NASCAR: Has Danica Patrick Begun to Shake off Snake-Bitten Tag in Nationwide?

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistSeptember 5, 2012

Danica Patrick has begun to show real progress in the Nationwide Series this season.
Danica Patrick has begun to show real progress in the Nationwide Series this season.Kevin Liles-US PRESSWIRE

In her first full season in NASCAR's Nationwide Series, Danica Patrick has unquestionably been snake bitten at times with a variety of bad luck and misfortune.

She's left a race early five times due to crashes and another time due to engine failure. That's one-fourth of her 24 starts thus far this season.

She's finished all laps in a race just 11 times – although, to be fair, she's finished three laps or less off the pace five other times (and one race where she finished six laps off the lead).

She's finished 20th or worse in 10 races, which obviously includes those events where she either wrecked out herself or was caught up in someone else's crash.

Add all those things up and yes, you'd think she has been snake bitten for much of the season.

But like in political campaigning, there's always the other side of an issue to look at, as well.

First, Patrick has cut the number of 20th or worse finishes from six in the first 12 races to just four in the next 12.

Second, she has spent more than half of the season thus far in a decent position within the standings, from ninth to 11th (she's currently 10th after last Saturday's race at Atlanta).

Third, and perhaps the most important fact of all, is something entirely not connected to racing and out of her control – and it shows just how quickly she has become ingrained into the series: When was the last time her gender as a female was brought up?

While she's still learning on the racetrack – and learning quite well, I might add, juggling both a full-time Nationwide Series schedule and a 10-race Sprint Cup dance card -- Patrick has already become a winner of sorts because for the most part she's being judged not on her gender, but rather as her ability as a racer.

Being a woman has become almost irrelevant in discussions about her performance.

Instead of Danica Patrick, female, she's become simply known as Danica Patrick, race car driver. Not only does that say a lot, that could be the biggest compliment of all about her 2012 campaign to date.

I've long predicted that once Patrick was accepted as a racer, and her gender became a non-issue, was when she would really begin to start making progress, and we're indeed starting to see that. She may not be a full-fledged member of NASCAR's good ol' boys club just yet, but she certainly has passed her initiation at least.

Sure, Patrick began the Nationwide season on the pole at Daytona, only to finish a disappointing 35th (she returned there in the summer, started third but finished 38th).

Granted, she managed just two laps into a scheduled 82-lap event at Watkins Glen before her day and race ended in a crash.

But there are also some other good signs to ponder:

She has qualified 13th or better 10 times, which was not always a forte of hers in her previous life as an open-wheel driver on the IndyCar circuit.

She's put together two of her best season finishes in her last two races – and at two of the toughest tracks around – finishing ninth at Bristol and 13th at Atlanta this past weekend. If you see her Nationwide crew chief Tony Eury Jr. smiling a bit more of late, that's the reason.

And while Patrick has managed just two top-10 finishes in the first 24 races, she has improved her average start to 15.0, which is better than her 18.2 average start in her 12-race part-time stint last season, and significantly better than her 25.9 average start in her 13-race rookie season in 2010.

As for average finishes, Patrick is at 20.5 this season, which is worse than last year's 17.4 but far ahead of 2010's disappointing 28.0. Still, if you take away the six early exits due to wrecks or engine failure, it's likely she'd probably have an average finish per race in the top 15 right now.

Add all those elements together and it's pretty clear that while her progress has been admittedly slow, Patrick is improving from both season to season and race to race. There are a number of fellow NNS drivers below her in the standings and having worse seasons.

If you look at where she's come from to where she's at today, it's a logical conclusion that Patrick could likely finish the 2012 Nationwide season in the same place she is in right now: in the top 10. It may not be the championship, but it would be an outstanding accomplishment for someone who has had so many millions of eyeballs of scrutiny upon her these last three seasons.

Of course, no review of Patrick's Nationwide campaign this season would be complete without considering her part-time Sprint Cup season to date, as well. Slated to run 10 races in preparation for the transition to a full-time Cup schedule next season, there's no question Patrick has had a trying campaign thus far.

Halfway through her slated 10-race stint, she has racked up finishes of 38th (Daytona), 31st (Darlington), 30th (Charlotte), 29th (Bristol) and 29th (Atlanta). She also has one DNF due to a wreck (Bristol).

But on the plus side, Patrick has finished three of her five Cup starts to date, albeit winding up five or six laps behind the leader at the checkered flag. Still, to be running at the end of the race at some of NASCAR's toughest tracks, including Darlington and Atlanta, is a heady accomplishment. It's been trial by fire and, for the most part, she's only been singed a bit.

Sure, they're not the finishes – nor the performance – Patrick or crew chief Greg Zipadelli would like to see, but at the same time, she's doing exactly the same thing in Cup that she's been doing for nearly the past three seasons in Nationwide, namely learning.

And while it's been rough going on the Cup side, there's nothing better than on-the-job experience.

While some observers are saying Patrick should have at least one more full season in NNS before making the jump to the Cup (it's still unclear whether she will continue racing in NNS, even on a part-time schedule, at this point), sponsorship and business opportunities make the chances of that likelihood slim, even with her continued struggles. It's full steam ahead for Patrick, and she'll continue to learn as she goes.

Will Patrick become a championship-winning driver in NASCAR? It's too early to tell. Even though she's in 10th place in the Nationwide Series, there is an admitted downside: she trails series leader Elliott Sadler by a whopping 334 points.

Still, Patrick is not letting that gap affect her confidence. She's not only putting in the effort to prove herself, she continues to make gains, no matter how small. It may not be the progress she or those around her had hoped for, but it's been progress nonetheless.

No matter what kinds of trials and struggles she's gone through to date, you can't ask for more than that.