Danica Patrick struggling to improve as Sprint Cup rookie

Monday October 7th, 2013

The word "mania" is defined as a state of "abnormal excitement, often of a transient or temporary nature." That could end up being an apt description of the NASCAR condition known as Danica-mania. The enthusiasm surrounding Danica Patrick's foray into Sprint Cup racing has been a bit abnormal—or certainly excessive—when you weigh it against her overall performance on the track. And it is that same performance, or lack thereof, that could make Danica-mania a temporary phenomenon.

Patrick earned her initial popularity with her successful showings in the Indianapolis 500, finishing fourth in 2005 and third in 2009, as well as her victory in the 2008 Indy Japan 300. These were historic firsts for a female auto racer, and Patrick deserved all the accolades and recognition that came with them. It certainly didn't hurt that she is attractive and has been willing to display her physical attributes in a series of bawdy commercials for sponsor GoDaddy.

Nobody thought Patrick was going to jump into the Sprint Cup Series this year and rip off a bunch of top-10 finishes. But it was reasonable to expect that she would pop up in the top-10 on occasion and, if nothing else, at least show signs of improvement. Instead, she has actually gotten worse as the season has progressed. She cracked the top-15 four times in the first 18 races, but hasn't finished better than 20th in any of her last 12 starts. She sits 28th in the point standings, behind Denny Hamlin, who has made four fewer starts than Patrick this season, and 54-year-old Mark Martin, who has made seven fewer.

Perhaps the most troubling statistic involves Patrick's performance on return visits to tracks this season. Overall, her average was 24.1 the first time around, but has since dropped to 28.4 for her second time around the eight tracks she has raced on more than once. Patrick has improved her finish only twice: going from 28th to 26th at Bristol, and 37th to 27th at New Hampshire.

Her biggest drop-off of the season occurred this past Sunday at Kansas Speedway. Patrick finished 25th there back in April, but on Sunday she didn't make it through the first lap before crashing and finishing last. Granted, the combination of a freshly paved racing surface and a new tire had even veteran Cup drivers struggling to keep from sliding and spinning out. Still, Patrick basically admitted afterward that the wreck simply was a case of driver error. Her driver error.

"I knew going into the race ... that losing grip was going to be not that hard to do. So I said, 'Make sure that we're on top of who is on my door and who is behind me,'" Patrick admitted. "And I knew all that was going to be happening on the start.

"I had enough momentum to go to the middle because I got a run on the car in front of me, but I had to wait past the start-finish line. I lifted going into turn one and ... I just found myself sideways in the middle of the corner, and that was it.

"So, I don't know. If I did something wrong, I apologize to everybody on my team. It's a shame."

It could be that Patrick simply is wearing down from the rigors of a 36-race Cup season, which she has never before experienced. It could be that she is going to be another in a long line of open wheel drivers who were unable to make a successful transition to stock car racing. Or, most optimistically, it could be that Patrick is still a rookie in the series and will get better in ensuing years.

For now, the mania over Patrick continues relatively unabated. Little girls look up to her as a role model for what she has accomplished, and that is definitely a good thing. GoDaddy remains firmly in her corner, which is crucial in the sponsor-driven world of NASCAR. But at some point, Patrick is going to have to show some tangible signs of improvement. If not, then Danica-mania risks running its course and becoming little more than a momentary fad.

Power Rankings

1. Jimmie Johnson (1st previously) -- If not for a late engine issue during the final two laps at Kansas that caused him to slow down and drop a spot to sixth, Johnson would have posted his fourth consecutive top-five finish since the Chase began. He has closed to within three points of first-place Matt Kenseth in the standings, and it would hardly be a surprise were he to leave Charlotte next week with the lead.

2. Matt Kenseth (2nd) -- He admitted after his 11th-place showing at Kansas that "it could have been worse." And despite his struggles on Sunday, Kenseth maintains the points lead and still has an average finish of 5.6 over the past seven races, with three victories. If anybody other than Johnson were behind him in the standings, he would be considered the championship favorite.

3. Kevin Harvick (5th) -- Harvick posted back-to-back top-10 finishes for the first time in three months, and he did so in style, following up his sixth-place run last week at Dover with a victory at Kansas. He remains a longshot to win the championship, though he is definitely trying to make things interesting and keep the Chase from becoming a two-man race.

4. Jeff Gordon (4th) -- The Wonder Boy of two decades ago has become an ageless wonder making a push to get into the title hunt at the age of 42. Gordon's third-place finish at Kansas was his sixth top-10 in his last seven races. But he remains winless this season and probably cannot get into legitimate title contention without a victory or two.

5. Kyle Busch (3rd) -- Unlike Dorothy, Busch must wish he never has to be in Kansas anymore. His wreck and 34th-place finish on Sunday marked the 11th time in 13 career starts that he has failed to crack the top 10 at the track. He has now crashed in three consecutive races there, dropping his average finish at Kansas to 23.3. After Sunday's race, he said the slippery track was "the worst I've ever driven on."

6. Joey Logano (9th) -- An engine failure in the Chase opener at Chicagoland is going to prevent him from having a shot at the championship, but he remains one of Sprint Cup's top drivers during the second half of the season. His fourth-place run at Kansas was his fifth top-five in the past eight races and his eighth top-10 in the past 11.

7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (6th) -- He was unable to build any significant momentum off his runner-up finish at Dover last week, turning in an uneventful eighth-place showing at Kansas. Earnhardt has posted three consecutive top-10s, but he's eighth in the point standings and there is no indication that he is about to make a serious charge toward the top.

8. Kurt Busch (unranked) -- A nice bounce-back for Busch, who recovered from two consecutive finishes outside the top-10 with a runner-up performance at Kansas. He has finished in the top-five six times in the past 10 races, and it wouldn't be surprising if he managed to give Furniture Row Racing a farewell present with a victory before the season is over.

9. Greg Biffle (7th) -- Biffle said he "had about a 30th-place car" at Kansas, so he actually was pleased with his 13th-place outing. But it takes a lot more than that to have an impact in the Chase. During the past five seasons, he has averaged a seventh-place finish in the standings, and he's probably headed toward a similar showing this year.

10. Carl Edwards (unranked) -- His fifth-place finish at Kansas would have meant something had he not wound up 35th the week before at Dover. That race buried him in the standings and basically ended his title hopes. It is amazing that Edwards was the pre-Chase points champ, considering how quickly he's become a non-factor in the Chase.

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