CHARLOTTE – It’s simple. Danica Patrick hopes to go back in time with her performance this season.
“I’d like to get back to where I was ending in 2014 before (crew chief Tony) Gibson went to Kurt (Busch’s) car with running in the top 15 into the top 10 and being pretty fast each weekend,’’ she said of expectations for her fourth Sprint Cup season with Stewart-Haas Racing.
She had six top-20 finishes in her final 10 races with Gibson before he moved to Busch’s team. Daniel Knost became Patrick’s crew chief with three races left in the 2014 season but working with an engineering-based crew chief didn’t provide the results Patrick hoped. She had 13 top-20 finishes all of last season. Billy Scott replaces Knost as Patrick’s crew chief this season.
“Last year we weren’t that bad,’’ Patrick said. “I think if we would have had some things go better in the summer, we would have been closer. But that’s going to come from better finishes all year long and cleaning up our act, myself included, and not making mistakes.’’
Car owner Gene Haas says he’s looking for improvement out of Patrick, who signed a contract extension last year.
“I think at some point she does need to break out and go from being a top 20, top 15 driver,’’ he said. “I think that would be successful.’’
Asked if he felt Patrick needed to make the Chase to consider this season a success, Haas said: “Sooner or later, you do have to win races. That’s what it’s all about. Some drivers take a long time. Look at Joey Logano, He was with Gibbs for years. It wasn’t until he finally made a big change, he got competitive. Who knows when that period of time will come when she’ll finally make that breakout? That’s what she needs to do.’’
When asked about what more the organization can do to help Patrick’s progress, Haas suggested the tools are there.
“She’s got some of the best drivers in NASCAR to talk to and that’s always good,’’ he said. “Ultimately, it really comes down to the driver, though, finally deciding, ‘This is what I’ve got to do.’ It’s a very easy sport. You’ve just got to get ahead of the guy in front of you until there is nobody left and it all works out. That’s just something that the driver has to mentally overcome.
“This driving is a lot more of a mental game than some people think. You’ve just got to be able to do it. I think at some point, it clicks. Drivers finally realize, ‘Look, I can do this. I’m going to make it happen,’ and they do it.’’
As Patrick looks to improve her performance, she’ll have to contend with a low-downforce package that will challenge many drivers.
“I don’t like a car that rolls around and moves a lot,’’ Patrick said. “I can drive loose cars. I think they are going to be a little looser this year. I think it’s going to be fine. I think the crew chief just has to understand what feel I’m looking for and make that happen with the car, which is the challenge. I do think that packages can play into drivers’ favor or not. We’ll just have to see.’’
So was last year’s package not a perfect fit for her?
“I do think the cars lately have felt comfortable,’’ Patrick said. “I definitely like security on entry. I think that’s definitely what we got. On the other hand, I feel that I’m a disciplined driver, so when the car is moving around a lot or you need to hit a line or you need to find the grip, I do feel that I’m comfortable with that.
“We are going to be moving around a lot more. I kind of think (drivers are) going to be miserable some of the time. There’s going to be some times when the tires go off and you’re like, ‘Shoot me out here, it’s terrible.’ I have a feeling we’re going to have a few, ‘Shoot me’ moments this year where it’s just going to be moving all around, and it’s going to be a lot more.
“Even if you’re siding around and it feels like crap and you’re passing somebody, it’s still fun.’’