest challenge during her first full season on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit might be satisfying her toughest critic.

As she explained Monday at the 31st annual NASCAR Sprint Media Tour, hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway, that critic is herself.

“It’s the one closest to me,” Patrick said. “We as drivers, as people no matter what job we’re in, we have expectation levels and if they don’t get met, we’re disappointed. It’s a matter of how you cope with that, deal with that and don’t let it get the best of you.”

She admitted that happened at times last season, when she split her time between a full schedule on the Nationwide Series and 10 races on the Sprint Cup Series.

Although she won the pole for the season-opening race at Daytona and finished 10th in the Nationwide Series points, there were plenty of times she left the track frustrated. It started off at Daytona when she wrecked three race cars before Speedweeks were over.

“I learned last year I can’t let it get to me,” she said. “It did last year and I went into Phoenix and didn’t have a great weekend. My attitude got the best of me, and I had to regroup from there on out. You sometimes lack control and the only thing you can control is your emotions, how you respond and deal with it. With so many races so frequently, you can either make it a positive and say ‘I’ve got a new weekend next weekend,’ or you can let it get the best of you and that next weekend is a spiral down. I learned last season what a bad race at Daytona can teach you in a bad way.”

She believes a top-six qualifying effort for the Daytona 500 would take a lot of pressure off her. She certainly doesn’t want to fall too far behind in the early point standings.

“It’s like when you’re in school and you get bad grades,” she said. “You start off bad at Daytona, and it takes forever to get back up in the points.”

It’s not her first go-round chasing points. In seven seasons racing Indy Cars, her best points finish was fifth in the 2009 standings.

In the open-wheel series, she won at Japan, had three pole positions and finished third in the 2009 Indianapolis 500.

There are plenty of adjustments with NASCAR, from the heavier stock cars, to the tracks themselves. With her Indy Car background, it’s not a surprise she likes a car with lots of grip as well as tracks like Texas. She enjoyed racing at Bristol with its high banks, but the other short tracks, especially the flat track at Martinsville are a cause for concern.

“There are going to be challenges this year for sure,” she said. “We’re going hard as a team to do testing on the short tracks, to dial in our brake packages, trying to see what’s going to make me most comfortable.”

There are talks of her running 10 Nationwide Series races this season to get more seat time, although she said nothing is set in stone. She felt the times she pulled double-duty last season helped her in the Cup Series.

Her crew chief, Tony Gibson, liked how they meshed at the end of the year. They ended their 2012 efforts at Phoenix with a 17th-place finish, their best of the season.

“For us, the sky is the limit,” Gibson said. “We were fortunate to get a couple of races at the end of the year and we were pumped up when we left Texas and Phoenix. We’re setting small goals for ourselves, goals we can reach. Last year, we hit all of our goals so it was exciting. It’s so exciting to have a driver so pumped up every day to get in the car. We all feel like rookies every day. We want to come out with a positive no matter what happens each weekend.”

Patrick has been listening to what Gibson has been preaching. Although she acknowledges there will be plenty of challenging weekends, she believes in his philosophy of achieving small goals.

“We have a good plan, our ducks in a row,” Patrick said. “I don’t know what’s going to be deemed a successful year. I know the small goals. It’s like top-20 (finishes) now, then get top-18’s and then top-16’s. We’re not like we’re going to finish in the top-12 every weekend or something unrealistic”

Car owner and teammate Tony Stewart, a three-time NASCAR champion, feels her transition to stock cars is moving right on target.

“What she’s done in a short amount of time is impressive,” Stewart said. “Over 50 percent of those wrecks weren’t her fault. The best drivers in the sport get into those. It’s part of where we race these cars so close.”

Patrick knew it wouldn’t be an easy move to stock cars, that former open-wheel champions Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti had struggled to varying degrees in recent years.

It was the biggest reason she dabbled for two seasons in the Nationwide Series. It’s another reason she’s hesitant to throw out big goals for this season.

“I’ve definitely had a lot of different years with the transition into NASCAR,” Patrick said. “The ability to move nice and slow before moving into the deep end is going to make it easier than if I had just jumped in. We’re going to be intelligently patient and know this is going to be a process.”

Note: The 31st annual Sprint NASCAR Media Tour, presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway kicked off Monday with a press conference where the details of the Sprint Unlimited race to open the season at Daytona were unveiled.

Fans will vote on the race format, the type of pit stops allowed at the end of the first segment, the number of cars eliminated after the second segment and the design of Miss Sprint Cup’s fire suit.

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