Darlington a challenge to Danica Patrick's NASCAR progress
Danica Patrick is still far from being one of the top drivers in NASCAR. In fact, there remain legitimate doubts as to whether she can ever become a consistent contender. But for those who think she is little more than a marketing maven with limited racing skills, the 43rd lap in Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway indicates otherwise.
As the pack roared into turn one at nearly 200 miles per hour, contact between Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne trigged one of those multi-car collisions that is common at Talladega and that inevitably sweeps several innocent bystanders into the carnage. It appeared that Patrick was going to be one of those unlucky drivers, as cars were spinning and sliding all around her.
That is when Patrick showed something that her critics often claim she doesn't have: true racing talent and instincts. She listened to her spotter and drove down to the bottom of the track onto the apron. Weaving back and forth to avoid other cars, she at one point barely swerved in time to miss Busch. Then when she found her path blocked by several wrecked machines, she managed to come almost to a complete stop before turning back up the track and clearing the danger. It was a series of moves that amazed even Patrick's crew chief, Tony Gibson.
"We were watching and we were like, 'Holy cow.' She just kept aiming for the empty hole," Gibson said. "I don't know how she missed (Busch) there at the end. She said she got loose when she got on the first apron. Then when she got on the flat, she got real loose. How she survived, I have no idea."
Contrast that with one year ago, when Patrick went to Darlington Raceway -- site of this week's race -- for only her second career Sprint Cup start. Darlington is nothing like the traditional 1.5-mile ovals that Patrick became accustomed to racing on during her time in IndyCar. It is a quirky, egg-shaped 1.36-mile track that challenges even veteran racers, which is why it has gained the reputation of being the track that is "too tough to tame."
In order to get around Darlington quickly, a driver has to race close to the wall, especially when sweeping through turns one and two. Patrick didn't do that last year. The path she took through those turns was several feet down the track from the preferred line. As a result, even though she finished the race, she was consistently running a few miles per hour slower than most of the field. It steadily added up to the point where she finished in 31st place, six laps off the pace.
Patrick admitted at the time that she found it mentally difficult to race that close to the wall. "My comfort level with the wall is definitely medium. I don't think that even in IndyCar I liked being up by the wall," she said. "There are drivers definitely more comfortable than I am. And at Darlington, you're not using the wall as a reference. You're riding the wall. It's a whole new level of getting comfortable with it."
It will be interesting to see how Patrick performs on her return there this week. Her eighth-place finish in this year's Daytona 500 and her ability to avoid trouble at Talladega on Sunday -- at least until she got caught up in a bigger wreck during the final laps -- indicates that she has become a quick learner at restrictor-plate tracks. She also pulled off a 12th-place finish earlier this season at Martinsville, a short track that is considered to be one of the most difficult on the circuit.
Now we will find out whether the lady in green can handle the Lady in Black (as Darlington is also known). It will be another important step in Patrick's progression, and an indicator of whether her future in the sport might extend beyond merely her appeal to fans and advertisers.
1. Jimmie Johnson (1st previously) -- Should we go ahead and just fill in Johnson in the top spot for the rest of the season? A solid fifth-place run at Talladega gives him seven top-10 finishes through the first 10 races.
2. Carl Edwards (3rd) -- Whatever funk affected Edwards last year appears to be over. He nearly won at Talladega, a place where he usually struggles, and has not finished worse than 18th since the Daytona 500 (with a victory and five top-fives along the way).
3. Kasey Kahne (2nd) -- He was wrecked by Kyle Busch early in Sunday's race and finished 42nd. He can't be penalized more than one spot in our power rankings for a wreck that was not his fault.
4. Clint Bowyer (4th) -- An uneventful day for the two-time Talladega winner. He started 20th, finished 18th, and never led a lap. Still, it was his fifth top-20 showing in the past six races.
5. Matt Kenseth (7th) -- He had the dominant car at Talladega, but was unable to hold on to the lead on the green-white-checkered restart. He remains only 11th in the standings, but would be third if not for an earlier 50-point penalty.
6. Brad Keselowski (5th) -- The defending champ continues to slump after starting the season with four consecutive top-five finishes. He has not had a one since then, and has failed to crack even the top-10 in three of the past six races.
7. Aric Almirola (unranked) -- Don't laugh. It is time to take Almirola seriously as a legitimate Chase contender. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has ripped off four consecutive top-10s, and in the process has jumped from 16th to seventh in the point standings.
8. Kyle Busch (6th) -- Since picking up two victories in a three-race span, Busch has posted consecutive finishes of 38th, 24th and 37th. His refusal to back off for even a second when Kahne moved in front of him on Sunday resulted in a crash only 43 laps into the race.
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (9th) -- His string of mediocre finishes continued with a 17th-place showing at Talladega, a track that he used to dominate. It was his fifth consecutive finish of 10th or worse.
10. Martin Truex Jr. (unranked) -- His seventh-place finish at Talladega gives him three top-10s in the past four races. That's good enough to squeeze him past Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard for the final spot in these rankings. And keep an eye on Jeff Gordon, who is showing flashes of returning to form.