By Jove, I think she’s got it.
You could almost hear Professor Henry Higgins’ exclamation from “My Fair Lady” echoing around the grandstands at Martinsville Speedway, as Danica Patrick fought for position.
To those watching Sunday’s STP Gas Booster 500, it was abundantly clear that Patrick had found the rhythm of the .526-mile short track, one of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ most difficult to master.
Consider the following:
Race winner Jimmie Johnson, who claimed his eighth grandfather clock trophy on Sunday, finished 35th in his 2002 Martinsville debut.
Three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart ran 20th the first time he attempted a Cup race at Martinsville.
Ryan Newman, who won last year’s spring race, came home 41st in his first Martinsville Cup race.
Juan Pablo Montoya, who like Patrick came to Cup racing from an open-wheel background, was 16th in his first try at the paper clip.
Short-track ace Kyle Busch was 39th in his Martinsville debut. Brother Kurt Busch was only slightly better — 37th. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 26th, Carl Edwards 24th, Kevin Harvick 34th, Clint Bowyer 22nd, Kasey Kahne 21st and Matt Kenseth 21st, respectively, when they made their first visits to the rural Virginia track.
The list goes on. The bottom line is that, of the 42 other drivers in the field on Sunday, only two recorded higher finishes than Patrick in their first trips to Martinsville. Mark Martin ran third in 1981 and Jeff Gordon was eighth in 1993. That’s it.
For the sake of full disclosure, let’s add that Brad Keselowski and Bobby Labonte also came home 12th in their Martinsville openers. And as a footnote, sidelined Denny Hamlin, out with a compression fracture of his first lumbar vertebra, matched Gordon’s eighth-place finish when he first tackled Martinsville in 2005.
Nevertheless, Patrick’s performance left her in elite company.
Nor was it a fluke. True, Patrick had qualified 32nd after a bobble in Turn 3 on the money lap cost her precious hundredths of a second. Nevertheless, Patrick’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, expressed surprise at how quickly Patrick had adapted to a track some drivers never understand.
The winning crew chief for Newman in last year’s spring race, Gibson put a car under Patrick that could roll the center of the corners with enough drive off to complete a pass. And pass she did. Patrick started dead last in the field because of an engine change after Saturday practice.
On Lap 16, she spun in Turn 3. Before she found her rhythm, Patrick was two laps down, but taking advantage of wave-arounds during two proximate cautions, she was back on the lead lap.
Over the last 200 laps, she battled with some of the best in the business, including Stewart, her car owner, giving the boss no quarter when he was trapped in the outside lane. Patrick was the highest finisher from Stewart-Haas Racing, beating Stewart (17th) and Newman, who ran 31st after recurring tire problems (and after drawing a three-lap penalty for causing a caution by stopping on the track).
NASCAR’s loop data statistics show Patrick making 51 green-flag passes throughout the race, 17th most in the field. That number would have been higher, had Patrick not defended her position so effectively. With the exception of one late restart from the outside lane, Patrick remained in the top 20 after getting there.
Furthermore, Patrick’s pass differential (passing vs. getting passed) was plus-23, tied for third best in the field.
Patrick will admit that she felt more comfortable testing the limits of her car running 95-mph laps at Martinsville, as opposed to 190-mph laps at an intermediate downforce track. Nevertheless, her performance Sunday should be enough to make even her harshest critics reevaluate her potential in the Sprint Cup Series.
For on Sunday, Patrick was not merely a footnote as the first female driver to run a Cup race at Martinsville.
She was simply a driver, adroit and competitive, and that’s as it should be.