Jeff Gordon. Carl Edwards. Clint Bowyer.
Those three have been staples on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit for years, consistently contending for wins. Those three also sit behind Danica Patrick in the points standings six races into this season.
Yes, it’s still early, and there are plenty of races for things to change, beginning with Saturday night’s Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. But it’s hard not to see Patrick and feel that she’s continuing to make positive strides in her stock-car career.
There’s no question Patrick is one of the more polarizing drivers in the sport. Any mention of her is sure to draw a reaction, positive or negative, and any story on her typically generates a crude email or two from racing fans.
But, if she is able to succeed, it will only help the sport grow.
“Danica is an easy target for people to criticize because she’s the lone female,” TMS president Eddie Gossage said. “But I guarantee you she’s got skills … tremendous skills. There are a thousand other guys who think they could get in that race car and do better, and they couldn’t.
“There’s something like 2,000 NFL players under contract and we think of them as very elite athletes. Well, there’s only 43 drivers under contract for the Sprint Cup series, so that’s unbelievably elite. She’s incredibly talented and incredibly elite.”
The results, though, are lacking for Patrick. That is the one constant that those critical of her can point to.
She had only one career win in IndyCar, and has yet to post a top-five run in what is now her third full-time Cup season. Her average finish is 24.9 in 88 career races.
Gossage is well aware of that and warned that there have been countless talented drivers who simply flame out. Patrick very well could do just that, or she could sustain a long, successful career.
Nobody knows at this point.
“I don’t know if she makes it or not in the long run,” Gossage said. “I hope she does because I like her and she’s showing that she’s got something going for her right now.”
Look no further than NASCAR’s previous stop at Martinsville. The Virginia short track is known as a driver’s track, one that eats up and spits out the subpar drivers turn by turn.
There’s a reason the likes of Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have hoarded the wins there over the past decade. But Patrick showed she has the skills and ability to hang at a track like Martinsville two Sundays ago.
The race didn’t start off great for the No. 10 team, but Patrick and crew chief Daniel Knost eventually got it straightened out as the race progressed. And Patrick ended up posting a seventh-place run, tying the second-best finish in her Cup career.
“We’ve had a lot of races this year where we’ve started really good and then dialed ourselves out,” Patrick said. “This was the opposite. This was an example of us getting better throughout the race, and we want to do this stuff more often.”
It’s reminiscent of when professional golfers finally learn how to finish tournaments. Even if golfers struggle in the opening rounds, the great ones understand how to regroup and make a push up the leader board the final day.
It might not always lead to a win, but it certainly helps in the standings and checkbook.
That’s the key in races, too — overcoming early pitfalls and finishing strong. Patrick, it seems, is headed in the right direction.
Maybe she’ll take another step forward this week at Texas, a track she’s yet to conquer. She has an average finish of 28.0 in five Cup starts at the 1.5-mile oval.
“You either go forwards or backwards,” Patrick said. “I’d love to keep inching forward and eventually get that win for everybody.”
Drew Davison, 817-390-7760
Duck Commander 500
6:30 p.m. Saturday, KDFW/Ch. 4