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.
SI: What do you hope to accomplish in the second half of the season?
DP: Win a race. Just win. And finish better and get faster on the weekends—in practice, in qualifying and in the race.
Where the Boys Were
After finishing 37th on Sunday at New Hampshire, Patrick dropped two spots to 27th in the standings through 19 races. She's not the first high-profile driver to struggle in a debut Cup season. Here's where some of NASCAR's current stars stood after 19 races of their first full-time seasons—as well as what they've done since.
'04 Cup title
Five Chase berths
26 Cup race wins
21 career top fives
'12 Cup title
With seven races remaining before the Chase, a few things have become clear through the tire smoke of an action-filled season.
The Cup title is Jimmie Johnson's to lose.
How dominating has the five-time champion (top) been? He could sit out a race and still maintain the points lead over Clint Bowyer.
Matt Kenseth has a shot.
If the 2003 champ, who is tied with Johnson for most wins (four), can find some consistency, he could make a run at Five Time. Kenseth (center), who is sixth in the standings, has five finishes of 25th or worse.
Kyle Busch remains a wild card.
Since '07, while winning 22 races, Busch (bottom) has wound up no better than eighth in the Chase. But this season on intermediate tracks (between one and two miles), he has finished sixth or higher seven of nine times, winning twice. And remember: Six of the 10 playoff races are on intermediates.
BRIAN BLANCO/REUTERS (PATRICK)
STEPHEN M. DOWELL/MCT/ZUMAPRESS.COM (JOHNSON)
JEFF SINER/CHARLOTTE OBSERVER/MCT/SIPA USA (KENSETH)
PATRICK SMITH/GETTY IMAGES (BUSCH)