September 06, 2014

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) Danica Patrick found reason to celebrate following two unusually fast practices at Richmond International Raceway.

The three-quarters of a mile track has always been one of her worst, leaving her with a sense of dread for Saturday night's race. But Patrick is coming off a career-best finish of sixth last weekend at Atlanta. This race gives her a chance for consecutive strong finishes.

''When I got done with practice I was like high-fiving everyone, `We don't stink at Richmond!''' she said. ''Last week, when you have a good race, you think you'd be excited because you want to have another good one. But I was like, `No! I've (stunk) at Richmond every time.'''

Patrick has never finished higher than 29th at Richmond in three previous starts, and was a career-worst 34th in May. But her confidence was much higher though by the time Saturday night's race rolled around. Patrick qualified 13th, just missing out on advancing into NASCAR's final top-12 group in Friday qualifying.

''I said after the Atlanta race last weekend that I wasn't very good here, but we were seventh in final practice and 13th here in qualifying, so it is frustrating to be so close,'' she said.

The solid qualifying spot puts Patrick in far better position than she's used to at a start of the race. She'll be running with the top cars in the field, and will be near the front of the pack and not in immediate danger of going a lap down.

That happened last Sunday night at Atlanta, where she qualified 27th and found herself being passed by Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick very early in the race. She went down a lap twice, battled back both times, and found herself running eighth with two laps to go in the scheduled race distance. A caution came out to set up two attempts at overtime, and Patrick initially worried her strong run had been ruined.

''When the yellow came out and I was like ,'Ugh,' but then it was like I kind of had to get upbeat about that and say, `Well, it's an opportunity to do more,' '' she said. ''Sure enough, we finished sixth after being eighth when the yellow came out, so I was excited about that but relieved that we were able to follow through on a good race and stay positive through the weekend.''

Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing, praised Patrick's run at Atlanta and the progress her No. 10 team has made this season. Although she's 28th in the Sprint Cup standings and has only three top-10 finishes this season, Zipadelli believes the team doesn't have the results to show for how much they've improved.

''Where she is in points, it doesn't show the improvement that group has made throughout the year,'' Zipadelli said. ''Speed, practice, qualifying. They're still trying to figure it out and close that gap on that first run or two. They've certainly gotten better, but there's still room for improvement.

''That's really been fun to watch. To see how determined she is to try to get better. She gets as mad, fired up, hissy fits and all the other good things as everybody else, but she really does want to take the next step.''

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