Danica looking for more positives

Rob Foldy/USA TODAY Sports

Danica Patrick has won Nationwide and Sprint Cup poles at Daytona, and she finished eighth in the 2013 Daytona 500.

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida -- Danica Patrick peered at a video screen in the dark, bustling garage of Daytona International Speedway this past July. Gathering her hair into a ponytail, she assessed replay after replay of the crash that had sent her from a rallying 10th to a careening 14th in the final moments of the Coke Zero 400.

Blame was difficult to assign. It was, ultimately, a product of numerous agendas -- including hers, to attack the finish more aggressively -- and the volatile nature of restrictor-plate racing in general. Patrick's return to the scene of her greatest NASCAR success hadn't, as hoped, provided the push into the second half of her rookie campaign.

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Crew chief Tony Gibson has been encouraged by Danica Patrick's development since her seventh-place finish at Kansas.

"That's what's tough about restrictor-plate racing," she said. "A lot of the time, it's out of your control."

This July, crew chief Tony Gibson hopes Patrick's favorite track doesn't interrupt the momentum she has built elsewhere. No doubt, the 2.5-mile superspeedway remains a critical part of her season, but it might not be everything anymore.

"The last couple months have been really good for us,'' Gibson said Friday at Daytona. "Lots of momentum, and she's got some confidence, and surprisingly our mile and a half program has picked up quite a bit. We have a good car here. It would be nice to start the second half off a little bit better than we did the first half of the season because we kind of struggled there for a while."

Whereas Patrick entered the 2013 Coke Zero 400 coming off a wave of Daytona 500 momentum, after winning the pole and finishing eighth, she enters this installment off a Daytona disappointment. She and teammate Tony Stewart suffered motor failures in practice and were relegated to the back of the Daytona 500 field because of unapproved engine changes. She was mid-pack when involved in a multi-car melee on Lap 146 of 200, and she finished 40th.

"It's important," Gibson said of a strong finish Saturday. "It would be especially big for us -- making up for Daytona and the issues [in February]. This place right here is a crapshoot. It can either break your momentum, or if you make it out of here you're like, 'S---, OK, now we can keep rolling.' Hopefully it will be a positive after tomorrow night."

This place right here is a crapshoot. It can either break your momentum, or if you make it out of here, you're like, 'OK, now we can keep rolling.' Hopefully it will be a positive after tomorrow night.
Tony Gibson

Gibson has been encouraged by Patrick's development since she posted a career-best seventh in the 11th race of the season at Kansas. Entering the midpoint of the 36-race schedule, she has two top-20 finishes in the past three weeks on disparate types of venues.

Still, Daytona has been the source of not only historic firsts but also spikes in performance in her 124-race NASCAR career. In 11 starts at the superspeedway, she has poles in the Nationwide and Cup series, and in the 2013 Daytona 500 she became the first woman to lead laps under green, and she was third on the final lap before she got shuffled back to eighth. Patrick also led laps at Daytona's sister track, Talladega Superspeedway, earlier this season.

Using the same chassis that helped her claim the Daytona 500 pole in 2013, she posted the 29th-best qualifying time on Friday.

"It's a good car, and I like how it runs," she said. "We had the speed with it at Talladega but just couldn't do anything in the final laps."

This season there is more at stake. With a new points system to seed the Chase for the Sprint Cup incentivizing victory, a surprise win -- and they are not infrequent at plate tracks -- could vault Patrick into the NASCAR playoffs in her second full season. And the team dares to have that conversation, Gibson said.

"These are races we feel like are our best opportunities to win a race," Gibson said. "Talladega was really good. We were leading laps, and we were up front, and it seems like we just get caught up in crap. Last year we came here in February and couldn't do anything wrong. You'll have those races and those types of tracks where it is feast or famine.

"I think she's done a really good job at these types of tracks, and I think she has fun at it. We look forward to it and we know it's a good chance for us to win."

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