Is Patrick's Kansas run a taste of things to come?
Just when you think you're out of hope for Danica Patrick, she pulls you back in.
Capping a weekend in which Patrick had all the speed she needed and the moxie to match, the driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet scored a career-best seventh-place finish in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in Saturday night's 5-Hour Energy 400 at Kansas Speedway.
This was no fluke, no serendipitous fuel-mileage play. All night long, Patrick mixed it up with the superstars of stock car racing, and, more often than not, held the upper hand.
Emblematic of her performance was a restart on Lap 161. From the drop of the flag she raced side-by-side with six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, clearing him to the outside and ultimately leaving him in the dust.
Later in that same green-flag run, Patrick chased down Dale Earnhardt Jr. and teammate/boss Tony Stewart, passing both drivers in one quick sequence. She was running third when caution flew on Lap 180.
The second top 10 of Patrick's career and her first on an open-motor track--came out of nowhere, or seemingly so.
Patrick had run 14th at two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., in March, but her best finish on a 1.5-mile intermediate track this year was a 21st at Las Vegas in the third race of the season.
Yes, she has shown progress, but Saturday night was more than an indication of steady growth. It was a breakthrough. Patrick ran with the frontrunners, and, had circumstances fallen her way, she was a threat to win the race.
The credit doesn't belong to Patrick alone. Crew chief Tony Gibson and the No. 10 team gave her the best setup she's ever had at an intermediate speedway. Hendrick Motorsports provided an amazing engine. No car was better off the corners, particularly from the center of Turns 1 and 2 to the exit.
Initially, Patrick's car was slightly loose entering the corners but a dynamo at corner exit. When a late-race adjustment tightened the car slightly, ostensibly providing more comfort, it actually slowed her down a tick.
That suggests Patrick is getting used to the way a stock car is supposed to feel when it's fast.
"I know that we haven't had the best of times, but we work hard for it," Patrick said. "It's days like today when this is the kind of stuff that materializes in wins. We've just got to keep hanging around and doing what we're doing. I'm just proud of everyone for working really hard and believing in me."
Believing hasn't been easy. Last year, Patrick had an epiphany at Martinsville, one of NASCAR racing's most difficult tracks. She ran in the top 10most of the day and finished 12th. Aside from her pole and eighth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, that was the high-water mark for the season, and it came in the sixth race.
But her run at Kansas, one of the series' high-speed bread-and-butter tracks, holds an even larger reservoir of promise.
In no way was Patrick reluctant to race hard against the most respected drivers in the sport.
"One time I started on the outside of her, and I drove down into (Turn) 1, and she left me, and then she about passed the two cars ahead of us going into (Turn) 3," said race winner Jeff Gordon. "It was pretty obvious she was feeling comfortable, had a fast race car. ...
"That's a real testament to her work ethic and her talent as well as Stewart Haas. Those guys are just really putting out some great race cars right now. She did a great job, yeah. She started behind me on another restart, and I had to like hold her off. I mean, she was aggressive, real aggressive."
There's a real sense that the new cast of characters at Stewart-Haas also is raising Patrick's boat, so to speak. With the addition of Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick this year to go with owner/driver Stewart, the organization has three of the smartest men in the garage when it comes to understanding what makes a car go fast.
Harvick talked to Patrick about racing nuances, but perhaps his strongest piece of advice was the simplest.
"I guess the one thing I did tell her was just to quit thinking about it and smash the gas," Harvick said. "Sometimes your car is never going to be perfect, and you just have to take what it'll give you and expect that every time you pit it's going to be better--and if it's not, you adjust and move on."
Patrick took the advice to heart.
"The little things he gave me advice on for qualifying really worked, and that's the kind of stuff I was excited about having when Kevin and Kurt came onto the team," Patrick said. "And having Tony back full time (from an injury that sidelined him last year), I was able to get those little tidbits from those guys and fast-forward my learning curve, instead of having to learn it all myself.
"It's really cool when you have teammates who are unconditional like that and want to help you. When everyone is better, we all get better. It pumps the team up, and everybody wants it even more. I guarantee we're going to work even harder now. We're going to work harder, because we love where we're at. This is what we work for, and now they can taste it--you don't want to let it go."
A cautionary note: one race does not a career make. Patrick will have to back up her Kansas performance with strong runs elsewhere to reinforce the perception that she can be competitive against the best stock car drivers in the world.
But Saturday night was clear progress. Patrick showed that, with an excellent car, she is comfortable competing at the front of the field, and that's a huge step for her.
She accomplished one other thing. By showing she can be competitive on an intermediate track, Patrick squashed AJ Allmendinger's impromptu campaign for the Sprint Fan Vote, which he hoped would propel him into next Saturday's Sprint All-Star Race.
Patrick's run at Kansas all but ensures a Fan Vote landslide for the GoDaddy girl -- if she doesn't earn one of two transfer positions from the Sprint Showdown.
The ideal scenario is for Patrick to earn her spot in the All-Star Race on the track and leave the Fan Vote to another driver.
Based on her run at Kansas, that's a very real possibility.