Only one word describes Danica Patrick during a Daytona Speedweeks that’s been borderline disastrous: stressed. Two years removed from the 500 pole, she’s gone from media darling to having to give the same less-than-darling answers to the media 20 times a day. “Yes, I’m in the final year of my contract.” “Yes, I feel confident I’ll be re-signed.” “Yes, I haven’t made the progress you guys think I should make in NASCAR, but I’ve still made some progress.”
So the tension balloon rose its flag during Daytona Media Day, then failed to pop during a ho-hum Sprint Unlimited. The following Sunday led to Patrick posting a weak qualifying time, making her vulnerable to (gasp!) missing the Daytona 500. As it turns out, had she not finished in the top 16 (or 15 — let’s not go there) in Thursday night’s Duel, she would have failed to qualify. It was a pressure cooker the likes of which Patrick admitted after this race she had never been involved in before in her career; and that’s before you even mention Denny Hamlin’s front bumper.
That bumper will be mentioned countless times between now and Sunday, especially after two incidents in two days have left two No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolets a pile of trash. The Duel wreck, for all intents and purposes, should have taken Patrick out of the race and out of contention; it required a heroic effort from crew chief Daniel Knost to keep the car on the lead lap. From there, some fortuitous luck in the form of teammate Kurt Busch skyrocketed her to the front at the right time, saving the start of her season that nearly got FedEx’d to nowhere.
“We’re not on the same page,” she said of Hamlin’s take on the incident. Hamlin, for his part, claims he never touched Patrick, angry over the fact he can’t draft up next to her without the No. 10 car losing control.
“I treat everyone equal,” he said after the wreck, one in which he claimed his car came close but did not hit Danica’s rear bumper. “I just can’t say ‘It’s you, Danica, I need to stay two feet away because your car gets loose.”
Danica, of course disagreed with that assessment with some R-Rated language and plenty of PG gesturing after the race. In the end, the confrontation was pretty G-Rated c the NASCAR WWF we’ve seen of late; no punches were thrown and the two were separated without some sort of pit row fracas. Still, animosity remains between two friends, drivers who park their motorhomes next to each other but can’t seem to park that close on the racetrack in Speedweeks without tearing up equipment.
“I just think he’s wrong,” said Patrick of Hamlin’s viewpoint, claiming repeatedly on pit road to her rival, “You’re turning me.” Owner Tony Stewart also chimed in, claiming “It’s easy to get frustrated when the same guy has wrecked you twice in two days.”
Hamlin is already backing off on Twitter, taking responsibility even though he maintains Danica’s car was never hit. But he’s not the story here; the No. 11 car has speed, ran up front and joins a Joe Gibbs Racing quartet that’s capable of heading to the front of Sunday’s 500 like a bullet train.
No, even if Hamlin is guilty, the pressure, and therefore the scrutiny, will lie with Patrick. Daytona is supposed to be one of her greatest strengths; instead, she’s stuck fighting this silly controversy with a driver who isn’t even a true rival. She’s trying to defend her performance before there’s even a first official 2015 NASCAR performance to defend. That’s not a good sign for a team that needs to truly step up their game to stay intact for 2016.
At one point, Patrick asked on the radio post-wreck if she had to be desperate. The answer was never given; in the end, she didn’t need it. Desperation propelled her to a level of safety, a top-15 finish in the race that keeps moving her forward.
Except you don’t get the sense that Danica’s moving forward right now. You get the sense that she’s lacking a little confidence. How do you fix it? The answer’s more than just no Denny. Patrick needs to take a deep breath, exhale and simply just focus on racing for awhile.
“Holy crap, it felt dire,” she said, exasperated over her night. “It’s unfair… how much is out of your hands at tracks like this.”
That’s what makes it so difficult to gauge the wreck. Both cars must fall prey to the draft. Hamlin, as the driver coming from behind, must boost to increase their speed. This one could have gone either way.
Now, Hamlin simply needs to stay out of Danica’s way until Sunday. So why does it feel like that’s easier said than done?
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