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Nineteen races into her rookie season in the Sprint Cup series Danica Patrick has become the most polarizing figure in NASCAR. She has a legion of fans—at the track she's constantly surrounded by young, giddy girls wearing number 10 Danica T-shirts—but she also has more loud-voiced critics than any driver. After Patrick failed to finish on the lead lap in 11 of the first 13 races, TNT analyst Kyle Petty, a former driver, said that she is "not a race car driver, and I don't think she's ever going to be a race car driver." Many in the garage quietly celebrated Petty's words.
Last Friday morning Patrick, then 25th in the standings, sat in her motor coach at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, in Loudon, and reflected on her season to date.
SI: How do you deal with the criticism you receive? Does it bother you?
Danica Patrick: It's something that hasn't been uncommon for my entire career. It doesn't get to me. The haters are louder than the nice people, unfortunately. Sometimes I'll go on Twitter and read what people are saying, especially if something controversial happens. I want to get the pulse of the story on social media. I think social media can influence journalists, and I want to understand what to be ready for.
SI: Do you feel you're making progress and improving?
DP: I do. I'm understanding the car better. We want better results and more overall speed, but there's a layer of comfort that I'm getting that's allowing me to push the car more. It's a learning process, and it takes time, but we're getting there. It's about accurately understanding what the car is doing and why it's doing it.
SI: Do you lean on your team owner [and three-time Cup champion driver], Tony Stewart, for advice?
DP: He gives me tidbits here and there. Before we go to a particularly tricky track, he'll tell me to make 15 minutes in my schedule so we can sit down and discuss the track. Our setups are similar, and our driving styles are similar, but I drive off the right rear [through the corner], and Tony drives off the right front. But through everything he's been incredibly supportive.
SI: You led laps in the Daytona 500 and finished eighth, and you ran in the top six at Daytona over the July 4th weekend before coming in 14th, after getting caught up in a last-lap wreck. Why have you been so much better there than anywhere else?
DP: I'm just comfortable on big, fast tracks. I feel like I have a decent understanding of how the air moves. It's a high-speed chess match at the big tracks, and that's how IndyCar was.