By Aaron Bearden, Contributing Writer
*Editor’s note: Motorsports Tribune will be previewing the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Season for 24 drivers. We will release one driver preview per day over a 24-day stretch.
Years in Cup: 4
Career Wins: 0
Biggest Accomplishment: 2013 Daytona 500 Polesitter
In many ways, 2017 has already been a good year for Danica Patrick.
The lone female in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (MENCS), Patrick has filled the early parts of the year with activities away from the race track, launching her “Warrior by Danica Patrick” fashion line on Jan. 4 and working on the early stages of a book she’s planned for 2018, “Pretty Intense”.
With the upcoming season approaching, Patrick will soon begin preparing for her climb back inside of a race car, and the expectations –fair or not- that come with it.
After four full-time seasons on NASCAR’s premier tour, Patrick’s biggest stories to date have often come from off-track rather than on it.
Patrick’s surprising pole in the 2013 Daytona 500, the first pole award for any female driver in NASCAR’s history, captured the then-rookie the lion’s share of attention. However, in the months since the 34-year-old has become known more for her temper, fitness and relationship with fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., than her results on-track, which many have viewed as insufficient given the ride she’s in.
To a point, the disappointment is understandable.
Despite driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, one of NASCAR’s best organizations, Patrick has managed just six top 10s in her first four years of competition, with a best result of sixth at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2014. In that same time span SHR has accounted for 19 wins, including Kevin Harvick’s triumph in the 2014 season finale to claim his first Cup Series championship.
Given that comparison, Patrick has come under fire from some critics, considered overrated and in her position solely because of her popularity and sponsor appeal.
Now entering her fifth year, Patrick has a chance at a fresh start.
SHR will make the switch from Chevrolet to Ford in 2017, a move that leaves the organizations with a lot of relative unknowns as only one of the team’s current drivers (Kurt Busch) has ever driven for the blue ovals.
For the rest of SHR –Busch, Harvick and newcomer Clint Bowyer- the change brings with it high expectations, as all three drivers are considered capable of contending for championships. However, for Patrick, whose results have proven pedestrian to date, the move invites an opportunity to start anew.
Patrick is entering her second year with both sponsor Nature’s Bakery and, more importantly, crew chief Billy Scott. The duo has now been through their first full tour together, and should have a notebook for each of the tracks they see in 2017.
While they haven’t come at the rate Patrick’s fans may want or expect, the former INDYCAR standout has also shown steady improvement over her first four seasons.
After a rookie campaign that saw five DNFs, Patrick has become much more consistent behind the wheel of the No. 10 Chevrolet. While the Roscoe, Ill., native didn’t find the top 10 in 2016, her 22.0 average finish, 30 laps led and 33 completed races were all career bests, and her 24th-place points finish tied for her best ever despite Patrick losing a position to Chris Buescher’s surprising Chase berth.
If Patrick can continue to improve with the switch to Ford, the female star should find herself closer to the top 20 in standings, and in doing so become a more considerable contender for both victories and perhaps even a Chase berth come September.
Given her results over the past four seasons, that all Patrick’s rabid fans base can ask for.
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