Jeff Gordon: This a ‘crucial’ year for Danica Patrick in her development in Sprint Cup Series

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Four-time champion Jeff Gordon calls this a “crucial” year in Danica Patrick’s development as a driver and says he would like to see her be more active on the track.

Patrick heads into her fourth season at Stewart-Haas Racing. The former IndyCar driver has 118 career Sprint Cup starts with no wins, six top-10 finishes and has led 27 laps.

She has job security after signing a multiyear extension in August, but Gordon said Tuesday at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour that’s not what he’s looking at with her.

“I think this is a crucial year for Danica,’’ said Gordon, who joins the Fox Sports broadcast booth this season. “I love having her in the sport. I think she’s great for the sport. But it’s either she is going to be in a position where this is where she fits in and this is sort of status quo — you’re goal is to get from 23rd to 20th? Or this is the year where it’s, ‘Hey, we’re breaking in top 10s and really starting to see some great progress.’ ’’

Statistics underscore a lack of improvement over the past two seasons.

Her average starting spot last year was 22.4 – it was 22.3 in 2014.

Her average finish last year was 23.5 – it was 23.7 in 2014.

She ran in the top 15 in 9.9 percent of the laps last year – she ran in the top 15 in 14.4 percent of the laps in 2014.

Her driver rating last year was 63.2. It was 63.0 in 2014.

Patrick will start this season with her third crew chief in the past three years. Billy Scott joins the team from Michael Waltrip Racing, replacing Daniel Knost. Patrick is enthused with Scott.

But Gordon said he wants to see more progress from Patrick on the track.

“We talk about racers,’’ Gordon said. “When I think of racers, and I think about people that have a lot of different types of experience in different cars, I think of somebody that when they’re following another car, they’re searching, they’re thinking about their next move. How can I pass this car? How can I maybe ease up a little bit getting into the corner, turn down and get underneath them? If I get underneath somebody, how do I complete this pass?

“I’ve seen Danica drive very fast, run some great laps and do a great job qualifying. In the race, I’d like to see her search around a little bit more and take that experience that she has now had the last few years in learning the tracks and the competitors and start to utilize that to show what a racer she is.’’